The Cracking Story of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

On the 1st of November 1512, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was first unveiled for public view. Michelangelo, and his five assistants, worked on this gigantic artistic enterprise for about four years, yet they managed to include three hundred and thirty-six figures on this 40.5-metre long and 14-metre wide ceiling. According to certain mathematical calculations, Michelangelo and his team spent on average four and a half days on each figure. It is probably nothing in comparison to the pace in which God created the World, but in artistic terms only a true genius could achieve a similar effect in such a short period of time.

At the time when Michelangelo was offered the job by Pope Julius II, he was not an eager practitioner of painting. He much preferred sculpture and was hoping that he would be allowed to work on the Pope’s tomb instead. However, the intention of the Pope was clear – even though the walls of the chapel had been already covered with frescos by such noble painters as Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Signorelli or Cosimo Rosselli, he wanted a ceiling that would captivate the interest of the elites and officials of the Papal Chapel, who would normally spend hours sitting there during masses and official gatherings. The contract was signed on the 10th of May 1508, and within two months from signing the work on the ceiling officially begun.

The most famous scene on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is probably the creation of Adam. And the major focus in this scene has been directed at Adam and God’s symbolic gesture. It is a unique moment of Adam’s contact with God or, as it also could be interpreted, the moment of Adam’s separation from him – very significant indeed. Yet, on closer inspection one can notice that the scene is covered in many mysterious cracks. Sir Hubert von Herkomer, in his book My School and My Gospel, provides a partial explanation on the origin of these cracks:

“Michelangelo, that austere colossus, who lived alone with his art, had a distinctly sly side to his nature. I wonder if it is generally known to what tricks he resorted in order to circumvent the command of the Pope to decorate, in fresco, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, although the Pope knew he has set his heart on a great scheme of sculpture? He had not painted frescoes, and did not want the job. But as he was not let off, bethought himself of some way by which he could prove to the Pope that he did not understand the necessary technique. So when he had covered some space, he asked for a visit from the Pope, that he could see with his own eyes that he was blundering with the material. Naturally the Holy Father did not mount the scaffolding, but from below he could distinctly see that Michelangelo’s work was already cracking. A few years ago this ceiling was being restored, and a friend of mine was privileged to examine, at close quarters, these incomparable frescos. He then saw many cracks, natural cracks, but he also saw that nearly half the cracks were cracks painted by Michelangelo himself.”

It is difficult to say whether Michelangelo’s trick was intended to discourage the Pope from continuing with the work on the ceiling or was it rather the artist’s mere caprice. It is actually possible that Michelangelo was trying to simply disguise the fact that the ceiling was prone to damage. “Vatican records had revealed, that in the spring of 1504 there had been a massive structural collapse in the great chapel which Sixtus IV, “an old man in a hurry”, had thrown up in such an un-Renaissance haste between 1477 and 1483. The collapse in the structure of the Sistine Chapel in 1504 caused a great crack to appear in the ceiling.” (Waldemar Januszczak, Sayonara, Michelangelo: Sistine Chapel Restored and Repackaged). Later on Michelangelo’s cracks became very useful in masking the effects of the seventeenth century explosion of a powder-magazine within the walls of the Vatican, which caused the fall of a large portion of plaster above the Delphic Sibyl and a loss of one of the smaller figures.

However we may look at it now, it is undeniable that these cracks have become an important element of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It is hard to imagine it without them. And if they were to convey a hidden meaning, then we could look at them in a more metaphoric way as a depiction of human faults, for it does not matter how close to God we were at the moment of creation, the fact is that we were only made in his image.