Vatican Museums

Wide, white eyes gaze with alarm at some unseen trouble. This head is from one of 20 ignudi, or nude young men, that flank the smaller scenes from Genesis occupying the center of the Sistine ceiling (seen before cleaning at left and after cleaning at right). In the detail at the end of “Understanding the Sistine Chapel and Its Paintings,” this ignudo is visible above and to the right of Joel, between the paintings of the “Sacrifice of Noah” (right) and the “Flood.” He sits atop a block resting upon an illusionistic cornice enclosing the entire Genesis sequence of paintings. Below the ignudo cherubic putti lean against a painted pilaster, or engaged column, that seems to support the cornice. The magic of Michelangelo’s illusion wins our belief, though we remind ourselves that Michelangelo’s “architecture” is part of a totally two-dimensional surface.