Prophet Zechariah by Michelangelo Buonarroti

Michelangelo Buonarroti

Prophet Zechariah, 1508–12, Fresco, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City, Photo: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

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The Prophet

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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.

 

References

Hartt, Frederick. 1987. History of Italian Renaissance Art (London: Harry N. Abrams)

King, Ross. 2003. Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (New York: Bloomsbury)

 


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