The Sistine Chapel.
You’ve probably heard of it.
It’s a chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope in Vatican City.
It’s also home to one of the most celebrated works of art in all of human history:
The 5,000 square foot fresco painted across the vaulted ceiling.
Courtesy of the son of a farmer from the town of Settignano:
A guy named Michelangelo.
Here’s what I didn’t know until recently when I visited the chapel on a recent trip to Italy:
Michelangelo didn’t even want the job in the first place — and all of his colleagues were convinced he was going to fail.
Here’s how it went down:
Michelangelo was a hot, young, sought after sculptor — one of the best sculptors on the scene. His biggest rival in the sculpting world, Bramante, was jealous of Michelangelo’s talent and wanted to ruin him so that he could be the top dog in the industry.
So Bramante tells the Pope, “You should hire Michelangelo to paint the Sistene Chapel. He’d be perfect for the job. Seriously. Trust me on this.”
The Pope says to Michelangelo, “I’d like you to paint a fresco on the ceiling of the chapel” and Michelangelo is furious. He tries to back out the project. He’s a sculptor, not a painter, and he’s never even attempted to paint on plaster before. This whole thing is going to be a huge fiasco. Plus, Michelangelo knows that Bramante planned the entire thing to sabotage his career — making him look like a failure, or at the very least, getting him tied up in a never-ending project that would remove him from the sculpting business for a very long time.
The thing is, though, when the Pope asks you to do something, he’s not really asking — he is commanding.
So Michelangelo didn’t have much of a choice.
He began the project, which took four years to complete. It was excruciating work — Michelangelo often had to lie flat on his back on top of a huge scaffold in order to paint the delicate images on the ceiling. Years of this awkward work nearly ruined his eyesight — for a long time after finishing the project, he had to hold letters above his head in order to read them.
Here’s how Michelangelo described the Sistene Chapel project in a letter to his friend Giovanni da Pistoia:
“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 breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush, above me all the time, dribbles paint so my face makes a fine floor for droppings! […] I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.” [read the complete letter here]
Despite all of these challenges, the physical pain, immense pressure from the Pope and the public, stumbling blocks set up by his jealous enemies, and the fact that he had zero experience working in this medium, Michelangelo not only finished the project — but created a masterpiece.
A masterpiece that, even five hundred years later, draws close to five million awestruck visitors a year.
The moral of the story?
Often, when life doesn’t go our way, we think life has dealt us an “unfair” hand.
We moan and groan, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this? How am I ever going to get through this?”
What we forget is that when life gets difficult, that’s when you have your greatest opportunity to shine — to show your professionalism, to show your grit, to blow everyone’s expectations out of the water.
We all have the capacity to create a Sistine Chapel out of our greatest burdens.
And the Bramantes of the world?
They get to watch us rise.