Sculpture in the Sistine Chapel? What for?

April 5th, 2006

Michelangelo signed his letters as “Sculptor in Rome” during the four years he labored on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Is the title “sculptor” relevant Michelangelo’s method of working on these huge frescoes?

Not according to the traditional view. The assumed “fact” is that Michelangelo’s best surviving figure studies for the chapel, such as those of Haman (left column), are drawings of live models. But this is really only one hypothesis.

An alternative hypothesis is that these drawings are of small sculptural models. To get a sense of what Michelangelo might have made, and then drawn, look at the clay figure (left column).

The question is, why should Michelangelo have gone to the extra trouble of making figures like this? Because, the sculptural model allows the artist to:

* integrate imagination, style, and realistic anatomical detail
* turn life into still-life
* use a simple method to transfer the figure onto a curving surface (like the Sistine Chapel ceiling) in the correct perspective

Although making small models might seem like extra work, it could have greatly eased Michelangelo’s creative and technical burdens.

. . .