Commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508 to paint the ceiling frescoes of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo created a decorative scheme far different from that of the pope’s vision.
Before Michelangelo began work the vault of the Sistine ceiling was painted blue with gold stars, a ‘starry Heaven’ approved by Pope Sixtus IV at the time of the Chapel’s construction in the early 1480s (King 2003: 20). Julius II wanted representations of the twelve apostles to occupy the spaces between the eight spandrels and the four pendentives supporting the vault (ibid: 58). Instead, purportedly under the guidance of a theological advisor and with Julius II’s blessing, Michelangelo depicted twelve other figures—five female and seven male. Michelangelo felt his chosen subjects would afford him more opportunity to explore the intricacies of the human form (ibid: 59). The five females are sibyls of the classical world and the seven males are prophets from the Old Testament, including Zechariah (Hartt 1987: 492).
Although Zechariah is one of the shorter prophetic books (hence Zechariah's description as a ‘Minor Prophet’), the prophet is given pride of place on the Sistine ceiling, directly above its main entrance. He is highly visible from the altar at the opposite end—prominently in the line of sight of the Pope, for example, when he says Mass.
Each figure on the ceiling was intended to foretell an aspect of the life of Christ to the viewers of Michelangelo’s scheme. Zechariah 1, which centres on the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem, can also be seen as a foreshadowing of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, commemorated every Palm Sunday. Zechariah’s placement within the ceiling complex, above the doors that give access to the chapel, make him an emblem of triumphal entry.
Zechariah is portrayed as a vast, enthroned figure in flowing robes. Although young at the time of his prophecies, Michelangelo depicts him as a mature, white-bearded man, perhaps in deference to the wisdom of his writings. The figure of Zechariah, the personification of his book, is seen here holding that very book. Thus, his visions are made manifest.
Hartt, Frederick. 1987. History of Italian Renaissance Art (London: Harry N. Abrams)
King, Ross. 2003. Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (New York: Bloomsbury)
1 In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariʹah the son of Berechiʹah, son of Iddo, the prophet, saying, 2“The Lord was very angry with your fathers. 3Therefore say to them, Thus says the Lord of hosts: Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. 4Be not like your fathers, to whom the former prophets cried out, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.’ But they did not hear or heed me, says the Lord. 5Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live for ever? 6But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers? So they repented and said, As the Lord of hosts purposed to deal with us for our ways and deeds, so has he dealt with us.”
7 On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month which is the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariʹah the son of Berechiʹah, son of Iddo, the prophet; and Zechariʹah said, 8“I saw in the night, and behold, a man riding upon a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen; and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses. 9Then I said, ‘What are these, my lord?’ The angel who talked with me said to me, ‘I will show you what they are.’ 10So the man who was standing among the myrtle trees answered, ‘These are they whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth.’ 11And they answered the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, ‘We have patrolled the earth, and behold, all the earth remains at rest.’ 12Then the angel of the Lord said, ‘O Lord of hosts, how long wilt thou have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which thou hast had indignation these seventy years?’ 13And the Lord answered gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with me. 14So the angel who talked with me said to me, ‘Cry out, Thus says the Lord of hosts: I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion. 15And I am very angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was angry but a little they furthered the disaster. 16Therefore, thus says the Lord, I have returned to Jerusalem with compassion; my house shall be built in it, says the Lord of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem. 17Cry again, Thus says the Lord of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.’ ”
18 And I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four horns! 19And I said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these?” And he answered me, “These are the horns which have scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem.” 20Then the Lord showed me four smiths. 21And I said, “What are these coming to do?” He answered, “These are the horns which scattered Judah, so that no man raised his head; and these have come to terrify them, to cast down the horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter it.”