Sistine Chapel Research Paper

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Sistine Chapel

In the year 1506, Pope Julius the Second approached Michelangelo Buonarroti and commissioned him to paint the Pope's private chapel, the Sistine Chapel. Although Michelangelo was not much interested in this assignment, he reluctantly gave in. From 1508 through 1512, he worked on 65-foot scaffolding and painted what is now considered the greatest work of art in the Western world. In 1980, the Vatican announced that it was going to launch a massive cleaning and restoration project on chapel's ceiling frescoes. Immediately, heated discussions began taking place by those who were either strongly in favor or against this major renovation. Many people believe the results are phenomenal, with the vibrant colors restored, but there are those who still claim, for a variety of reasons, that this restoration was not the right decision. It is a controversy that is sure to continue to rage for many years to come.

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Art historian Cathleen Hoeniger, for example, says that the results of the restoration were both unexpected and astounding, revealing that Michelangelo was a brilliant colorist. Now, in fact, "all the books about on his work will have to be rewritten." She adds, however, that this restoration does raise certain questions, such as what, if anything, has been lost in removing later levels of "intervention?" Should anyone care? Does a work of art exist solely in its beginning state, as finished by its original creator, or is it the total of all the attention the work receives over a period of time? Is the process of restoration ever justified? In order to respond to her questions, Hoeniger offers specific examples of how paintings in the past were altered in subsequent restorations, such as repainting faces of devotional images of the Madonna and Child, the re-housing of revered images in new settings, and the reframing of Gothic altarpieces at the beginning of the Renaissance. All these alterations actually did take occur before 1500.

Research Paper on Sistine Chapel Assignment

They did not only consist of repairing obvious damage; instead, there were interventions that were purposely done for political reasons. Changes were made, for example, to add more effectual saintly protectors at a time of plague in Lippo Memmi's San Gimignano Maesta and to better enhance the appearance of St. Francis in a panel by Margarito d'Arezzo. The question is one of degree: How much can be changed in an original piece of art before its historical documentation is lost? Hoeniger states, "While we may take it for granted today that works of architecture function in a historical continuum -- one thinks of buildings like the Pantheon, for example -- we are less likely to think of panel paintings or murals in this fashion. Clearly, however, we should."

Other artists question whether or not the restoration actually conveys the overall look that was first desired by Michelangelo. Many art historians completely opposed the Vatican's cleaning, because they believe that Michelangelo was a somber artist who always worked in dark and muted colors, instead of the extremely vivid colors that were the result of the restoration. When the vibrant colors of the restoration were revealed, the critics included Waldemar Januszczak who enthusiastically observed Michelangelo's "outrageous color" (43). The most negative critic has been the American Michelangelo expert James Beck, Columbia University professor of Italian Renaissance painting and sculpture. He strongly argues that Michelangelo, who primarily considered himself a sculptor, would have condemned anyone who would have used such bright colors (Beck). Despising those "poor artists [who] cloak their poor technique with ... color" (84). Beck attests that Michelangelo purposely strived to achieve a monochromatic effect so that his artwork would simulate sculpture.

According to Beck, Michelangelo wanted a darker and subdued look to his artwork, so veiled the complete ceiling with a layer of glue and applied extensive retouching of "chiaroscuro" (images of dark and light). However, when they cleaned the ceiling, the restorers removed these finishing touches and have thus violated the artist's ultimate intentions. He argues that the Vatican made a "fatal mistake" (503). To better illustrate his theory, Beck took photographs from the Vatican showing figures after the restoration. When comparing Prophet Jonah, before and after, for example, it is possible to see a significant change. After the restoration, Jonah looks flat, having lost a great deal of the artist's shading subtleties. When American muralist Frank Mason saw the two photographs side-by-side, he said it was "unbearable," and that the figure's anatomical features were destroyed (Beck 85). What the Vatican ended up with, according to these critics, is a Disney-like cartoon with the bright colors of a Matisse or Mondrian, which is exactly what Michelangelo would have totally disdained and never wanted.

Another problem with restoring paintings is a case of "be careful of what you wish for." Sometimes new things are revealed, such as paintings behind paintings or questions whether or not a painting is forged. Judith Harris writes that when the Sistine Chapel reopened in 1994 after its restoration, it tried to convince critics that the bright colors of the ceiling were Michelangelo's original colors once the layers of grime were removed. However, this was not the only problem. There is also a problem with content. Two frescoes, the Conversion of Saul and the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, were the last paintings Michelangelo executed and are recognized as his spiritual testament in art. The two frescoes, each measuring 20 1/2 by 22 feet, are located on the side walls of the Pauline Chapel, which was named after Pope Paul the Third. It is only a few steps away from the actual Sistine Chapel inside the Apostolic Palace. Because it is the popes' private chapel, it is not viewed by the public and is not very well-known. Pope Paul commissioned architect Antonio da Sangallo to build this chapel for the papal conclaves and then requested that Michelangelo add the decorations. The artist was already in his late 60s and very busy with other commissions, but he agreed due to his friendship with the pope. For the next eight years he painted it in a mixed technique, primarily in true fresco with water -- based pigments onto the wet plaster, as well as on half -- dry plaster or directly on a dry wall. The first painting shows Saint Paul on the way to Damascus, as he is completely overwhelmed by his conversion to Christianity. The second painting was at first to show Saint Peter receiving the keys that empowered him and his successors as the legitimate Christendom leaders. Both of these were popular by church authorities and are seen often throughout Rome and the Vatican. However, Michelangelo decided not to follow the same theme for spiritual representation of Peter's crucifixion.

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter is of Saint Peter nailed down to a cross, upside down and only covered with a thin white wrapping around his penis. He is painted as still vital in body and mind although in much pain. However, both the white drape and nails were added afterward by some unknown artist who did not realize what Michelangelo was attempting to convey: Peter was willingly offering himself as a martyr and would not be nailed down. He was completely unclothed, because he was nude before God, a man among others, yet capable of spiritual grandeur. The Vatican chief restorer agreed that the nails and white covering were later added. Antonio Forcellino, who authored biographies of Raphael and Michelangelo called these acts of censorship. Michelangelo was expressing that only faith, not nails, could sustain Saint Peter, and that faith is interiorized.

It was believed that it was better to leave these additions than trying to remove them. Another art critic and author of Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and His Times, William

Wallace, explained that there was a similar type of controversy when the Last Judgment was restored. Again, there were a number of different additions to the frescoes that Michelangelo had not painted originally. Some people advised the Vatican to remove these additions, but others said it is impossible to reverse history -- and these additions, in fact, were also part of history, as well. They should be considered aspects of the artwork, too.

Wallace reveals another problem that occurs when artwork is restored. He says that no one mentioned the fact that the cleaning actually showed the clear presence of several artists' hands, not just in the painting of the architecture and decoration, but also in some of the secondary figures. Over three decades ago, Biagio Biagetti said he found evidence that some of the assistants helped Michelangelo with his painting. This is noticeable especially when anyone mounts the scaffolding and sees the frescoes up close. Wallace argues, for example, that Michelangelo had a relationship with an artist by the name of Aristotile. Michelangelo supposedly sent back many of his assistants to Florence when they did not do the high-quality work that he expected. However, Aristotile remained in Rome to study and draw rather than return to Florence. He was also trained… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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