Shortly after taking charge of the project, Michelangelo viewed Sangallo's wooden model of the planned basilica. He was accompanied by Sangallo's followers who, according to Vasari,
Putting the best face on the matter, came forward and said how glad they were that the work had been given to him and that the model was a meadow that would always afford inexhaustible pasture, to which Michelangelo replied that they spoke truly, meaning, as he afterwards told a friend, that it would serve for sheep and oxen who know nothing of art.
In fact, a good part of Michelangelo's work on St. Peter's consisted of removing what work had been accomplished by Sangallo. Sangallo's hemicycle was demolished, and Michelangelo shored up some of Bramante's rather high-speed construction, until -- again in the opinion of Vasari -- "the columns, bases, capitals, doors and windows, cornices and projections, were perfect in every detail."
Michelangelo treated architecture as a form of sculpture, Bramante's collection of distinct parts being transformed into an organic whole.
Essentially, the failings of Sangallo's design had been in the lack the proper relationships of the different parts to the whole. Michelangelo's re-working of Sangallo's St. Peter's necessitated a new decorative plan as well. As the artist stated in a letter of December 1550,
When a plan changes its form entirely it is not only permissible, but necessary to vary the ornament also and [that of] their counterparts likewise. The central features are always as independent as one chooses - just as the nose, being in the middle of the face, is related neither to one eye nor to the other, though one hand is certainly related to the other and one eye to the other, owing to their being at the sides and having counterparts.
For Michelangelo, a building needed to be as balanced and natural as the human body. And so it would be with St. Peter's, a structure that was meant to symbolize the universal body of the Western Church.
The Sistine Chapel
Within St. Peter's, the Sistine Chapel occupies a place equivalent to that occupied by St. Peter's within the overall world of Latin Christendom. As one of the largest chapels in the basilica, the Sistine Chapel has long been the setting of major ceremonies and religious celebrations, including those traditionally presided over by the pope in person. As befitted a center of both the physical and metaphysical worlds, the Sistine Chapel was modeled after the First Temple in Jerusalem. Its dimensions correspond exactly to those of the Temple described in the Old Testament; the dimensions that were decreed by God in First Kings, Chapters Six to Fourteen.
Internally, the Chapel would contain representations of the history of the world and of the Church. From the beginning, Pope Julius II intended for Michelangelo to execute the frescos inside the Sistine Chapel, informing Bramante that he was dispatching Sangallo to Florence to bring back Michelangelo. Bramante; however, informed the Pope that he was familiar with Michelangelo's views on painting the Chapel, and that Michelangelo did not wish to undertake any such project:
"You did not pay any serious attention either to the tomb [of Julius II] or to the painting of the ceiling," and Bramante continued: "Holy Father, I believe that Michelangelo would lack the necessary courage to attack the ceiling because he has not had much experience in figure painting, and in general the figures will be set high and in foreshortening, and this brings up problems which are completely different from those met in painting at ground level.
Such feelings would set the stage for future conflicts between painter and pope in regard to the painting of the ceiling. As relayed by Bramante, Michelangelo's comments underscore the great technical difficulties involved with working so high up, and also the special difficulties presented to a man who thought of himself more as a sculptor than a painter. From the beginning, Michelangelo was an unwilling participant in Julius II's grandiose schemes to embellish the Sistine Chapel.
At the time of Julius II's accession, the Sistine Chapel walls were decorated with a series of Old Testament and New Testament scenes by artists such as Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Luca Signorelli, Bartolommeo della Gatta, and Cosimo Rosselli, while the ceiling featured the relatively simple motif of a heaven studded with stars, the chapel having been commissioned by Julius' uncle -- and the Chapel's namesake -- Pope Sixtus IV.
At the level of the windows, the Chapel was adorned with portraits of various early pope-saints, a form of decoration that further emphasized the links between the mundane and the divine. The representations of the popes also recalled the august lineage of the present pope, giving visible form to the notion of an unending line of apostolic succession. Julius II also wished to preserve these existing works of art as a tribute to his uncle, a fact that would force Michelangelo to work within established constraints.
Michelangelo's work; therefore, would be largely in addition to, and not in place of much of the existing decoration. Michelangelo attacked the Pope's the "poverty" of the Pope's original plan for redecorating the ceiling, demanding instead that Julius II permit him to "make what I wanted, whatever would please me."
The ceiling was continually a work in progress. Michelangelo began with an exceedingly rich, almost ostentatious palette, liberally employing gold leaf, vivid blues, and other bright colors. The first half of the ceiling primarily follows this arrangement. However, in the second half, Michelangelo began to work with more muted colors, the forms themselves growing heavier and more solid and earthbound in appearance.
Michelangelo struggled with the commission and the pope almost from the very beginning. Bramante had planned a scaffold that would hang from the ceiling by ropes. Michelangelo complained immediately, realizing that the scaffolding would leave permanent holes in the ceiling that would be scattered in and out among his frescos. Michelangelo redesigned the scaffolding, insisting on something that extended between the walls. Michelangelo's solution was a series of stout wooden beams inserted into oblong holes in the walls just above the cornice and windows. A kind of bridge was constructed on the basis of these supports, the bridge enabling the painter to comfortably reach the ceiling.
While the work was in progress, Julius was demanding and insisted on frequently visiting and climbing up the scaffold. Eager to have at least some of the work exposed, Julius ordered the scaffolding removed form the completed half of the ceiling.
Condivi wrote further of the Pope's frequent demands on Michelangelo, in particular, the Pope's impatience at the amount of time the work was taking:
It is true that I have heard him say that the work he would have wished, as he was prevented by the hurry of the Pope, who demanded of him one day when he would finish the Chapel. Michelangelo said: 'When I can.' The Pope, angered, added: 'Do you want me to have you thrown down off this scaffolding?' Michelangelo, hearing this, said to himself: 'No, you shall not have me thrown down,' and as soon as the Pope had gone away he had the scaffolding taken down and uncovered his work upon All Saints' Day
The episode illustrates the problems faced by the artist in dealing with his autocratic patron, underscoring as it does the different ways of looking at art. For Michelangelo, the creation of the ceiling was, like the creation of his other works, a powerful, and even emotionally-draining, undertaking, an exercise in personal expression and creativity. For Julius II, Michelangelo appears in many ways as but a tool, a means to an end -- the end of which was the pope's own self-glorification. Both worked within their respective themes, Julius as heir to what he saw as an ancient and uninterrupted tradition of religious power, and development, much of it more worldly than sacred. Michelangelo, on the other hand, was the artist working with his own sacred gifts to convey a message that would be understandable to countless future generations, imparting to them a sense both of the world beyond the physical world, and also something of the man who had created the whole spectacular scene on the chapel ceiling.
Complementing the permanent frescos of Michelangelo, the Sistine Chapel was also originally home to a series of tapestries by Raphael. These two have a theme that relates to the idea of the apostolic succession of the popes. Scenes from the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul were richly represented on a series of ten tapestries. Raphael employed gold threads to highlight the strongly modeled figures of these narrative scenes. The gold acts like light playing on the figures, casting shadows and bringing out the depth and drama of the scene.
Again, this recalls the divine light that inspires and animates the world represented on the Sistine Chapel ceiling and walls. Raphael's figures are set amid architecture, another way of joining the spiritual to the physical. The historical and spiritual are…