Sistine Chapel – Eternal Joy (Many times)

Sistine Chapel – Eternal Joy (Many times)

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IT was one of the hottest days in Europe this summer when I joined the serpentine queue along the outer wall of the Vatican to get a peek into the priceless treasures that make up the numerous Vatican Museums, of which the Sistine Chapel is the crowning glory. The queue itself was a microcosm of ethnicity, culture, religion, language and nationality. The three-hour penance under a merciless Italian sun is livened up by a babel of tongues and the antics of Ethiopian hawkers peddling excellent reproductions of fashion accessories of virtually all haute designers whose elegant studios line the avenue just across the road. Finally, when we were ushered into the hallowed portals of the Museum, it was no different from being in a Mumbai local train during peak hour. There was humanity milling all around, ahead, beside and behind me. I plodded on bravely, holding my camera aloft and clicking away blindly.

Superlatives are superfluous when describing Vatican Museums. From the minute you enter, you are enthralled by the parade of priceless treasures in marble, metal and stone; maps; tapestries; oils; and frescoes. The first object to greet you in the sprawling courtyard is the massive copper pine-cone, said to have been found in the baths of Agrippa. As you step inside the imposing gates, the rich imagery that seduced you out of picture postcards and the pages of coffee-table books suddenly comes alive and takes your breath away. The Vatican houses several museums and galleries – the Egyptian Museum, the Etruscan Museum, the Pius Clementine Museum, the Galleries of Statues, Busts, Maps, Tapestries, the Halls of Muses, Masks, Candelabras and so on, which contain exquisite antiques and art works accumulated by successive Popes since the beginning of the 15th century. It would take several days to take in everything even cursorily and I had to be focussed if I was to make the most of the short time I would get inside its precincts. So I let myself be jostled and pushed towards the most magnificent of them all, the Sistine Chapel, which hosts, on the death of a Pope, a ritualistic secret conclave of cardinals to elect a new Pope.

The name Sistine derives from Pope Sixtus IV who commissioned the construction of the chapel during A.D. 1475-81. Located just to the north of St. Peter’s Cathedral, the Sistine Chapel is a small chapel and was originally the Palatine chapel within the old Vatican fortress. It is 41 metres long, 20 m high and 13 m wide. Being inside the vaulted Sistine Chapel is like being inside a giant womb – cool, serene and throbbing with vitality. It is also an experience in inversion – the images around are the reality and you, the spectator, a mere illusion. Images of teeming humanity portrayed in its naked weaknesses and indestructible strengths and God with His ability to transform everything and accomplish anything come alive from its walls and ceiling to haunt you for weeks. It is truly a feast of frescoes – throbbing, alive, forceful, vital and exuding inexhaustible energy.

Michaelangelo’s creative genius engulfs and dominates the Sistine Chapel frescoes. Yet this boy from Arezzo in Tuscany, dotted with its marble hills, was foremost an architect and sculptor – the designer of the grand dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, the author of the exquisitely delicate Madonna with Christ that is the jewel of St. Peter’s, the carver of David, the 14-foot tall odessey in stone and the pride of Florence, the protagonist of an 800-page biography, a best-selling tome by Irving Stone. It was a rather reluctant Michaelangelo Buonarroti di Simoni that was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508 to embellish single-handedly the chapel roof, till then just a star-spangled blue expanse. From conception to execution, Sistine Chapel is an outstanding ode to what the power of one gifted and dedicated individual can achieve.

Michaelangelo created a universe on the expansive ceiling of Sistine Chapel to tell the story of Genesis – the dividing of the waters from the earth, God creating the sun and the moon, God creating Adam and Eve, expelling them from the Garden of Eden, the legend of Noah and the Deluge. The last one – the Deluge – took him 32 days of continuous labour, suspended on a scaffolding, with colours dripping on his body. The ceiling also supports images of seven prophets and five sibyls. Yet, it is Michaelangelo’s “Creation of Man” that has endured in the imagination of generations of art lovers and critics, the most photographed, the most easily recognised of the Sistine Chapel frescoes. The sense of vital energy flowing from a bearded God’s fingers into humanity through Adam is a stunning depiction of Creation – of elevating man from a supine, listless creature into one electrified by vitality, energy and immense power. The physical perfection of both God – with his muscles thrusting under his robes, his intent gaze and his flowing beard – and Adam, a picture of innocence, untainted by sin as yet, are so evocative. The outstretched fingers barely touch; one can almost see the spark that ignites mankind; the moment is suspended in eternity and conveys the effect of vital tension. The infusion of energy is almost palpable. Michaelangelo has superbly conveyed the concept of God being the source of all energy.

Thirty years after he had painted the roof, Michaelangelo returned to Sistine Chapel to complete the altar with another masterpiece, “Last Judgment”. Dominating the altar at one end of the long chapel vault, this 70-foot-high fresco is a monumental ode to Michaelangelo’s imaginative genius. The Dantesque grandeur of the theme is matched by Michaelangelo’s vivid portrayal of what awaits the wicked on the Day of Judgment. Christ is depicted as being stronger and greater than Zeus, Hercules, Atlas and Apollo. The mural depicts faithfully the predictions based on the apocalyptic sections of the Book of Matthew:

“When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels… And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. (Matt 25:31-34, 41, 46)”

In fact, “Last Judgment” is a recurring theme in the Christian scriptures, be it the New Testament where the second Parusia or the coming of Christ as Judge is an oft-repeated doctrine, or in the Old Testament – Joel (2:31), Ezekiel (13:5) and Isaiah (2:12). Even the Apostles preach a similar doctrine, also called Epiphany. It is believed that Michaelangelo’s conception of the “Last Judgment” was deeply influenced by the teachings of Fra Savonarola, a contemporary Dominican monk whose fiery sermons lashed out against decadence within the Church. It was also a period when the Counter-Reformation movement was beginning to take shape.

From my position in the middle of the Sistine Chapel, all I could see were heads – of different shapes, sizes and colours. The room was dark and sombre, the crowds were milling and the altar panel was too high for me to make out the shapes. That the entire panel of “Last Judgment” is painted in monotones of blue and flesh colour in sharp contrast to the colourful portrayal of Genesis on the ceiling makes it even more difficult to discern the shapes. I inched my way towards the wall and managed to squeeze in at the edge of a bench in a corner. Slowly my eyes got used to the dim light and began to make out the shapes. Then the scenes came alive in their awesome glory. While the Virgin was draped in lilac silk, Christ was covered in a wisp of a loincloth. All the other figures were painted naked by Michaelangelo. A prudish group headed by Cardinal Carafa and Monsignor Sernini started a campaign of vilification accusing Michaelangelo of obscenity. After Michaelangelo’s death, Daniele da Volterra, one of his pupils, was asked to paint over the nude figures with loincloths. The expressions of the condemned in various poses of torture and misery are so life-like that one is mesmerised by the impact.

The Sistine Chapel has more than its fair share of the Great Italian Masters. Sandro Botticelli, whose original name was Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, was a product of the Florentine Renaissance and was older than Michaelangelo. With an unlikely name that meant “little barrel”, Botticelli, like Michaelangelo after him, was a protege of the enlightened Lorenzo Medici for whom he had done many paintings and portraits. Best known for his Madonnas and the brilliant Birth of Venus that now adorns Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, Botticelli remained for most of his life in Florence at his workshop, but between 1481 and 1482 he accepted a commission from Pope Sixtus IV to join Perugino, Ghirlandaio and Rosselli to paint frescoes for the Sistine Chapel. He chose as his themes “The Trials of Moses”, “The Punishment of Korah, Dathan and Abiram”, and “The Temptation of Christ”, stories taken from the Old and New Testaments.

“The Temptation of Christ”, begun in 1481 on the north wall of Sistine Chapel, portrays three kinds of temptations to which Satan subjects Christ. Disguised as a hermit, the Devil challenges Christ to turn stones into bread. We see the two standing on top of a temple where Satan tells Christ “All this is yours”. In a third attempt, we find the Satan exhorting Christ to throw himself off the cliff. However, God rebuffs the Devil and drives him away. Botticelli has cluttered the picture with a juxtaposition of various themes. On the right hand side of the picture, in the background, is a table prepared by angels for the celebration of the Eucharist. To the left is Christ himself, reappearing alongside the angels. The painting also depicts Jewish rituals conducted daily in accordance with ancient custom. The blood-filled sacrificial bowl is received by the high priest as devotees bring offerings.

On the south wall of the Sistine Chapel is Botticelli’s famous work, “The Punishment of Korah, Dathan and Abiram”. Three rebels challenge Aaron, the priest whose authority they no longer respect. They propose that a double sacrifice be performed: the rebels would make their offering and Aaron his, and they would then see which was accepted by God. Of course, the smoke from Aaron’s pyre rose straight to heaven, while the rebels’ sacrifice flame set them on fire. This vividly told story is set against a stunning backdrop of a superb landscape. The Arch of Constantine stands out starkly against the landscape, giving the painting exceptional vigour and power.

I moved to another part of the Sistine Chapel, the Loggia of Raphael – another Renaissance genius – where some of the latter’s best-known works are housed. In fact, Pope Julius II, who had commissioned Michaelangelo to execute the paintings in the Sistine Chapel, seems to have invited Raphael – Raffaelo Sanzi of Urbino – only as an after-thought at the behest of Bramante, the chief papal architect. The Loggia contains several stanzas decorated by Rapahel. Stanze della Segnatura was originally conceived as Pope Julius’s bibliotheque. Raphael’s “School of Athens” is its jewel. The painting represents an attempt by 27-year-old Raphael to reconcile theology with philosophy and astrology. Easily recognised as Raphael’s masterpiece, this canvas portrays almost all Greek philosophers and ancient scientists and is viewed as a visualisation of knowledge. Depicted in this single painting are arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy, grammar, logic and rhetoric, known as the seven liberal arts. Dominating the picture are Plato and Aristotle, leisurely strolling through the Academy of Plato. Sprawled on the steps is Diogenes of Synope. Among those surrounding Plato and Aristotle are Ptolemy, Heraclitus, Euclid, Epicures, Pythagoras – a virtual who’s who of ancient Greece. At the bottom right is Euclid – the ancient geometrician bending down to draw on a plate tablet with a pair of dividers. Ptolemy holds a celestial sphere, also seen at the bottom right of the picture. The contemplative figure seated in front leaning on a box is Heraclitus.

The “Stanze of Borgo Fire”, believed to have been painted by Raphael’s pupils under his supervision, is replete with references to classical antiquity and offers more than a peek into medieval architecture. It is a depiction of the powers of Pope Leo IV who could arrest a fire that spread through Borgo, a popular section of Rome near St. Peter’s. The Pope blesses a frightened crowd from a gallery located beyond the two colonnades. The facade of St. Peter’s is visible in the background. The young lady in the foreground makes an appeal to the Pope, whose powers she recognises. The terror on the faces of the others is life-like.

In the “Stanze of Heliodorous” is the arresting painting where Pope Leo the Great confronts Attila the Hun. Pope Leo is escorted (from above) by Sts. Peter and Paul when he meets Attila outside Rome. What historians cannot explain lends itself generously and beautifully to imaginative art. Raphael, like many devout Christians, believed it was the goodness and persuasive powers of Pope Leo that held back the plundering pagan.

All too soon, the bell rang, reminding visitors that it was time to leave the premises. The crowd virtually had to be shepherded out of the Chapel and the Loggia. I strolled through the various galleries. In the Gallery of Tapestry, constructed by Gregory XII, huge tapestries depicting biblical scenes hung from the walls. Gregory XII also created the Gallery of Maps containing, apart from a fascinating array of maps drawn in a world that knew no satellite imagery, frescoes depicting the regions of Italy. It is a valuable historical record of the topography of Italy. The frescoes were painted, by Antoinio Danti, between 1580 and 1583 after cartoons by the Dominican priest, Fr. Ignazio Danti, a distinguished geographer of the time. There are so many frescoes on the ceiling and walls, all depicting scenes from the Bible, that it would take many visits, perhaps even a lifetime, to study everything in detail. I am grateful to religion, if only for its instrumental role in fostering, promoting and preserving the finest that human aesthetics can conjure and create.


(Published in Frontline dated Nov 19, 2005)

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