Saints On The Sistine Ceiling

All Saints Day, 2012 marks the 500th anniversary of the unveiling of the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes.  Over the past half millennium, these rich paintings by Michelangelo have prompted worshipers at the world-renowned chapel to ponder, wonder, and enjoy.  While many might feel the glory of God simply by viewing the artwork, actually comprehending the stories and people portrayed on the ceiling can make the experience much richer. 

God’s Creation and Noah
The long central stretch of the ceiling portrays the conception of the world along with some people from the book of Genesis.  “The Creation of Adam,” is probably the most recognizable painting of the Sistine Chapel; curiously, however, if you examine the ceiling geometrically, you will see that the fresco of “The Creation of Eve” is in the direct center of the ceiling.  Exploring further within this length of frescoes, you will find dramatic and moving scenes from the life of Noah.  While Adam, Eve, and Noah are not listed in the Martyrologium Romanum (Roman Martyrology), there is no promise that the Roman Martyrology holds the names of all saints in heaven, and so these Old Testament individuals may very well hold a spot near the glory of God.

Mixed within the middle ceiling frescoes are some bronze-colored “medallions.” They are not nearly as colorful and a bit challenging to discern, but they offer more Biblical depictions to learn from, including:   

·        St. Abraham as he was about to sacrifice his son, Isaac (Genesis 22:10).

·        St. Elijah during his ascent to heaven on a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:11).

·        St. David being scolded by the Prophet Nathan for his murder of Uriah (2 Samuel 12:13). 

Judith And Holofernes

Saint David And Goliath
The Four Corners
Within the curves of the four corners of the ceiling are frescoes illustrating times when the people of Israel overcame dire circumstances:

·        The Brazen Serpent – Illustrates the Biblical story of when the Israelites encountered poisonous snakes while wandering in the desert.  God gave St. Moses instructions on how to construct a brazen serpent; the Israelites were then saved from the deadly snake bites and reminded of the power of God (Numbers 21:8).

·        The Punishment of Haman – Haman was an Old Testament man who viciously tried to eradicate all Jews living in the Persian Empire in the 400s B.C.  But, Queen Esther, a devout Jewish woman, intervened.  Through her husband, Haman was hung on a gibbet for his treacherous attempt (Esther 7:10).

·        Judith and Holofernes – When the Assyrian general Holofernes tried to pressure the people of Israel to assist his troops in battle, a young Israelite widow, Judith, intervened by posing as a spy.  The beautiful Judith gained the general’s trust, and one night he drank too much and fell asleep in her presence.  Judith cut off his head and Holofernes’ troops fled in fear (Judith 13:8-9).

·        David and Goliath – This fresco shares the story of how well before becoming the King of Israel, David fearlessly slew the giant Philistine Goliath, who had been an overpowering force against the Israelites (1 Samuel 17:51).

Prophet And Saint Jonah
As the Sistine ceiling begins to curve down to join the wall, several prophets are depicted (along with some sibyls – ancient pagan prophetesses who foretold the coming of Christ):

·        St. Jonah – who tried to resist the call of God and ended up in the belly of a great fish for three days (Jonah 2:1).

·        St. Jeremiah – a prophet full of anguish as he saw the people of his nation consistently ignore messages of God (Jeremiah 8:18).

·        St. Daniel – a prophet who lived during the exile, rose to prominence, yet still retained his religious beliefs, even after being thrown into a lions’ den (Daniel 6:11).

·        St. Ezekiel – who, like Daniel, was a prophet during the exile.  St. Ezekiel’s prophecies were conveyed through a variety of dramatic visions (Ezekiel 10:14).

·        St. Isaiah – who holds the first of the prophetic books in the Bible and gave great prophecies of Christ (Isaiah 9:5).   

·        St. Joel – a prophet who foretold of the wondrous events surrounding the descent of the Holy Spirit (Joel 3:1 and Acts 2:16).

·        St. Zechariah the Prophet – whose various symbolic visions brought about encouragement to the Jewish people to rebuild the Temple after their return from the Babylonian Exile (Zechariah 1:16).

Ancestors of Christ
Gently wedged between the prophets and sibyls are thought-provoking frescoes of numerous ancestors of Christ, many of whom can be found in the genealogical list found in the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.  Intriguingly, Michelangelo included several of the mothers of these mostly male ancestors … a unique concept for the time.  Women were often ignored in sacred art, yet Michelangelo seemed to have an unusual desire to represent women. These less detailed, but still appealing portraits also help to recall how Jesus was related to many of the Old Testament kings. Within these ancestry triangles and lunettes you can find Ruth cuddling her son Obed, King Solomon with his mother Bathsheba, King Josiah and his mother Jedidah, Zerubbabel and many, many others.

Prophet And Saint Ezekiel
Feast Days of Saints of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling
It is impossible to determine who exactly portrayed on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is officially in heaven - certainly many of the dozens depicted are indeed saints.  The following, however, are included in the 2004 Roman Martyrology. 
  • St. Abraham – October 9
  • St. David – December 29
  • St. Elijah – July 21
  • St. Ezekiel – July 23
  • St. Isaiah – May 9
  • St. Jeremiah – May 1
  • St. Joel – October 19
  • St. Jonah – September 21
  • St. Zechariah the Prophet – September 6
Prophet And Saint Isaiah
Prophet And Saint Jeremiah

Martyrologium Romanum.  Editio Altera, Civitate Vaticana, 2004.
Michelangelo and Raphael in the Vatican.  Edizioni Musei Vaticani, 1993.
New American Bible for Catholics, The.  Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 1991.
Richmond, Robin.  Michelangelo and the Creation of the Sistine Chapel.  New York: Crescent Books, 1999. 
Vatican Museums.  Sistine Chapel Ceiling.  Retrieved April 14, 2012 from