Artibus et Historiae no. 19 (X)

1989, ISSN 0391-9064

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WILLIAM E. WALLACE - Narrative and Religious Expression in Michelangelo's Pauline Chapel

Michelangelo's two frescoes in the Pauline Chapel were painted for one of the artist's most discerning patrons, yet generally they have been considered among the artist's least successful works. They have been criticized mainly because they disobey conventional rules of composition, scale and figural proportion. The apparent oddities, however, are greatly exaggerated when the paintings are seen from the "ideal" frontal view presented in all prints and in most photographs. This essay proposes that the frontal view is the least important one in the long, narrow chapel. Michelangelo consciously adjusted the arrangement and proportions of his figures so that they would appear correct from a number of different vantage points, mostly oblique. The histories unfold as a sequence of narrative episodes, in part animated by the spectator's own movement through the chapel. By presenting the frescoes as they would be experienced in situ, the author argues that the Pauline frescoes, far from being evidence of Michelangelo's declining abilities, instead confirm his genius as a history painter.

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