Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel: Celebrating Five Hundred Years of the Greatest Vision of Hope
Sprawled across the east wing that stretches from the papal residence to the Vatican Museums is an inscription commemorating one of Pope Julius II’s most important contributions to the complex now known as the Apostolic Palace: IULIUS II PONT MAX LIGURUM VI PATRIA SAONENSIS SIXTI IIII NEPOS VIAM HANC STRUXIT PONT COMMODITATI. The text is ambiguous in that “VI” may signify the ablative case of the word vis meaning power or strength, or it may stand for the Roman numeral “6.” If the former, it indicates that Julius was the sixth pope from Liguria, the others being Innocent IV (1243-1254), Hadrian V (1276), Nicholas V (1447–1455), Sixtus IV (1471–1484), and Innocent VIII (1484–1492). If the latter, it refers to the indomitable Ligurian spirit that put Julius on the throne of Peter.
In either case, Giuliano della Rovere, as he was known before his election to the papacy, had reason to boast. He had risen quickly through the ecclesial ranks thanks to the nepotistic machinations of his uncle Pope Sixtus IV. Sixtus made Giuliano a Cardinal at the age of twenty-eight, which seems rather young until one considers that his successor Leo X was half that age when appointed to the elite college of papal electors. Both emerged as patrons of Michelangelo, but it was Julius who would forever be recognized as the commissioner of the greatest work in Western art, the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Julius seemed an unlikely candidate for such a claim. His interest in art was confined to purposes of self-aggrandizement. His successor Pope Leo X, a Florentine Medici, had a more discerning eye and a refined taste. The graceful lines of Raphael’s loggia reflect his spirit no less than the Sistine Chapel reflects that of Julius. Michelangelo also appreciated Raphael’s talent and insisted that he be the one to undertake the Sistine Chapel so that he could dedicate himself to his preferred medium of sculpture. Whether or not it was Bramante who finally persuaded Julius to offer the commission to Michelangelo precisely in order to distract him from sculpting and set him up for a miserable failure is an open question. Thankfully, Michelangelo did accept the commission and left a breathtaking spectacle to which no price can be attached.
Last Wednesday, during vespers on the eve of All Saints’ Day, Pope Benedict XVI commemorated the five-hundredth anniversary of Michelangelo’s frescoed ceiling. He recalled the sacred purpose of the chapel as it continues to be used for liturgical celebrations, most notably on the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism. Benedict noted how the twisted torsos and furrowed brows come alive during the liturgy, as if they are acting out the drama occurring on the altar. “When the Sistine Chapel is contemplated in prayer,” he noted, “it is even more beautiful, more authentic, and it reveals all its hidden riches.”
How true those words are. There is good reason to keep the chapel open to the public as an integral (though not only) stop during a visit to the Vatican Museums, and on Wednesday director Antonio Paolucci reiterated his plans to do so. But few have the opportunity to witness the chapel “come alive” during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. There is hardly a passage in sacred scripture not reflected on the walls or ceiling. As the reading from the twelfth chapter of Hebrews was proclaimed on Wednesday evening, the eyes of everyone, including the pope, were scanning the chapel to locate the corresponding scenes. Our eyes fell nowhere on the ceiling, which was the object of the celebration, but on the Last Judgment, which Michelangelo painted a quarter of a century later, between 1536 and 1541: the “myriads of angels” concentrated in the center cluster of celestial musicians blowing their tubae mirae, the “spirits and saints who have been made perfect” rising from their graves and ascending to the “supreme Judge” who enacts Final Judgment on the world. As the lector recited the final verse which refers to the “sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than the blood of Abel,” the eyes of all peered more intently on a detail of the Christ figure rediscovered during the delicate restoration during the eighties.
For centuries, the meaning of Christ’s gesture was hardly ever questioned. He presumably sat poised to cast the damned into hell with his menacing right hand, looking down on them as they waited to cross the river Styx, his left arm thrust out stiffly to block anyone attempting an end-around into paradise.
Yet there is a problem with this interpretation. If you look closely at Christ, you notice that the musculature of his right art, patterned after the Laocoön, is portrayed in a pulling, not a pushing, motion. Was not the Trojan priest struggling to free himself of the serpent’s coils? Moreover, Christ’s abdomen betrays an expanding rather than a contracting motion, which comes as no surprise if we take into account its unmistakable resemblance to the Belvedere Torso. All of this suggests that Christ is drawing his right hand upwards rather than casting it downwards. But the key to this alternative interpretation lies in Christ’s left hand which rests as a point of calm precisely at the center of the chaotic circle swirling around him and his mother. At the center of the vortex is the open wound in Christ’s side to which he is pointing with his left index finger. Out of that opened wound flowed the blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel, as proclaimed in the Letter to the Hebrews. Without diminishing the overpowering physique and the gravity of the moment of judgment, Jesus manifests to the world the origin of God’s mercy, the stigma in his side that mysteriously gives meaning to pain, suffering, and death itself.
Sadly, no one in the lower right-hand corner seems to notice. Some shield their eyes, stubbornly rejecting the invitation to accept this source of redemption. The most haunting figure is the one tugged by demons and situated just below and to the right of Saint Bartholomew who holds his flayed skin. The late Leo Steinberg called this figure “Michelangelo’s gruesomest image of man rejected.” It is the only figure looking out directly at the viewer. To return his gaze is to look into the depths of sheer anxiety. In this quasi self-portrait, a tortured Michelangelo assumes the role of someone who has gained the world but forfeited himself (cf. Luke 9:25). The blank stare peeking out through one eye is both a futile plea for help and an earnest admonition to reform our lives while there is still time.
There is, however, one pair of eyes that is transfixed on Christ’s opened side. Thomas, standing to the right of Peter, gapes at the wound that demonstrated to him that the Master had risen, leading him to make a profession of faith. The Apostle is no less amazed now as he was then. Michelangelo depicts this sign of Jesus’ life as the truth no one can deny on the Day of Judgment, though for years it had been covered by smoke and soot rising from the candles and thurible below.
The foregoing interpretation is not definitive, though it is corroborated by the entire chapel scheme. Everything, including the side panels painted fifty years earlier, points to how the new is foreshadowed by the old and the old fulfilled in the new. The promises of God triumph over the foibles of men. Suffering is transformed into glory. The symbolism intensifies as we get closer to the main altar and the Last Judgment depicted above it. The death of Haman, the bronze serpent, the prophet Jonah, the instruments of the passion: are all placed near the front of the chapel underlining their inextricable connection with Christ’s death and the resurrection as prototype and fulfillment. The wound in Christ’s side, originally intended as a confirmation of death (cf. John 19:33-34), has now become an affirmation of life. It is the consummation and meaning of every other figure and event depicted in the chapel, including the creation panels on the ceiling.
Vasari touted them as the most brilliant moment in the history of painting. Pope Benedict borrowed the metaphor, applying it as much to the meaning of the images as the images themselves. The light of God, explained Benedict, triumphs over darkness and chaos to impart life, both in creation and in redemption. The Sistine Chapel recounts the story of liberation, salvation, and the relationship between God and the human race. It conveys the message of the prophets and sibyls who foretold Christ as the origin and end of all things. Michelangelo depicts the Creator as frenetically active to remind us that the world did not come about as a result of chance but by an intelligent, free, and supreme act of love. “When God’s finger reaches out to man’s we feel contact between heaven and earth; through Adam, God inaugurates a new relationship with his creation: man is in direct contact with God, called by Him, existing as His image and likeness.”
This contact between heaven and earth displayed in the Sistine Chapel was never more palpable than the day I had the honor to host Neeme Järvi, his charming wife Liilia, and the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt at the Apostolic Palace. Maestros Järvi and Pärt were enjoying a brief respite before delving into a second round of rehearsals prior to a performance of Pärt’s “Cecilia, vergine romana” for Pope Benedict. They were evidently enjoying the experience, but they had not detached themselves from the musical material to be rehearsed that afternoon. Every once in a while one would wander off, lost in the images while humming some problematic passage. As we approached the sanctuary at the base of the Last Judgment, Pärt’s eyes flashed suddenly as he stood motionless in front of the ensemble of angels blowing their horns. Not wishing to disturb him, I went on explaining to Neeme and Liilia the process of electing a new pope. Pärt somehow managed to shuffle back over to us without peeling his eyes from the wall. He then began to articulate to Järvi the percussive rhythm of a line the horns had been rehearsing that morning with little success. Pärt had “heard” the sound he wanted in Michelangelo’s fresco. The angels imparted a visual clue that made it possible for him to explain to Neeme how the line should sound. Tucking themselves in a corner and singing the passage to one another, they occasionally stole a glance at the angels on the wall to make sure they had it right. In the meantime, I did my best to prevent the guard from throwing them out for making too much noise. This “pre-rehearsal” lasted no more than ten minutes and ended up being the turning point to a successful performance that evening. Heaven and earth met when the blast of angelic horns entered the soul of Pärt: not through his ears but his eyes.
Julius’s uncle could hardly have imagined that the chapel built on the remains of Nicholas V’s Cappella Magna would be capable of such synesthetic inspiration. Yet anybody who looks long and hard enough will probably have a similar experience. Nevertheless, an experience like Pärt’s is reserved for those who enter the place as it was intended: as a space for prayer. One neither need be Christian nor religious to catch a spark of the divine in that mass of twisted bodies and expressive faces that fills the chapel. After a half hour or so, most atheists I guide through the chapel grow uncomfortable with the idea that Michelangelo’s images are nothing more than a glorification of the human body. This extraordinary genius was not only endowed with a soul attuned to spiritual realities, but a mind soaked in theological subtleties. No amount of time spent in anatomical studies at Santo Spirito could prepare him to paint like this, but only a drive to make his inward vision visible; perhaps the only drive in Rome that rivaled Julius’s vision to immortalize himself.
People like Pärt bring home the shallowness of those who criticize the Sistine Chapel and religious art in general as a waste of time and money. In a widely publicized debate on the BBC dedicated to the question “would we be better off without religion?”, Cambridge Professor Nigel Spivey responded to a question from a young man who wondered whether the “slaughtered millions all over the world in the name of faith were better off with the Sistine Chapel and some pretty paintings.” Professor Spivey calmly explained that “the Sistine Chapel is one of those things that show humanity at its best and religious conflict one of the things that shows humanity at its worst.”
Perhaps by showing humanity at its best Michelangelo has enabled us to make a little sense out of an otherwise senseless storm.