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Studies for the Libyan Sibyl and a small Sketch for a Seated Figure (verso)

Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling drawing process comes to life, revealing his black and red chalk techniques. Emphasizing structural thinking, he captures the model's personality and pays close attention to muscles and highlights. The organic search for form unveils the master's touch.

View this work on metmuseum.org.

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Created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Video transcript

I look at this drawing almost every day. I feel fully that five hundred years fall away, that I am looking over Michelangelo’s shoulder as he works with this extraordinary freshness. This represents an idea in process for the greatest masterpiece in the world, the Sistine Ceiling. What we see is a boy, the studio model, posing for a figure that is going to be a female, the figure of the Libyan Sibyl. In fact, the black chalk sketch on this backside of the sheet, because of the roughness, it’s the first step for the figure that he tries out. And then he turns the sheet to work in the more refined way with the red chalk. I can see him starting very tentatively on the sheet, blocking out the head without much detail at all and then the musculature of the shoulders and the ribs, and tries out the head of the boy. He’s an artist who thinks profoundly in a structural way, so that the poses have to make sense as a whole. It's almost like an engineer of the figure. I mean to repeat the toes three times, one begins to see that the figure is going to be resting much of the body’s weight on those toes. One can see in the pentimenti, the tentative outlines where Michelangelo's piece of chalk went first on the paper. Michelangelo notes with the little circles on either side of the shoulders the precise point where those muscles occur, and then indicates with a little bit of white chalk the spot that is going to get the greatest highlight. He puts the numeral three to indicate the three ribs that exist there. Very tentatively, he begins sketching a bust with a nipple for the figure because this will become a woman. What the drawing here captures is still the personality of the boy model who was before him. I can see the humanity in a way, the figure breathing. With raking light the drawing becomes almost like a sculpture, like a relief. The organic searching of the form reveals the hand of the master, almost as if it were a kind of handwriting. It is so private. There is something tremendously arresting about the process of the artist’s hand working on the paper and thinking aloud. It's humbling to be in the presence of genius.