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Unlocking the Mystery of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling: A New Interpretation of Michelangelo’s Design

Lauren J. Staub, Washington University in St Louis

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Faculty Mentor: Mark Gregory Pegg

In 1508 Pope Julius II summoned Michelangelo to Rome to paint the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. The artist most likely arrived with the hordes of pilgrims streaming into the ‘Eternal City’ on the Via Cassia, trampling the vineyards and sheep pastures into pathways on their journey to the civitas Dei. As the day began to fade and the “darkening air was releasing all the creatures” on the earth from “their daily tasks,” another native Florentine had been preparing to “endure the battle of the journey” two centuries prior. Weaving through the streets of the decrepit city on his way to the Sistine chapel, perhaps it was Dante’s cammino of the body and soul that Michelangelo recalled. “Who would doubt that in painting the Judgment in the chapel in Rome,” Benedetto Varchi rhetorically questioned in 1546, “that it was the work of Dante, which he had memorized completely, that was always before his eyes?” While scholars have long acknowledged Michelangelo’s references to La Commedia in his Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine chapel, in the nearly five- hundred years of debate surrounding his pro- gram for the ceiling, none have ever proposed the poem as a plausible solution. Even the most common interpretation of the Sistine chapel ceiling, the story of Genesis, is inherently flawed. This study suggests that it was not the bible, but Dante Alighieri’s La Commedia—the ver- nacular form of the bible in sixteenth century Italy—that served as Michelangelo’s inspiration for the Sistine chapel ceiling. The theory that Dante’s La Commedia guided Michelangelo in his design for the Sistine chapel ceiling is significant because it removes the necessity of prov- ing, or even postulating that a theological advisor assisted Michelangelo in developing his program for the ceiling.

From the Washington University Undergraduate Research Digest: WUURD, Volume 2, Issue 1, Fall 2006. Published by the Office of Undergraduate Research.

Henry Biggs, Director of Undergraduate Research and Associate Dean in the College of Arts & Sciences; Joy Zalis Kiefer, Undergraduate Research Coordinator, Editor, and Assistant Dean in the College of Arts & Sciences.