The Titanic genius of Michelangelo dominates this plain rectangular hall, overshadowing a row of capable frescoes by Perugino, Botticelli and other celebrated painters. On first entering from a narrow passage this room whose walls and ceiling are spread thick with paintings, one feels a sense of bewilderment, in straining to distinguish the figures from each other, and to grasp the plan of their arrangement. One tries to take in at once a whole gallery of different pictures, barely separated by painted architectural borders. Scores of huge bodies are swirling and twisting this way and that, forcing the observer to crane his neck at a dozen uncomfortable angles.
Little by little this feeling of confusion can be diminished, if one studies out the arrangement of the paintings and their relation to the shape of the ceiling itself. Taken all together, they form a single gigantic design, composed of definite units repeated and alternated. Along the center of the ceiling is a row of rectangles, alternately large and small, each containing a separate group of figures. These are related in subject-matter as Biblical scenes of the Creation, the Fall of Man, and the Flood. They are separated by small decorative nudes, mostly Greek and Bacchanalian in spirit, one at each corner of the smaller rectangles, with a medallion between each pair. Large triangular sections at each corner of the ceiling, and small ones along the sides, form a contrasting series of shapes; they represent Old Testament scenes and characters. Between the triangles, on the pendentives of the vaulting, there extends around the room a long row of Prophets and Sibyls, heroic in size, symbolizing the religious spirit of the Hebrews and other ancient peoples. Each figure sits in a separate architectural niche, with smaller decorative figures around and behind it. By taking a broad sweeping view with half-shut eyes, one can see the whole ceiling as a single decorative carpet, harmoniously tinted in soft dull gray-blues, violets and tans, composed of regular geometrical panels, with innumerable small, rounded bodies twined among them.
But to look at the pictures as mere surface decoration is to miss the invigorating thrill of those feelings of powerful effort which they can stimulate in us through suggestion. Having distinguished the figures as groups, we now see that they form several independent systems of gravitational pull. The central rectangular pictures are all organized in one direction, down the hall toward the altar, where they pass (through the cleverly foreshortened figure of Jonah) into the downward torrent of the Last Judgment. Others along each edge are to be looked at as continuous with the other walls. It is the close interpenetration of the ceiling figures that makes these arrangements hard to grasp at first.
Going on to look at each section individually, one feels with cumulative force that quality of dynamic power which was evident from the start. But it is gradually seen to be organized into one stately, majestic rhythm, not a chaotic melee. This effect could not have been produced merely by large size, big muscles and sweeping gestures. Many later Baroque pictures, imitating these attributes, succeeded only in looking bombastic. It is due rather to the fact that each section is a different design of moving masses, distinct from all the others, yet fitting into the general flow. The Libyan Sibyl with her open book is a zig-zag of long straight masses; God Separates Light from Darkness is all short swirling curves. The Fall of Man is balanced in stable symmetry, and flows in a single rhythm of slender, sinuous, rippling muscles, beginning in the snake’s long body coiling around the tree, and branching right and left through the two pairs of figures. The Creation of Woman is a criss-cross of lumpish, full masses in angular diagonals. In the Creation of Man a crescent-shaped form is repeated, and the relaxed, static body of Adam is contrasted with the whirling cloud of tense bodies in the opposite corner.
Each separate Prophet, Sibyl and decorative nude is a complex system of masses, in which each limb, head, trunk and section of drapery acts as an individual unit. They thrust and counter-thrust in all directions, reaching out, gesturing, grasping, leaning, swerving, tensely unstable or firm in a moment of balanced equipoise. Partly each figure maintains its balance by some extended or supporting limb; but in the main it is a structure that would fall at once if composed of dead materials. One feels it to be held together only by an internal cohesive force a human willthat impels and controls every fibre. Violent effort may strain every muscle (as in the Prophet Jonah and some of the decorative nudes), or the body may be partly relaxed (as in the drunken Noah and the Prophet Jeremiah); it may be agitated like Daniel or serene like the Delphic Sibyl. But in the ceiling figures not in the Last Judgment, where they fall pellmell there is no body and no part of a body that is quite flaccid, nerveless or unbalanced; each contributes to the dynamic interplay of forces.
This is the painting of an architect, to whom art is essentially the arrangement of masses; also of a sculptor, to whom the most interesting masses are those that make up the human body, with their infinite variety of shapes and surfaces, curved and angular, flexible and rigid, softly rounded or full of hard muscular swellings and hollows. The arrangement of masses in architecture tends on the -whole to be simple, repetitious, symmetrical, obviously balanced, static. But here is a profusion of irregular, swerving, mobile equilibria, animated from within and bursting strenuously out from the frozen marble that is represented behind them.
It is also the painting of a poet and a man of humanistic learning, to whom bodies are not mere decorative shapes, but beings inspired by human and divine passions and ideas, which they can be made to convey in attitude and gesture. Almost every conceivable position of the body is represented here, it would seem, and each expresses dramatically some definite state of emotion or will. All the figuresexcept, again; in the Last Judgment, which is full of savage distorted caricatures belong to some race of demi-gods, superhuman in strength and in majestic freedom of movement. They inherit the Greek tradition of physical grace, but with more rugged force. Along with classic naturalism; they express adequately, for the first time in pictorial art, the epic sweep of the Old Testament, its pageant of stirring events and its intense moral fervors.
Is this the painting of a painter? The charge is often made that Michelangelo is merely a sculptor working in an uncongenial medium. The taking over of sculptural effects is obvious in the modelling and arrangement of the bodies, and many of them could be effectively rendered in relief or in the round. Nearby spatial intervals are clear, but distant space is not attempted, except in The Flood; for it would have complicated an already complex problem, beyond all bounds. The coloring is not rich or subtle, but it has an agreeable dry, light fresco quality, and it helps distinguish the figures, especially the living from the sculptured ones. Light and shade are well used to bring out the relations of masses. Sculpture itself is always more or less at the mercy of changing shadows, and of the spectator’s point of view. But here all these are fixed in the right positions as only a painter can fix them.