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Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican holds great importance in Catholicism, featuring stunning frescoes by Michelangelo. The ceiling showcases scenes from the Book of Genesis, including the Creation of Adam and Eve, and the Fall of Man. Prophets and Sibyls, who predicted the coming of Christ, surround these central scenes, creating a powerful and elegant display of high Renaissance art. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) Male voiceover: We're in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, which has tremendous importance to Catholicism. This is where the Pope will lead mass, but perhaps most famously this is the room that the college of cardinals uses to decide the next Pope. Female voiceover: And every surface of this space is decorated, from the beautiful mosaics on the floor. The walls are painted with frescoes by early Renaissance artists. The wall behind the alter was painted by Michelangelo later in his life, and then of course the ceiling. Male voiceover: And everybody is looking up. Their necks are craned, and of course it's magnificient. We're here in the late afternoon on a day in early July. The light is diffuse and it makes those frescoed figures feel so dimensional. They feel like sculpture. Female voiceover: And you can imagine what it was like when this was unveiled in 1512, after Michelangelo had worked on it for years, how different, how revolutionary Michelangelo's figures seemed. Male voiceover: Well he was first and foremost a sculptor, and it wasn't actually until a relatively recent cleaning that we knew his brilliance as a colorist, but for him line and drawing and the act of carving figures out of paint was primary. You have this extraordinary ability to render both strength and elegance simultaneously. Female voiceover: They have a massiveness and a presence that is charismatic, but there's also a sense of elegance and ideal beauty. So, let's describe what we're looking at. Male voiceover: Okay. Probably the most important are the series of nine scenes that move across the central panels. Female voiceover: And those are framed by a painted architectural framework that looks real. It doesn't look like paint. And we start with the creation of the world. God separating light from darkness. Male voiceover: I love that scene. This primordial God, light on one side of his body and the darkness of night on the other,this initial separation and division to create order in the universe. Female voiceover: And then we move through to the creation of Adam, the creation of Eve. Male voiceover: Oh, the separation of the sexes. Female voiceover: And the creation of God's most perfect creature, human beings. And then the fall of human beings. Male voiceover: In a sense, the separation of good and evil. Female voiceover: Man and woman disobeying God causing the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and then the far end by the entrance we see the scenes of Noah. Male voiceover: So, these are all scenes from the first book of the bible, from the Book of Genesis, and it's so interesting because of course this is a Catholic church and yet we don't see images of Christ, but these Old Testament scenes lay the foundation for the coming of Christ. Female voiceover: And Christ is present in other ways. Not only does the disobedience of Adam and Eve make the coming of Christ necessary but when we look on either side of those central scenes we see the prophets and the Sibyls who predicted the coming of a savior for mankind. Male voiceover: The image of the Libyan sibyl that we're sitting directly across from is spectacularly beautiful. So sibyls are these ancient Pagan soothsayers who can foresee the future and according to the Catholic tradition foretell the coming of Christ, but look at the Libyan sibyl. Look at the power of her body, and look at the elegance with which she twists and turns. There's that sense of potential in the way that her toe just reaches down and touches the ground but seems as if she's in the act of moving and possibly of standing. Female voiceover: There's the presence and drama to these figures, to the Libyan sibyl especially. She twists her body in an almost impossible way and we can see Michelangelo has articulated every muscle in the back, and in fact we know that he used a male model for that figure. Male voiceover: I'm so taken with the color here. When I first studied Michelangelo we spoke only of line, of sculptural form, but of course after the dramatic cleaning of the Sistine Chapel those original colors, their brilliance, their delicacy came out. Female voiceover: And we see purples and golds and oranges and blues and greens. Male voiceover: She, of course, is reaching back and presumably that's a book of prophecy that she holds, and there's a look of confidence and knowing on her face. The absolute clarity with which she knows that Christ will come. Female voiceover: Sitting on the architectural framework on the four corners of all of the central scenes are male nude figures that we refer to as ignudi. Male voiceover: I think this is really important because Michelangelo is not painting simply separate paintings, but he's creating this enormously complex stage set with which to create levels of reality and so for example the Libyan sibyl seems as if she is seated amongst the architecture and then set next to her are bronze figures and then in the spandrels, as you mentioned, other scenes that seem to recede into a kind of illusionistic distance. Female voiceover: And then relief sculptures on the architecture on either side of her, and then seated above those the ignudi, and it's so clear that we're at this moment, at the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture and Michelangelo is in Rome. He's in the Vatican. Male voiceover: This is the high Renaissance. It's so interesting to compare the optimism, the elegance, the nobility of the figures of the figures on the ceiling with the far darker and more pessimistic view that Michelangelo will paint decades later on the back wall, The Last Judgment. Female voiceover: That's right. There's a big difference between 1512 when Michelangelo completes the ceiling and when he begins The Last Judgment. The Protestant Reformation has begun and the church is under attack. Male voiceover: Michelangelo's world had been shattered, but when you look at the ceiling you see instead all of the optimism, all of the intellectual and emotional power that characterizes the high Renaissance in all of its new found appreciation for the ancient world. This was a moment of incredible promise, and all of that comes shining through these figures. Female voiceover: And let's not forget that just a few doors away simultaneously Raphael is painting the frescoes in the papal palace. So, what a moment in Rome. (piano music)