My Agony and Ecstasy of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

Wednesday October 31st marked the 500th anniversary of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel.  Pope Benedict XVI marked the occasion, but the commemoration was surprisingly low key considering its place in art history and its millions of visitors each year.

You can go back and forth as to whether the ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel in Rome or the statue of David in Florence should be considered Michelangelo’s true masterpiece.  With so many incredible works over the course of his lifetime (the Pieta, The Last Judgement, Moses) it’s difficult to even narrow it down to those two.  The scope and vibrancy of the Sistine Chapel ceiling is unparalleled, almost making you forget Michelangelo’s imposing fresco The Last Judgement is in the same room.  David is perfection in stone.  Each work took several years to complete.  I’ve seen both in person and stood in awe of them, soaking in each detail and oblivious to the tourists around me as I stared into the eyes of the Delphic Sibyl in the frescoes and saw pure white Carrara marble come to life in David’s gaze.  But in my opinion the designation of Michelangelo’s true masterpiece falls on the Sistine Chapel for two reasons: first, when you say Michelangelo’s name most people will automatically think of the Sistine Chapel, and second because of the fact that Michelangelo was first and foremost a sculptor, which makes his painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (even with assistants) even more of a marvel.

This post is a bit off of my beaten path of film and comic books, but I had to write it because my passion for art has its roots in my exposure to Michelangelo’s work at a young age.  Around 1979 my parents bought a coffee table book on his works which coincidentally was also around the time I first picked up a pencil to draw on a consistent basis.  That book, simply titled Michelangelo, is still part of my collection, and over the years I’ve picked it up many times when I needed a burst of inspiration before taking on a drawing or attempting at painting.  Years ago when I tried to teach myself oil painting my first subject was a copy of God and Adam’s hands from The Creation of Adam.  I failed miserably, and even though my final painting looks like more of a murky preliminary sketch, it goes to show the level of ambition I had at the time to learn the technique of oil painting.  To this day I regret not sticking with it.

Oil painting on canvas is difficult enough, but the fresco technique Michelangelo utilized on the Sistine Chapel ceiling combines skill, technique and science.  Each day’s work, the giornata, was dictated by how much he and his assistants could paint on a patch of wet plaster before it dried.  Unlike Leonardo’s The Last Supper, which was painted directly on a dry wall (the reason for the flaking that led to the painting’s deterioration over time), the paints used by Michelangelo (colored powders mixed with egg yolk, a technique called egg tempera) were applied directly on the wet plaster.  Once dry, the pigments were part of a permanent bond to the wall, not simply a layer of paint over it.

Back in January of 1992 my family had taken a trip to Italy, spending several days in Rome.  It was an amazing time, but it began my elusive thirteen year journey to see the restored Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The Sistine Chapel restoration was completed in 1991, and our January 1992 trip would have been my first opportunity to see the restored ceiling in all its newly vibrant glory.  I had seen pictures of the restored frescoes in a magazine article that previous fall and couldn’t believe how intense the colors were after over 475 years of dirt were removed.  Before the restoration was taken on, few people would have imagined the variation of color in Michelangelo’s palette.  Looking at pictures of the frescoes prior to the restoration I thought his palette was limited to darker browns, reds and yellows.  I never would have imagined the bright blues, oranges and purples.  Even the film The Agony and the Ecstasy represented the frescoes with more toned down colors.  Prior to its restoration the Sistine Chapel was a marvel of painting by one of the greatest artists mankind has ever produced, a man that didn’t even consider himself a painter, making it an incredible achievement in its own right.  But when the restoration was complete, it was even more awe inspiring.  Each of the subjects, from God to Adam to the prophets to the sibyls were alive.

On the first day of our 1992 trip we almost went to the Sistine Chapel.  The restoration of the frescoes had recently been completed and had been opened to the public, but for some inexplicable reason we decided against going that day even though our hotel was only two blocks down from Vatican (I couldn’t imagine a better reminder that we were in Rome each morning as we stepped out of that hotel!).  Our weekend included the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Pantheon and Castel Sant’ Angelo.  On our last day we decided to finally check out the Sistine Chapel only to find out the Vatican Museum in which it is located was closed that day.  I wasn’t too disappointed at the time because I figured I’d be back in Rome sooner or later and would eventually see it.  But each subsequent trip to Rome was met with another missed opportunity, disappointment, regret for that first missed opportunity, and the constant reminder of the sin I had committed: taking Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel for granted.

Visiting the chapel wasn’t in the cards for me during two subsequent trips over the next ten years, but prior to my 2005 trip I made it my mission to finally see the chapel.  I even brought a copy of Ross King’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling to read in advance of seeing it in person.  But on our first day in Rome we got to the Vatican museum only to find a mile long line to get in to the main entrance.  I actually videotaped that moment and provided a commentary about my frustration at being denied yet again to see what was at the top of my cultural/artistic bucket list.  There must have been 2,000 people on line at that moment, and all I could do was stare into my video camera and say “I’m never going to see the Sistine Chapel.”

However…

On the second and final day of that trip, I mentioned to the owner of our small hotel my regret at missing out on seeing the Sistine Chapel again.  “Don’t worry,” she said.  “The line is very deceiving and actually moves quickly.  You can be at the end of the line as it snakes toward the edge of St. Peter’s and you’ll still make it inside of the main entrance within 20 minutes.”

Shortly after that conversation, we were on line to get into the Vatican Museum.  Whatever we had planned for that morning was quickly scrapped so I wouldn’t lose out on this opportunity.  Sure enough, twenty minutes after we first got on line, we were through the main doors of the Vatican Museum.  We could have got in quicker without standing on line if we had been part of a tour group, but it didn’t matter because I was finally in the museum and there was no going back!

I can’t remember how long it took us to make our way through the maze that is the Vatican Museum, but when we finally made it through the doorway into the Sistine Chapel my first thought was how it was smaller than I had expected.  But then I looked up at the ceiling and thought “My God this is magnificent.”  I just looked up from one end of the ceiling to the next.  Each panel.  Each story it told.  Each face.  The tourists that filled the room didn’t quite understand the concept of “no photos,” and were occasionally shushed by one of the guard’s stern clap of hands and “SILENCIO!”  I respected both of these rules, hence the lack of photos in this post.  I actually didn’t need to take photos or videos.  It was such a profound experience for me that the memory alone will always allow me to relive the moment.

And after thirteen years I was finally in the Sistine Chapel.  So I found an empty seat on a bench, sat down, and looked up.

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