By Fr. George Welzbacher
December 2, 2012
For many reasons 2012 is a year that will long be remembered.
One such reason (this one offering cause for rejoicing and thanksgiving) came to my mind a couple of weeks ago as my eye fell upon a report in a recent weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, bringing to readers' attention an important fact touching on the history of Christian art, namely that this past November the first, All Saints Day, 2012, marked the 500th anniversary of the unveiling of the newly completed masterpiece of the painter's art that is the Sistine Chapel ceiling, generally considered, both for its coherence and scope and for the stunning beauty of its individual paintings [in number 175], to have reached a sublimity in the world of painting that had never before been achieved and (in the projections of any reasonable expectation) is unlikely to be achieved again. At a time when our spirits could profit from of a bit of uplift, may I share this report with you here.
* * * * *'Painting Is Not My Art'
The Wall Street Journal, November 18, 2012
... This year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the unveiling of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. And given its ubiquity in popular culture, the inconveniences of travel, and the endless lines at the Vatican, one may wonder why anyone bothers to visit the chapel in person. But no matter how familiar the images, no matter the trials of that crowded space, few visitors have not felt AWE, standing under this titanic achievement.
The Sistine Chapel was built by Pope Sixtus IV-hence its name. In 1505, the newly elected Pope Julius II, nephew of Sixtus, called Michelangelo to Rome to carve his tomb, envisioned to be the most grandiose funerary monument since classical antiquity. After eight months quarrying marble, Michelangelo returned to Rome only to discover that the pope's attention had turned to war and the building of the new St. Peter's. Incensed that papal resources had been deflected from the tomb, Michelangelo departed for Florence.
Not until 1508 was the artist compelled back to Rome-not to renew work on the tomb, but to undertake a task ill-suited to a SCULPTOR of marble: the PAINTING of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo's objection that "painting is not my art" proved weak against the will of the pope. But once reconciled to the task, the artist devoted enormous energy to creating a masterpiece.
He wrote of his travails in an acerbic sonnet: "My beard to heaven. My chest bent like a harp. The dripping brush making a rich pavement of my face. My loins have been shoved into my guts, my butt is ballast." At the bottom of the sheet, Michelangelo complained: "I'm not in a good place, nor a painter." The ceiling, however, tells a different story, one of magnificent achievement and sublime beauty.
Michelangelo had no previous experience directing a large-scale campaign in the demanding medium of FRESCO, but here he employed more than a dozen painters and craftsmen to help carry out the herculean project: hauling water up 65 feet of treacherous ladders, slaking lime for plaster, grinding and mixing pigments, pricking and transferring preparatory drawings, and painting miles of architecture and ornament.
We now enter the chapel through the small door under the Last Judgment-an expedient means of controlling some 20,000 VISITORS EACH DAY. We properly should enter under the Drunkenness of Noah [in the era of the Flood] and proceed in reverse chronological order toward Creation and, by analogy, from our present sinful state to a renewal of faith at the altar. But, no matter where we enter, it is nearly impossible to view the ceiling in an organized fashion since so many of the about 300 figures compete for our attention. We tend to look in a discursive and fragmentary manner-passing from one part of the chapel to another, sometimes looking at the whole, then at a single scene or prominent figure. One's experience of the ceiling is disparate, if not disorderly. Indeed, the figures and scenes are oriented to all four directions, thus the ceiling works from various viewpoints.
In the most general sense, the decoration celebrates God's creation as related in the first chapters of Genesis. The Genesis narratives form a central spine, flanked by seven male prophets and five female pagan prophetesses, 20 youths or ignudi, and the ancestors of Christ in the lunettes and spandrels. The overall organization reminds us that Michelangelo planned the entire scheme before he picked up a brush. He and his assistants stretched taut strings across the length and width of the chapel. The chalked lines were snapped against the prepared surface to provide the linear framework for the entire vault. And this was accomplished along a multi-curved and highly irregular surface, 65 feet above the chapel floor.
Because of their familiarity, we naturally focus on the Genesis narratives. But those nine scenes constitute just 30% of the ceiling. The power of Michelangelo's imagination draws us to such images as God Creating Adam and the monumental, energetic deity in the Creation of Sun and Moon. We scarcely notice that architecture constitutes about 40% of the painted decoration, dividing the curved vault into 175 DISTINCT PICTURE UNITS.
Michelangelo endured "the utmost discomfort and weariness" and "a thousand anxieties" during the four years he worked on the chapel's decoration. The ceiling was unveiled on All Saints Day, Nov. 1, 1512. To his father, he wrote: "I have finished the chapel I have been painting: The pope is very well satisfied."
Until very recent times, the ceiling was celebrated mostly for its figural repertoire; Michelangelo was hailed as a supreme draftsman, NOT a colorist. That assessment has CHANGED. Between 1980 and 1990, conservators removed layers of accumulated dust, varnish and greasy candle soot. To some, the BRILLIANT COLORS were an unwelcome shock; to most they were a revelation.
In many ways the ceiling is a compendium: of Michelangelo's art, of the Renaissance, of Christian theology. Like Verdi's Requiem or Milton's "Paradise Lost," it is a transcendent work of genius that will never be exhausted through looking or describing. In the words of Goethe: "Until you have seen the Sistine Chapel, you can have no adequate conception of what man is capable of accomplishing."
Michelangelo was just 37 when he completed the Sistine ceiling. Had he died in 1512, the painter of the ceiling and the carver of the Bacchus, Pietà and David would already have been judged a great artist. Yet he still had 52 more years to live, the Last Judgment to paint, the Moses to carve and ST. PETER'S BASILICA TO BUILD. We have many more 500th anniversaries to celebrate in the coming years. [Emphasis added]
Mr. Wallace, professor of art history at Washington University in St. Louis, has written many books on Michelangelo.
* * * * *[Michelangelo died in 1564, the very year in which Shakespeare was born. Talk about "passing the torch!" of genius!]
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