A Matter of Perspective: Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel

On my short-list of places to visit is the Sistine Chapel. Beyond the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s diverse portfolio has been transformational to both society and the world of art. I recently discovered that two of his pieces of art – The Pieta and David were done before he was 30. Although he was best known as a sculptor, to me, the Sistine Chapel stands out as the most amazing work of art from Michelangelo’s diverse and remarkable masterpieces. Below I’ve briefly consolidated 3 of the most important lessons learned for the workplace from Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel.

1 – Take on Challenges

Here’s the challenge Michelangelo took on: painting a picture 60 feet in the air on a curved surface, and being able to keep perspective- all upside down. Oh, and when you look up from 60 feet, it needs to look not good, but flawless. In order to accomplish this, Michelangelo had to create new art styles, modes and techniques. To paint the Sistine Chapel Michelangelo used a fresco technique. Fresco is a type of art technique in which pieces of limestone are plastered together and then affixed to a wall. So, think of a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle that you got as a gift, and then try and think about having to paint each piece and being sure that everything is in the right perspective. Now, imagine doing that climbing up scaffolding, straining your neck and on a curved surface. (Also, close your eyes and pretend it’s the Renaissance, and you have to make all the paint yourself).That was just a microscopic view into Michelangelo’s world.

The lesson learned is that in our careers, we need to be comfortable taking on new challenges, and learn to leverage our skills in new ways and for new applications. Michelangelo may have been known as a sculptor, but the internal drive as an artist fueled him to be known as more than just a sculptor.

2 – Learn to See from a New Perspective

As I mentioned above, what is amazing to me is that Michelangelo had to learn how to paint suspended in the air, and be sure that perspective was right as you looked up at a piece of art. Think about the last you were at a museum – typical the pictures are hung in such a way that you can look directly at the work of art at eye level, and the artist is painting with that in mind. Now, Michelangelo is painting with the impression that viewers will be looking up and from a distance. Because of this, perspective and scale become essential. This is a remarkable feat and accomplishment for Michelangelo.

In our careers, the lesson is that perspective matters. We operate and work in complex environments – we try to understand and see things in new ways. Although a lot of the answers we want to know are difficult, maybe impossible to answer – we need to focus on the basic skills of reflecting listening and learning how to spot our own weaknesses. This process is essential for both professional growth, but also contributes to your role in creating a healthy and vibrant organization.

3 – Leverage Your Resources

With Michelangelo, he was obsessive with his work, and settled for nothing less of perfection. Painting the Sistine Chapel aged Michelangelo considerably, from not only the physical stress of the work, but also mentality, in his quest for perfection. In his own words: “After four tortured years, more than 400 over life-sized figures, I felt as old and as weary as Jeremiah. I was only 37, yet friends did not recognize the old man I had become.”

Most of us are not given the artistic freedoms and licenses as Michelangelo was. We operate in very different environments. The challenge starts to become knowing how to be efficient, maximize your time and leveraging all your available resources. Many of us are perfectionists, just like Michelangelo, but we operate under deadlines, due dates and demands.

There are many lessons we can learn from Michelangelo, and we could extend many of them into the workplace. Above all, the lesson is to challenge yourself to see the world from different perspectives, using that insights as a way to drive your agency closer towards meeting your mission goals.

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