Michelangelo didn’t want to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Having considered himself more of a sculptor than a painter — and, given his skill with stone, not without cause — he felt that taking on such an ambitious project could bring him to ruin. But one does not simply turn down a job offer from the Vatican, and especially not when one is among the most respected artists in sixteenth-century Italy. In the event, Michelangelo proved equal to the task, or rather, much more than equal: he completed his ceiling frescoes in 1512 for Pope Julius II, and 23 years later was commissioned again by Pope Paul III to paint the Last Judgment over the altar.
Long before Michelangelo touched a brush to the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, a team of painters including Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, and Pinturicchio had already adorned the building’s interior with frescoes depicting the lives of Moses and Jesus Christ.
Taken together, the Sistine Chapel has long been regarded as one of the greatest achievements in Western art, if not the greatest of them all. Hence the six million tourists who visited it each year before COVID-19; hence, more recently, the painstaking care that has gone into the production of The Sistine Chapel, a three-volume at-book set that brings the building’s Biblical visions as close as any earthly reader cold hope to see them.
The fruit of a half-decade-long collaboration between the Vatican and two publishers, Callaway Arts & Entertainment and Scripta Maneant, The Sistine Chapel demanded 65 nights of consecutive work from its photographers, who shot 270,000 high-resolution images. Capturing the masterworks on the walls and ceiling down to the textures of their paint and brushstrokes necessitated climbing up on scaffolding, just as Michelangelo himself famously did to make his contributions in the first place. Limited by the Vatican to a print run of 1,999 copies, the set is now available for purchase at AbeBooks, though it will cost you $22,000. In a sense that’s a small price to pay, for as Goethe put it, “without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.” Find The Sistine Chapel book collection here.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.