No other architectural structure organizes the composition; rather, Michelangelo reinvents the cosmic moment, presciently rendering psychological individuation of elect and damned alike. The Last Judgment is the last word on spirituality in this chapel that contrasts good with evil (note that the Book of the Damned held by angels beneath Christ is much larger than the Book of the Blessed). Michelangelo painted nearly 400 (mostly nude) figures, but following accusations of obscenity ("One man's virtuosity in representation is another's anatomical exhibitionism"), Daniele de Volterra censored the painting. In a sardonic signature, at least one Michelangelo self-portrait appears in the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew, suspended over the abyss of the Dantesque inferno.
Vault. The original ceiling of Sixtus's time was a starry Vault of Heaven in gold and lapis lazuli attributed to Pier Matteo d'Amelia. The walls of the chapel attracted attention, but the ceiling disappointed. On May 10, 1508, Julius II wrote a 3,000-ducat contract to Michelangelo to refresco the Sistine vault. Although Julius initially commissioned a particular design in oils, he relented to let Michelangelo aquello che io volevo. Michelangelo was an unwilling and complaining participant throughout the ordeal, considering himself a sculptor in Rome to fashion Julius's tomb (only his Moses was completed) not paint a ceiling. Michelangelo's charge was to build a scaffold 50 feet above the chapel floor so as not to obstruct ongoing liturgy and ceremony; to cut away the existing fresco and lay on a new undercoat arriccio, and to fresco the ceiling with a fresh coat of painted intonachino. The vault of the Sistine Chapel (12,000 square feet) is also divided into three zones. In a garland of 14 (originally 16) semicircular lunettes and 8 triangular spandrels above the gallery of popes (the Successors of Christ), Michelangelo frescoed the Ancestors of Christ in single figures in the lunettes and in the spandrels (mostly) balanced pairs and triplets. This full chronological genealogy of 14 generations begins with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David (according to Matt. 1:1-17), although the earliest were replaced by The Last Judgment. These ancestors remain today, as Michelangelo depicted them half a millennium ago, in postures of intent waiting and preparation for the second coming.
The outer fasciae are occupied with figures of ancient seers and depictions of incidents of salvation of the Chosen People. Four pendentative scenes at the corners include David and Goliath, the Punishment of Haman, Judith and Holofernes, and the story of the Brazen Serpent. Notably, Michelangelo highlighted David, Judith, and Esther-a boy and two women-as deliverers of the Hebrews. Sibyls and prophets were thought to foresee the coming of the Savior. Sibyls, the pagan prophetesses of antiquity, linked Christianity to pre-Christian classical tradition. The Delphian, Erythrean, Cumaean, Persian, and Libyan Sibyls also represent the known continents, then coming into consciousness at the start of the age of exploration and foretelling the worldwide spread of Christianity. Each pagan diviner is rendered in an expressive rotary movement of the body. The seven Old Testament prophets-Zechariah, Joel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Jeremiah, and Jonah-appear in geometrical compartments of an illusionist architectural schema accompanied by spirit pairs who intermediate with God.
The latitudinal spine of the chapel ceiling is occupied by nine panels representing key episodes from Genesis. Moving from the laity entrance (in the order he painted them) come the Drunkenness of Noah (man in a state of unconsciousness of God); the Flood; the Sacrifice of Noah; Original Sin and Expulsion from Earthly Paradise; Creation of Eve; Creation of Adam; Separation of Land and Water; Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Plants; and Separation of Light and Darkness (God's initial act) over the altar. Michelangelo increasingly adopted colossal dimensions to match the epic character of his narrative subjects.
Michelangelo's design called for more than 150 pictorial units and more than 300 individual figures including 40 ancestors of Christ, 5 mythological sibyls, 7 Old Testament prophets, and 9 episodes from Genesis (plus genii, putti, ignudi, etc.). Before setting to this work, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) had not frescoed since his apprenticeship with Ghirlandaio. Frescoing required diverse techniques, including extreme foreshortening (di sotto in su), which Michelangelo was not expert in, and at the beginning he made errors that had to be painted over (so-called pentimenti, or repentances).