That one in the Sistine Chapel, obviously – the Volta della Cappella Sistina.
The Sistine Chapel was completed in 1480 during the papacy of Sixtus IV (Francesco della Rovere), after a three-year construction. The chapel is named after Sixtus, whose papal name is Sisto in Italian.
But the thing that makes the Chapel famous (artistically, culturally, historically) is principally its decoration by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. Michelangelo (1475-1564) was not the only artist who painted in the Chapel, but his work – the ceiling and his “The Last Judgment” painted behind the altar – dominates the space.
Seeing is believing, but when you see it, when you stand in that great space and look up at the ceiling, you almost can’t believe it. When Goethe visited Rome in the 1780s, he wrote, “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”
Michelangelo was primarily a sculptor (“David,” “Pietà,” “Moses”) – maybe the best who ever worked in marble – and he was reluctant to take on the commission from Pope Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere). In fact, he thought – and it may have been true – that some of his rivals had promoted him for the Sistine Chapel work in hopes he would fail, because working on so vast and difficult a project in a medium that was not his forte might well become a fool’s errand.
It’s important to note that, although the ceiling and wall above the altar were Michelangelo’s, the rest of the walls of the Chapel are decorated with frescos by other great painters of the era: Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Rosselli, Signorelli, and others.
It took Michelangelo longer to paint his frescos than it had taken to build the Chapel itself; he began the ceiling at 34, and returned a quarter-century later to spend five years on “The Last Judgment,” which he completed in 1541 at the age of 66. (He died at 88.) It’s fitting that in THE major motion picture about the process, 1965’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (based upon Irving Stone’s novel), an irritated Pope Julius (Rex Harrison) keeps walking into the Chapel to call up to Michelangelo (Charlton Heston), “When will you finish?!”
Mr. Stone also wrote biographical novels about John and Abigail Adams, Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud, Jack London, and, most famously (possibly excepting The Agony and the Ecstasy) Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life.
Stone was a passionate researcher. For his novel about van Gogh, he pored over the letters between Vincent and his brother Theo and befriended Felix Rey, the doctor who treated Vincent after he’d cut off his own ear. For The Agony and the Ecstasy, Stone lived in Italy and worked in a marble quarry, and “apprenticed” to a sculptor. He and his wife Jean also edited Michelangelo’s letters into a kind of “autobiography,” called I, Michelangelo.
The film version of Lust for Life (1956) is very fine and features one of Kirk Douglas’s finest performances. The same cannot be said, I’m afraid, for The Agony and the Ecstasy, which is surprising, given that its director was the great Carol Reed, whose The Third Man (1949) is among the highlights of 20th-century filmmaking.
Remarkable (to me anyway) is the fact that the famous “God Creates Adam” image is not dead center on the ceiling. “God Creates Eve” is, flanked by “Adam” and by “The Fall of Man.”
In that most copied and parodied of all images in history, God reaches out to Adam, who is reaching out to God, and you can almost feel the creative energy about to spark in a lightning arc between them. And the face of Adam is very much like the face of Christ in “The Last Judgment.” Full circle: Creation, Fall, and Redemption.
As St. John Henry Newman wrote (“The Dream of Gerontius”):
O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight
And to the rescue came.
Or as Paul writes (1 Corinthians 15:45): “Thus it is written [Genesis 2:7], ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”
The first papal conclave held in the Chapel was in 1492. Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borja) was chosen. A second, three conclaves on, was held there in 1513 (Leo X, born Giovanni de’ Medici ) and was the first in which the cardinal electors gathered beneath Michelangelo’s ceiling. Then there was a gap of more than thirty conclaves (and 365 years) before the Chapel became the (so far) permanent site for electing each Pontiff.
Art historian Elizabeth Lev told Marco della Cava in 2013: “Those walls tell the cardinals their decision isn’t only for right here and now, but for the larger mission of, as Cardinal (Timothy) Dolan put it to me, getting souls into heaven.”
Art itself cannot save us, but it can inspire the sort of longing that leads one to God. I should know. I was in the Sistine chapel at the end of my third year in college. For a Methodist kid from the Midwest, the sight of Michelangelo’s work (and much else I saw in churches, cathedrals, and basilicas in Paris, Vienna, Frankfurt, and Florence) were seeds falling on fertile soil. Five years would pass before I entered the Roman Catholic Church as a communicant, but enter I did, and – to an extent – it all led to me later “entering” The Catholic Thing, where, as Robert Royal has written, we celebrate “the richest cultural tradition in the world,” which has inspired “some of the greatest art, music, and architecture, while offering unparalleled human solidarity to millions through hospitals, soup kitchens, schools, universities, and disaster relief.”
I’ve been Senior Editor of this site practically from the beginning, and Bob likes to joke that I’m also Art Director. What a joy to be professionally associated with Fra Angelico, da Vinci, Raphael, Caravaggio, Rubens, Vermeer, Tissot, Dalì, Carlin, Janknegt, Reid, and, of course, Michelangelo.
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