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Michelangelo - 1508 Sistine Chapel - 01 Symbolism



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience


The Sistine Chapel ceiling took approximately four years to complete (1508–1512).  The painted area is about 40 m (131 ft) long by 13 m (43 ft) wide. This means that Michelangelo painted well over 5,000 square feet (460 m2) of frescoes.

The symbolism owes much to a very detailed knowledge of alchemy, the mystic principles that underlie the Tarot cards, and the esoteric meaning of the Bible.  Although the Pope gave Michelangelo a free hand in painting it, one can only conclude – given it was not altered – that the Pope approved and also knew the meaning.

Of particular note is the incorporation of The Sibyls, prophetic women who were located at the sites of the Mysteries, as such the Pope and Michelangelo knew all about and were in sympathy with the Mysteries.

The Three worlds and Tree of Life


The building is divided into three stories of which the lowest is a very tall basement level with several utilitarian windows and a doorway giving onto the exterior court. Internally, the basement is robustly vaulted to support the chapel. In some respects it is built like the interior of the tree of life.

Above is the main space, the Sistine Chapel, the vaulted ceiling rising to 20.7 metres (68 ft). The building had six tall arched windows down each side  [Signs of the Zodiac] and two at either end, several of which have been blocked. Above the vault is a third story.


The ceiling of the chapel is a flattened barrel vault springing from a course that encircles the walls at the level of the springing of the window arches. This barrel vault is cut transversely by smaller vaults over each window, which divide the barrel vault at its lowest level into a series of large pendentives rising from shallow pilasters between each window.   Thus these are symbolic mountains

The barrel vault was originally painted brilliant-blue and dotted with gold stars, to the design of Piermatteo Lauro de' Manfredi da Amelia.  Symbolically therefore this is the arching vault of heaven in the style of the Egyptian god Nut.

Although the first stage in the decoration of the Sistine Chapel was the painting of the ceiling in blue, studded with gilt stars, and with decorative borders around the architectural details of the pendentives. This was entirely replaced when Michelangelo came to work on the ceiling in 1508.



Apostles in this case are symbolically equivalent to the stages on the spiritual path.  Thus we have an ‘apostle’ that is by correspondence equivalent to the seven stages/days.  We do not know what symbolism Michelangelo placed on the prophets, as such the following is indicative only, but the possible attribution is as follows, for example:

  • The calling and the testsJeremiah The difficulties he encountered, as described in the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations, have prompted scholars to refer to him as "the weeping prophet"
  • Learning - Joel "Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your elderly shall dream dreams and your youth shall see visions
  • Judgement - Daniel's name means "God (El) is my judge"
  • Rebirth - Jonah is readily recognisable by his attribute of the large fish.  In general mystic terms he is a symbol of rebirth – a stage on the spiritual path
  • Contact [and revelation] - Ezekiel
  • Relearning and purification - Zechariah prophesied, "Behold! Your King comes to you, humble and riding on a donkey".  in the past, the ass was the animal of Saturn.  Saturn, being the Planet symbolically closest to the Sun
  • Moksha and nirvana - Prophet Isaiah "knew more perfectly than all others the mystery of the religion of the Gospel"

Central theme

creation of Eve

Along the central section of the ceiling, Michelangelo depicted nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. The pictures are organized into three groups of three alternating large and small panels.

The first group shows God creating the Heavens and the Earth. The second group shows God creating the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, and their disobedience of God and consequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The third group of three pictures shows the plight of Humanity and in particular the flood.

More about this symbolism in context is given on the observations for these scenes.  It is important to recognise, however, that the ceiling can be viewed as a cycle rather than a sequence.  There is creation in one direction and destruction in the other.  “Paoletti and Radke suggest that this reversed progression symbolises a return to a state of grace.”

The source of the experience


Concepts, symbols and science items

Science Items

Activities and commonsteps