The Pope's private chapel in the Vatican Palace bears upon its walls and on the wall above the altar Michelangelo's chief achievements in the art of painting--in fact his only work of this kind, for when we think of him as a painter these are the only pictures of his which come to mind, and we readily forget those early and later works which are doubtful; doubtful with regard to their authorship are the two early panels in London, and doubtful with regard to their value the early tondo in Florence and the two late frescoes in the Cappella Paolina.
This home of Michelangelo's painting, the chapel named after its builder Pope Sixtus IV, is rather disappointing when viewed from the outside--an elongated stone box with fourteen half-rounded openings in three of its walls, a utilitarian edifice of decided and depressing simplicity, not altogether unlike a barn, if the eye refuses to let itself be deceived by the consciousness of the building's fame. But on entering it we are dazzled by the profusion of beautiful paintings--narratives from the Old and New Testaments half-way up each of the side-walls, with tapestries by Raphael beneath them; the lives of Moses and Jesus who showed the way to earthly and spiritual salvation; frescoes by Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Signorelli and others.
Michelangelo's paintings, however, are not on these side-walls, but in the vast space above the altar and on the long, slightly curved barrel-vaulting.
In them all human standards seem to have been surpassed both in aim and in form, and the unimaginable becomes reality. They contain everything that, without assuming visible shape, has filled the minds of all the thinkers of all times--the beginning and end of the world. The creation of light, the birth of life, the origin of sin, the day of Judgement--all this is expressed through the enhanced forms of the human body. Just as tragedy achieves its full force only when exceptional beings, the strongest and boldest in this world, are driven towards the inevitable conclusion, so do Michelangelo's enlarged human bodies stand in the right proportion to the immeasurable power of life, of the Creator and of the Judge, and to the inevitability of our ultimate weakness. It is God himself we see in these paintings--hovering like an immense thunder-cloud above a dark abyss, not as a symbol of that which may not be contemplated, but as an awe-inspiring apparition, and yet in the image of man. As light is divided from darkness, so does life emerge from the void; Adam arises slowly from his long sleep, and Eve springs from the ribs of the sleeper; with the coming of sin and Noah's drunkenness there is a return to the lethargy of darkness. These men stand naked before God, naked as the earth which no blade . . .