Why Did Michelangelo Paint These?
Pope Julius II (also known as Giulio II and "Il papa terribile"), requested that Michelangelo paint the chapel ceiling. Julius was determined that Rome should be rebuilt to its former glory, and had embarked on a vigorous campaign to get the job done. That such splendor would (a) add luster to the name of Julius II and (b) serve to supercede anything that Pope Alexander VI (a Borgia, and Julius' rival) had accomplished, were not unimportant considerations.
How Big Is the Ceiling?
It's about 40 meters (131 feet) long by 13 meters (43 feet) wide. These numbers are rounded off just a tad, but don't detract from the fact that Michelangelo painted well over 5,000 square feet of frescoes.
What Do the Frescoes Depict?
A lot! The main panels down the center depict scenes from the Book of Genesis, from the Creation, to the Fall, to shortly after Noah's deluge. Adjacent to each of these scenes, on either side, are immense portraits of prophets and sibyls who foretold the coming of the Messiah. Along the bottoms of these run spandrels and lunettes containing the ancestors of Jesus and stories of tragedy in ancient Israel. Scattered throughout are smaller figures, cherubs and ignudi (nudes). All told there are more than 300 painted figures on the ceiling. By the way, have you noticed the wealth of architectural members and moldings which dissect the ceiling? Most of those are actually two-dimensional, skillfully painted in by Michelangelo to demarcate separate compositions.
Say, Wasn't Michelangelo a Sculptor? Why Was He Painting?
Michelangelo was a sculptor. He referred to himself as such, and vastly preferred working with marble to almost anything else that life offered. Prior to the ceiling frescoes, the only painting he'd done was during his brief stint as a student in Ghirlandaio's workshop.
Julius, however, was adamant that Michelangelo - and no other - should paint the chapel ceiling. What Julius wanted, he usually got. Besides that, he'd been stalling Michelangelo on a prior, wildly lucrative commission (sculpting 40 massive figures for his tomb), and kept dangling that juicy prize as a reward for completion of the ceiling job.
How Long Did it Take Michelangelo to Paint These?
It took him a bit over four years, from July of 1508 to October of 1512. Michelangelo got off to a slow start, not having painted frescoes before. He intended to (and did) work in buon fresco, the most difficult method, and one which only true masters undertook. In addition to having to learn everything about the medium itself and making initial blunders in that area, he also had to learn some wickedly hard techniques in perspective. (Consider that his figures look "correct" on curved surfaces, viewed from nearly 60 feet below.)
However, ultimately it wasn't Michelangelo's fault that the ceiling took four years. (Once he got the hang of things, he painted like a man on fire!) The work suffered numerous setbacks, such as mold and miserable, damp weather that disallowed plaster curing. A primary cause of downtime occurred when Julius was off waging a war, or ill to the point that Last Rites were administered. The ceiling project, and any hope Michelangelo had of being paid, were both frequently in jeopardy while Julius was absent or near death. Small wonder that the artist complained so often and bitterly about the project, really.
Did Michelangelo Really Paint Lying on His Back?
No. Charlton Heston did in the movie, but the real Michelangelo didn't lay on his back to paint the ceiling. He conceived and had constructed a unique scaffolding system. It was sturdy enough to hold workers and materials, but began high up the walls of the chapel in order that Mass might still be celebrated below.
The scaffolding curved at its top, mimicking the curvature of the ceiling's vault. Michelangelo often had to bend backwards and paint over his head - an awkward position which must've made his neck and back ache, his arms burn painfully and, according to him, permanently screwed up his vision. But he wasn't lying flat on his back.
Did He Actually Paint These Frescoes All by Himself?
Michelangelo gets, and deserves, credit for the entire project. The complete design was his. The sketches and cartoons for the frescoes were all of his hand, and Michelangelo executed the vast bulk of the actual painting by himself.
But! The vision of him toiling away, a solitary figure in a vacant chapel, isn't accurate. He needed many assistants, if only to mix his paints, scramble up and down ladders, and prepare the day's plaster (a nasty business). Occasionally, a talented assistant might be entrusted with a patch of sky, a bit of landscape, or a figure so small and minor it is barely discernable from below. All of these were worked from his cartoons, though. And clever, temperamental Michelangelo hired and fired these assistants on such a regular basis that none of them could claim credit for any part of the ceiling.