What do the paintings in the Sistine Chapel mean?

Containing some of the best in high Renaissance art, the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling takes the crown when it comes to Michelangelo’s artistic career. What is he trying to tell us with his careful brushstrokes?

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

The iconic Sistine Chapel is famous for its breathtaking architecture and brilliant art. Known as one of the most famous interior spaces in the entire world. The jaw-dropping beauty mainly comes from the ancient artwork plastered on the walls and ceilings of the chapel, commissioned by famous painters that have gone down in history as the world’s best. But what do these artworks mean? We gather that they are of course about the Catholic church religion, seeing as they are within a church. But the aspects and hidden messages tell a more detailed story for each figure and cloud painted. With each section of art representing a certain meaning and message for the church’s believers.

The History of the Sistine Chapel

Before the Sistine Chapel’s picturesque beauty we know today, it was a crumbling building with little to it. Its location is what brought its prestige, standing on what was once the foundation of the Capella Magna, an ancient building with a vast history. They commissioned the new chapel in the 1470s, with Pope Sixtus IV in charge of its development, which is where the name ‘Sistine’ comes from. During its production, the Pope asked numerous painters to be a part of the decoration, including famous painters such as Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pinturicchio, and Cosimo Roselli. However, during its first development, the majority of the decorations were on the inner walls, with the ceiling only painted a simple blue with stars scattered within. It wasn’t until 1508 when Pope Julius commissioned Michelangelo to revamp the Sistine that the famous ceiling went under construction.

The Ceiling

  • How the Ceiling came to be

    Before Pope Julius commissioned Michelangelo to complete the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, Michelangelo was merely a sculptor and had no experience painting. Due to his inexperience, Michelangelo was not enthused by the task, thinking he was not skilled enough for the challenge. To motivate him, the Pope commission 40 sculptures for his tomb in compensation for doing the ceiling. Eventually, Michelangelo accepted the project and underwent the toughest four years of his life to complete it. And although the ceiling was a triumph, it took its mental and physical toll on Michelangelo, that caused permanent damage.

    Firstly, Michelangelo had to learn the process of frescos, and ask many of his fellow painting peers to assist. However, only after a few teachings, Michelangelo dismissed his friends, creating his own style of painting. With the ceiling’s height and angle, it was hard for Michelangelo to reach, so he invented a special type scaffolding that ensured the best approach when carrying out his work. He did this by installing a wooden platform held up by thick brackets, letting Michelangelo stand on top. Although there are many rumours that Michelangelo painted the ceiling lying down on his back, this is completely false, as he actually stood up while bending his neck upwards in an uncomfortable strain. This was one of the main contributors towards the physical strain Michelangelo endured during this great task. His neck was continually tense looking up at his work, with the residue of the paint falling into his eyes whilst he painted as well. It’s been said that his vision never fully recovered and his eyesight remained partially impaired for the rest of his life.

  • The Meaning Behind the Ceiling


    Fortunately for Michelangelo, his efforts were worth it with the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel being by far the most noteworthy part of the structure. Featuring 33 different areas each with a different meaning that comes together to create an overall message. The nine centre panels depict the story of Genesis. Eight triangular areas depict the ancestors of Christ, including Solomon, Jesse, Josiah, Rehoboam, Asa, Uzziah, Hezekiah, as well as Zerubbabel. Whereas the seven square panels depict the prophets and sibyls, and the four corner pieces are of the Old Testament. Overall, the entire ceiling is an emotional depiction of the devotion to God, representing his different sides, from vengeance to love.

Baptism of Christ

  • About the Artist

    Although his paintings may be recognisable, Pietro Perugino’s biggest known accomplishment is being the teacher of the famous Raphael. His original name was Pietro Vannucci in Città della Pieve but was nicknamed Perugino due to his origin being from Perugia, the chief city of Umbria.

  • Meaning Behind the Painting

    Plastered on the northern wall of the chapel, the ‘Baptism of Christ’ fresco is the first painting ever commissioned. Perugino and Pinturicchio did this fresco, with Pinturicchio responsible for the landscape. The centre scene is of Jesus being baptised while standing in the water, John who is the Baptist, is on the stone, with the top centre display of the God of Father with the angels watching over. There are two secondary scenes within the landscape; one where Christ is preaching, and the other of Sermon and John the Baptist. The fresco is essentially comparing the new religion of Christ with the Jewish religion.

  • Moses’s Journey into Egypt

    Found on the south wall, this painting was done by Perugino and Pinturicchio. Depicting the life of Moses, and the story of his journey back into Egypt. Moses was said to spend forty years in the land of Midian, fleeing Egypt after killing an Egyptian. In the fresco there are many things occurring; on the right, Moses’ second son is being circumcised by his mother Zipporah. In the centre, Moses is stopped by an angel, a representation of God. Although they are in the same scene, each section should read as scenes. With Moses being stopped by God first, and Zipporah sacrificing something to save her husband in the next scene. They also mean it to be looked upon with the Baptism of Christ, with the two together illustrating how baptism represented a ‘spiritual circumcision.’

  • Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter

    This fresco is the most famous paintings displayed in the Sistine Chapel after Michelangelo’s masterpieces. The clear meaning behind this painting is of Jesus handing the keys to St Peter, which represents when Christ handed power to Peter, and hence onto the popes. Jesus and Peter are the centre images of this scene, with the artist using space and lines to create the centre area where the eye is drawn.

Related article: Why is the Sistine Chapel so important?

Language »