Sunday, June 26, 2022

Michelangelo’s Contribution to the Sistine Chapel

I have been fascinated with the Sistene Chapel since I was 11 years old. I had been sent to camp in Villars, Switzerland and I was desperate to escape. When my parents came to visit on a several city tour in Europe with my grandmother I decided to “run away” so I walked to their hotel declaring that I would not go back. Many parents would have said “tough, you are going back”. But my parents said I could come with them. Don’t know whether that was the right thing for a parent to say, but it turned out to be great for me. Traveling with them I got to visit places it might have taken me another decade or two to see.

One of the most impressive of those sites was the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, in Rome. I still remember being told to lie on my back in one of the pews and take in Michelangelo’s awe-inspiring ceiling. When I did get back as an adult the chapel was much more crowded and not at all peaceful as a chapel should be. While it was still inspiring, I had to concentrate to block out all the voices. Today, 20,000 people visit the Chapel everyday!

The Sistine Chapel was named after Pope Sixtus IV, born Francesco della Rovere (1414-1484). He built the Chapel, on the foundation of the Capella Magna, between 1473 and 1481. It remains the private chapel of the Pope and the place where Papal conclaves choose a new Pope.

Today it is best known for its art with its frescos covering 11,840 square feet. The famous artists of the time including Sandro Botticelli, Pierrot Perugino and Domenico Ghirlandaio worked on the paintings on the side walls but the cieiling remained blue with scattered stars until Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo (1475-1564) to paint it in 1508. Believing his forte was as a sculptor and occupied with the tomb of Pope Julius II, Michelangelo turned down the offer. At the Pope’s insistence, however, he agreed, but it took him 4 years to complete the program of episodes from the Old Testament.

Though we always think that Michelangelo painted on his own, he did have assistants. There were those who worked on preparing plaster or mixing pigments and those that painted the architectural elements, a subspecialty of painters at the time. But the main subjects on the ceiling were his alone.

In an online entry for “Private Guides to Rome” I was reminded that Michelangelo built his own scaffold and did not lie on it as has often been said but stood as he painted. Until this time God was usually represented with a hand pointing down through the clouds but in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam one finds the first representation of God as a muscular body and face with a long white beard like the Greek god Jupiter.

In the same entry, I found this paragraph which I take with a grain of salt. But I do like the concept, “In 1990, Dr. Frank Lynn Meshberger wrote in the journal of the North American Medical Association that the figures and shadows depicted behind the garments of God and the angels appeared as a fair representation of the human brain. In his view, this would have been Michelangelo's way of symbolizing the passage of the intelligence from God to a human being.”

At the behest of Pope Clement VII Michelangelo returned in 1535 to paint the Last Judgemnt. He covered the entire wall behind the altar with the Second Coming of Christ and the final and eternal judgment of all humanity completing it in 1541. Just like today, no good deed goes unpunished, after Michelangelo accomplished this major feat, they started to go after him. Cardinal Gian Pietro Carafa said the naked figures were immoral and obscene. He and others launched the “Fig Leaf Campaign” to remove the fresco. Later in the century the artist Daniele da Volterra covered up the genitals.

Photo by Francisco Anzola

It can take a lifetime to read everything about the Sistine Chapel and the various interpretations of its contents. Many books, both fiction and non-fiction, have been written about it, and its restoration 1984-1994 was the subject of heated international controversy. If you are curious there is much to be learned but it all starts with being there, at least it did for an 11 year-old boy.

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