(b. 1475, Caprese, d. 1564, Roma)

The Ancestors of Christ in the Lunettes

Cappella Sistina, Vatican

In the iconographic scheme of the frescoes painted by Michelangelo, the lunettes, together with the eight smaller triangular spandrels, contain the figures of the Ancestors of Christ according to the sequence of forty generations listed at the beginning of the Gospel of Saint Matthew. This also inspired the text of the motet Liber Generationis Iesu Christi by Josquin des Préz contained in an anthem book of the Sistine Chapel at the time of Julius II, when the artist was working in the chapel. The names of the ancestors are written in Latin capitals on a tablet placed in the centre of each lunette, at the top of the window arch, on a rectangular fictive slab, painted in dark tones with light green borders. The tablet is enclosed by its own painted bronze frame, resting on a base and consisting of half balusters at the sides; it is surmounted by a small classical female head.

Following the chronological order, the first ancestors of Christ were represented in the two lunettes at the top of the wall behind the altar. Beginning with the lunette on the left, the sequence continued with the one on the right, moved to the adjacent side wall, then to the opposite one; from there it alternated between the two side walls until it reached the entrance wall, opposite the starting point. In this way, Michelangelo adopted the same distributive pattern of the sequence of the popes frescoed at the time of Sixtus IV. An exception, however, is the lunette with the tablet bearing the names of Josiah Jechoniah-Shealtiel. Although, in chronological order, this is immediately after that of Hezekiah-Manasseh-Amon, the artist placed it on the same wall, not on the opposite one. As well as allowing the first and last lunettes to be opposite each other, the change in the pattern was probably intended to give emphasis to the time when the Israelites were deported to Babylon.

The generations of Christ's ancestors are represented in the eight spandrels by family groups and, in the lunettes, by groups or single figures on either side of the tablets. Due to the lack of typological elements or precise attributions and, in most cases, of iconographic precedents, it is difficult; if not impossible, to identify the figures represented. In many cases, the suggestions made are not well-founded and are lacking in credibility. In any case, the possibility that Michelangelo was attempting to provide representations of a historical character may be excluded: the theme of the lunettes and the eight smaller spandrels is the uninterrupted sequence of the generations in the long wait for the coming of the Messiah. The message is not conveyed by the individual scenes, but rather by their totality; in this sequence of human types, the artist sought above all to differentiate the expressions, the poses, and the groupings, with a preponderance of variations on certain themes, such as maternity or, for the male figures, often anguished meditation, solitude, and despondency.