November 1: Five hundred years ago on this date, the public saw Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes for the first time. That anniversary definitely merits celebration. Here are some ways to mark the occasion with your class:
Take a 360° virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel. It’s beautiful and very well done. You might want to mute your computer so students can focus on the art, not the choral music. You can use computer lab time to let each student tour the chapel individually, but I bet the kids will fool around with virtual spinning and making themselves dizzy. If you are lucky and have a projector for your computer, you can dim the lights and provide a tour for the whole class.
Free coloring pages:Imitating Michelangelo’s artwork is beyond the ability of elementary school students, but coloring pages put the artistic experience within reach. For added fun, have the students tape the page under their desk or hold up a clipboard and try to color at an awkward angle. (Note: Michelangelo didn’t paint lying on his back. See his poem below.)
Sistine Chapel Coloring Book (Available through Amazon.com): High-quality pictures for your students to color. Be judicious about what you give students to color and provide an alternate assignment for students with parents who like to complain.
Literacy tie-in—poetry by Michelangelo: Michelangelo was an accomplished poet; hundreds of his poems survive. Share with your students his poem about working on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It was not a pleasant experience! Next to his poem, Michelangelo drew a picture of himself painting. You can view the picture here.
The original is in Italian; this is just one of many translations. I took poetic license and “translated” it again to make it suitable for the classroom. (Michelangelo’s poem was somewhat crass and I have inserted a few euphemisms for body parts.) Read the original translation unedited by me here. The classroom-friendly version in pdf format is available here.
Painting the Sistine Chapel Ceiling
A Poetic Account by Michelangelo Buonarroti
I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my chest twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!
My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor bottom strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.
Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.
My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.
Read/Watch Mike Venezia’s book about Michelangelo from the series Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists: The book and DVD are both available at Amazon.com; the book is widely available at public libraries. The entertaining format of the book and DVD takes a cartoon approach that stays educational, not cartoonish. Students will enjoy seeing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes placed in context of his other tremendous achievements.
Use the Discovery Channel’s excellent Sistine Chapel lessons for grades 9-12. The lesson is arranged for three class periods and helps you divide the chapel ceiling into panels that students can research. The lesson plan gives resources that can help you teach.
The Agony and the Ecstasy: Of course, no discussion of Michelangelo resources would be complete without mentioning Irving Stone’s biographical novel The Agony and the Ecstasy. It is way too complicated for your students, but you might enjoy it. I certainly did. The book covers Michelangelo’s entire life; the movie starring Charleton Heston and Rex Harrison focuses on the Sistine Chapel ceiling project.