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Michelangelo, Copernicus and the Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo, Copernicus and the Sistine Chapel

By Valerie Shrimplin

Given at Gresham College, on March 6, 2014

A detailed examination of the themes, motifs and secrets held with Michelagelo’s masterpiece. It is argued that Copernicus’ theory of the sun-centred universe is a key underlying theme in Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s revolutionary design, depicting Christ as an Apollonian ‘sun-god’ positioned in the centre of a dramatic circular composition, seems relate to Copernicus’s theory of the sun-centred universe – providing important evidence of papal support for Copernican heliocentricity as early as the 1530s.

Sistine Chapel

Introduction: It has long been recognized that in Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment (painted 1536-1541) Christ is depicted as a classical, beardless ‘Apollonian’ sun-god in the centre of a ‘cosmic’ circular design. The possible influence of Copernicus’s theory of heliocentricity on Michelangelo’s fresco has been considered by art historians, but consistently rejected on the grounds that Michelangelo’s fresco was finished in 1541, two years before the publication of Copernicus’s book, Revolutions, in 1543. The idea has thus always been dismissed without full exploration and consideration. Art historians have seemed hesitant to delve into astronomical texts, and astronomers are perhaps less familiar with Renaissance frescoes. It can, however, indeed be argued that Copernican heliocentricity is reflected in Michelangelo’s fresco – with the knowledge, consent and approval of the two Popes concerned.

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