The Truth(?) About the Sistine Chapel

Late last year I accomplished a goal I had set for myself back in high school, a very long time ago, nearly ancient history. At that time I read Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy and was completely transported and green with envy over Michelangelo’s epitomal, utterly heroic creativity, in particular that archetypal artistic monument, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel... I vowed to involve myself in such utterly selfless, all-absorbing projects and aspired toward creating such masterworks in the process. What else, I thought, was there to live for? I also aspired toward that Jerusalem, that Mecca of exquisite, accomplished perfection.

Perhaps I devoted the subsequent portion of my existence, until now, preparing myself for the encounter with that annex to the papal chambers. I thought of Cavafy’s poem about preparing to go to Ithaca. I thought also of Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” (since I felt young still), Blake’s poem “Jerusalem,” an artistic rendition of book 23 of the Odyssey, E.M. Forster’s essay “Getting Ready for a Cow” – to wit, every sort of anticipation of life’s positive epitomes I could think of.

I was heading for a large fall, you might say, and was surprised, in fact, that you walk down a flight of stairs, not up, to get there, if you’re heading away from the Vatican Museum and not, for instance, the Pope walking out of your apartment to help the College of Cardinals elect his successor. But that day, at the Vatican Museum, we were given a long and suspenseful buildup, as if the too-many years of my existence both physical and artistic weren’t enough.

I wanted to go bounding right to the Sistine Chapel but that was out of the question. We had to tour our rationed (minute) fraction of the museum first (which spans 44 acres actually), the gallery of the (Flemish) tapestries, 3,000 geometrically arranged layered stitches of silk thread per square inch, impressive in itself, and a history of Flemish villages that existed for no other reason than to create these gigantic wall hangings – the craft to offset the art we were about to witness.

We had also consumed a long lecture outside the museum in the freezing cold while we stood being reminded of our utter insignificance in the face of such grandeur by the large, condescending posters explaining the chapel ceiling in very basic, lay terms. Other groups of tourists received similar lectures opposite similar posters throughout the courtyard.

You have to know that by the time we actually walked into the chapel at perhaps the most uncrowded time of the year (which is to say that there were a few square inches of breathing space between you and the next person instead of the sardine effect most people complain about), I had already given up, having been more than sapped out by overpreparation, having been more than distracted by lesser accomplishments like those of the Flemish and all the glossy art books people were trying to sell us down the long expanse of what I thought was the final corridor but turned out not to be, since we were herded through another airy, sumptuously high-ceiling gallery after that, the Stanza della Segnatura (Raphaels!). I was more than distracted by those exquisitely wrought ceilings that looked like low relief but weren’t – the illusion was so skillful. And a good thing. The guide, Ludovica, as proud of her blatantly peroxided waist-length blond hair as any natural blond ever had been, an artistic prerogative I guess, had led us through this excessive overture and now warned us not to look up at the chapel until we reached the other side and could thus experience it the way countless generations of popes had since the sixteenth century.

Other mythologies quickly occurred to me: Pandora, Lot’s wife, Tiresias: people who violated divine commandments and suffered the consequences and in the process inconvenienced others dreadfully. I decided that option was far more interesting than trying to project myself into a guise I could not remotely relate to – especially considering what utter hypocrites have occupied that office. I had been scandalized by Ludovica’s revelation that morning that all those infinite acres of priceless treasure had not even been open to the public (and clearly they wanted to remind us what chattel we were, even that day) until very recently: many sometime this century.

So I looked up the minute we entered the chapel – I had waited long enough, you understand (women my age are not supposed to give away their age, but I am old enough to be mother to many). I looked up and around and thought, big deal – St. Peter’s Basilica upstairs was far more impressive.

I was immediately grasped by the surprisingly dominant colors bright red and turquoise, which I associate with the American West and Native American art. That in itself was startling. For some reason, I had never known these colors predominated or else I expected archetypically religious hues (and this myth, incidentally, had already been shattered by what I had witnessed earlier in the day: the Pietà surrounded by pastel pinks and greens instead of the achingly reverent (and stereotypical) primary blue velvet we witnessed at the New York World’s Fair in the Vatican pavilion in 1965.

Pink and green? I asked Ludovica quizzically. She said that certainly Michelangelo had not selected that backdrop but allowed it in his later life – something like that. I found my eye-shattering blue surrounding the first crucifix ever used to express religious reverence rather than Christ’s mutilation, and that was in Ravenna, later in the trip, in the mosaic of the Good Shepherd (6th c.) at the Basilica of St. Apollinare. And the more I stared at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the more the actually predominating hues asserted themselves: red, brown, green, and white actually, colors that invoke sanity and stability.

The Sistine Chapel! How can I allow this Wonder of the World such short shrift? What kind of ignorance am I expressing? Overpreparation at the emotional level. Ezra Pound wrote a wonderful poem about that, set in early-twentieth-century, overcast London, however.

I allowed myself to look around, even though someone next to me was photographing, breaking rules I thought were sacrosanct because of the milieu. I used my binoculars (what preparation!) to no avail. They revealed nothing. I wanted to be on scaffolding, the way the artist had been, in order to experience the chapel appropriately (I am nearsighted and astigmatic and that may be some of the problem!).

But the center portrait saved me and structured the positive conclusion to my impressions. A print of it now hangs framed in my apartment, and I gaze at it often, trying to understand all its implications: God’s hand reaching out toward Adam’s, an aspect of the first act of creation appropriately referred to as “The Creation.” That hand has more life than the hands of the David, whose power gripped me in every way except that I found the veins inaccurately portrayed (to my mind), and that is a place I looked for photographic reality, based on everything Irving Stone led me to believe about the statue. But God’s hand, painted rather than sculpted, had the life David’s three-dimensional ones had less of, perhaps because one was the hand of the Creator achieving a monumental work (energizing his creation, I am told), the others the created and of a fighter and muscleman poised for action, violent action, the hand successfully energized. The irony was that Michelangelo was a sculptor by trade and the chapel showcased an art form he considered a secondary skill at best. Go figure. I wonder also whether the very de-emphasis on color in that center panel also arrested me – perhaps I was thrown into confusion by that surprise aspect and the consequent divinity of the soothing browns.

We received another lecture on the spot that rather salted the negative side of this pivotal encounter: it seems a large explosion in the early 1990s destroyed a portion of one of the outside panels, close to the papal entrance. The guide pointed out a small, blank portion of the ceiling I hadn’t noticed or assumed was part of the total scheme I had to read more about. She said that the exquisite artistry (part of the first panel Michelangelo worked on, the “Drunkenness of Noah,” specifically one of the 20 or so ingnudi [young male angels, many of them androgynous] and the top part of a tree in the adjacent “Flood” panel) turned into a pile of colorful dust on the floor that someone just swept up and threw out. Quite soon after that event, a computerized program was developed that could have restored the destroyed portion of the ceiling – because another lesser work of art in Italy had been similarly destroyed and restored.

There I stood, on what was to be an epitomal day of my life, wanting to murder people for their ignorance – but according to that logic we should canonize the British for absconding with the Elgin Marbles, I suppose. Is the story of Tantalus actually most appropriate – was I close to the fountain of complete enlightenment but barred by my own forms of blindness from experiencing it appropriately? I think my own classicism was another problem – I simply preferred other art forms and artistic achievements and had already experienced them and was asking too much from a certainly comparable accomplishment that I should have experienced as that wide-eyed high school student rather than half a century later (or thereabouts). Not only was this event overprepared but rather upstaged years ago by other preoccupations I had acquired since my teenage years.

And yet nothing can interfere with that portrait of God’s creativity, if we can be so brash as to call the human race His greatest achievement, which I am inclined to doubt. Our utter miraculousness almost guarantees that He could do better and somewhere has, in ways we will never begin to comprehend. Be that as it may. That hand, its contrast with the lesser human one it reaches out to and the energy of that space between the two (which I compared to the powerful silences in a masterful piece of music like Beethhoven’s Ninth Symphony), the soothing browns which I have for so long (mistakenly) associated with classical monuments (which also betray, in reality, traces of the garish primary colors the Sistine Chapel is guilty of), the life so accurately portrayed in this sublime deception we call art, might also be called the radius of my own consciousness materialized – who knows? A very viable possible rendering of that anyway.

God’s gift to us, after all, is art and creation. We are imitating Him whenever we create life or art. Das hand ist alles? It is, actually, the Ultimate Artist’s hand at work. In his Last Judgment that occupies the front part of the chapel, Michelangelo shyly added a self-portrait (“alleged” self portrait, from what I have subsequently read), his face on the flayed skin of the martyred St. Bartholomew, obscured in the huge herd of blessed souls being judged. But his real self-portrait, self-tribute, is that hand, epitomizing the artist’s achievement potential and his achievement realized- this, after all, a creation of his relative youth, as opposed to the former, a product of his later life (the artist aged and martyred?); and in the twentieth century Escher most notoriously paid tribute to that model, adding the artist’s hand to his work, human this time. Michelangelo had a more grandiose self-image, and with good reason. Or perhaps he was giving all the credit to God working through his humble hand – there is such a mix of classicism and Christianity in that chapel and throughout Italy that perhaps the hand is both narcissistic and reverent and the obscure, actual self-portrait, so camouflaged, so anguished, betrays this ambiguity.

Another ambiguity that besets me is how such exquisite portals of human achievement occur only under such extreme pressures and sacrifices of every description: be it Michelangelo’s athletic, four-year marathon balanced precariously and painfully on that scaffolding or those Flemish peasants spending their whole lives weaving in complete subjugation and anonymity or the Celtic bards who created such exquisitely wrought poetry at the price of totally constricted and painfully disciplined lifestyles.

Civilization owes these people an enormous debt—the nameless as well as the immortal. It was the dictum of the Greek god Zeus, or at least first verbalized by the ancient Greeks, that wisdom evolves only through suffering (“drasanti pathein”); great art seems to follow the same pattern—those structures, anyway, that have most influenced our civilization and consciousness—the ultimate forms we always turn to for inspiration and as exemplars that define the limitless ambitions of Western, classically rooted, Judeo-Christian culture.