Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel
reviewed by Mary Podles
One of the transcendent moments of my life happened unexpectedly on a private tour of the Vatican Museums, when I pushed open the big wooden door and stood, alone and transfixed, under Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. I had studied it for decades; I thought I knew what to expect; I was thoroughly jolted. I suspect it will be the same when I am called before the Judgment Seat.
After a while I was brought back to earth by my husband’s tugging at my sleeve and saying, with a minimum of irony, “Okay, tell me what I’m seeing.” Not altogether an easy task: The ceiling is one of those inescapable works of Western art, one we recognize so readily that we really don’t see it. I have a lecture in the can called “The Sistine Chapel Ceiling: I Know, I Know, But Have You Ever Really Looked at It?” But lacking a garrulous wife from the museum trade, where is one to turn for a reliable explanation?
The removal of nearly five hundred years’ worth of soot and candle smoke from the ceiling’s surface spawned an equal and opposite outpouring of ink from art historians. William Wallace’s Michelangelo: Recent Scholarship in English (1995) runs to five volumes, one of them exclusively devoted to the ceiling. There are some “studies” clearly to be avoided: The loopiest is Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner’s The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican (2008). They identify kabbalistic imagery on the ceiling (some correctly, as it happens: Michelangelo would have learned it from the Neo-Platonists) and from it deduce a kind of Da Vinci Code, a message of subversive anti-Church freethinking and toleration (Michelangelo? tolerant?) and, in short, erstwhile Obama-type politics. I believe this is known as “effing the ineffable.” Ross King’s popular Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (2003) is historically sound and a gossipy good read, but says little about how to read the ceiling itself.
Art as Theology
For a reliable user’s guide, turn to Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel (2009). Graham-Dixon, the longtime art critic for The Independent, sets out with a brief overview of Michelangelo’s life and times, consulting the artist’s standard biographies with the requisite, and sizeable, grain of salt. The bulk of the book is then given over to a careful reading of the ceiling, unpacking the visual texts as he imagines Michelangelo might have wanted them to be read.
And a very good job he makes of it. For one thing, he understands the Christian message to be a coherent philosophical whole, based in historical fact and a profound understanding of the human person. Many art historians find Christianity obscure and puzzling, about as approachable as the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Graham-Dixon, though, recognizes that “pious and orthodox” are not synonyms for “simple-minded and hidebound.” He shows us the polyvalence and the novelty of Michelangelo’s visual symbolism and suggests the many levels on which his images can be read, along with the interconnections between them.
He recognizes, too, that complex as its iconography might be, the Sistine ceiling is more than just a rebus or a puzzle to be deciphered. He writes sensitively and perceptively about the power and the beauty, the immediacy and the presence of the painting itself. And in his final chapter, “ The Last Judgement, and Other Endings,” he elucidates for us the Renaissance artist’s concept of art as theology, that visual imagery can and does express theological and philosophical truths in a language unavailable to theologians and yet accessible to all.
A Few Quibbles
I have only a few quibbles. I would have run my narrative in the reverse direction from Graham-Dixon’s, and followed Michelangelo’s own working order, examining his stylistic development as it unfolds. In this way we would move backward in time through Genesis from The Flood at the entrance, which is now, alas, the exit, to end with the image of God the Father above the altar, swirling up through the darkness and forever forming himself out of nothing.
I might have made more of the liturgical connections between the ceiling and the chapel below, as Loren Partridge does in his excellent (more scholarly, less readable) Michelangelo: The Sistine Chapel Ceiling (Great Fresco Cycles of the Renaissance) (1996). Also, with a little stronger background in theology, I think Graham-Dixon would have recognized the ignudi, the male nudes, as militant and masculine Neo-Platonic angels, acting as secondary and sustaining agents of creation, and the bronze-colored figures, trapped and writhing and irrational, as their fallen counterparts (during the cleaning, at least one of them was found to have horns).
But these are quibbles. First-place honors to Andrew Graham-Dixon. •
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“Ceiling Paint” first appeared in the June 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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