ROME, Italy - It’s not an exaggeration to say that a visit to the Sistine Chapel is a moving experience. Of all the museums at the Vatican, it is the most popular. About 25,000 people a day, five million people a year, visit the Chapel.
First time visitors may be a little surprised by its size. It’s comparatively small, but when you look up for your first glimpse of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, all thoughts of size are forgotten.
At first, all you see is a jumble of color, after all the famous ceiling is 60 feet above your head. But then, after a second or two, the images start to come into focus. What you are looking at is 1,200 square feet of more than 300 individual figures, and over 150 separate pictorial works that come together to tell a story.
The chapel was originally called the Cappella Magna, and was renamed Cappella Sistina in 1480 after Pope Sixtus IV had it restored. In 1482, the Pope called together a team of Renaissance painters, including Sandro Botticelli, to create a series of frescos showing the Life of Moses and the Life of Christ. Above the frescoes they painted a set of papal portraits, and the ceiling was painted a brilliant blue, with a sprinkling of yellow stars.
Twenty-four years later, when there was a new pope, Julius lI, the ceiling cracked. Julius had it repaired, but then he decided to have it repainted, and he chose Michelangelo for the job. The Pope wanted to do away with the blue ceiling with yellow stars, and decorate it with the figures of the 12 apostles. In the middle section he wanted a design. He didn’t know what that design would be, however, he was sure he would figure it out by the time Michelangelo finished working on the apostles.
Michelangelo was furious. He was furious at being summoned, furious because he was a sculptor, not a painter and furious with the Pope’s suggestion to paint 12 apostles. It was a pathetic choice, he said, dull, ordinary and above all unworthy of the space.
In the end he knew he couldn’t turn down God’s representative on earth, after all it was the Pope’s private chapel, but he could insist on deciding what he would paint. He chose the Old Testament as his theme, and divided the space into sections. He planned to begin with three panels on the Creation.
This was a risky choice because it meant painting the figure of God. No one had ever dared to paint God before, He had always been shown as a hand reaching through the clouds. As God has neither form or gender nor age, it was impossible to imagine how the artist was going to do this. It is also impossible to know how the he decided on the image of God, but it was Michelangelo who decided that God would have a muscular figure, long white hair and a white beard.
The artist knew he couldn’t show six full days of the Creation in three images, so he decided it was better to show the great events and leave the part about the fish, birds and animals to the viewer’s imagination. As he had to paint the story backwards, he began with God bringing order out of chaos, separating light from darkness
|God Reaching Out to Adam|
In the last image, he shows the first stages of creation: God separating the seas from the earth, and land from the sky, preparing the world for its final purpose, the creation of man. As God reaches out one life-giving finger to Adam, who is still half asleep, slowly lifts one drooping finger. It is enough. He will soon become fully alive both in mind and spirit.
It had taken Michelangelo four years to complete the ceiling and he thought his work was finished. But in 1535, a full 25 years later, much to his surprise, a new Pope, Pope Clement VII summoned him to return to the Sistine Chapel. He couldn’t imagine why.
Michelangelo was sixty years old, suffering with arthritis and not anxious to spend his last years clinging to a scaffold 50 feet in the air. The story that he had painted the ceiling of the Chapel lying down was simply a myth, but there was no denying the fact that it had been hard work. It turned out what the Pope wanted was for him to paint the Resurrection above the altar of the Chapel.
The trouble was that there already were frescoes behind the altar, and Michelangelo did not want to disturb them. He tried to negotiate his way out of the project, but history repeated itself as it often does, and in the end he gave in. As before, he did insist that the Pope agree to let him paint what he wanted in that space, and he wanted the Last Judgment.
It took five and a half years to complete the Last Judgment, but when a tired, and work weary Michelangelo stepped away for the last time, what he saw is what we see today, a Sistine Chapel transformed, a masterpiece that will live forever.
Copyright © 2016, Phyllis Macchioni
Photos: Holy See Press Office
Photos: Holy See Press Office