Today, I had a dream came true. I visited the Sistine Chapel. I have been in Rome three times over the years and for one reason or another, I have never managed to get inside the Vatican Museum complex. I spent a full eight hours in the complex today, and so when I say I visited the Sistine Chapel, I did that and much more.
Over the years, a number of people have boasted that they saw the Sistine Chapel empty, that is, without the hoards of tourists with whom I shared my experience. Of course, at the time, I had no idea what that meant, but today, I realized, it means very little. At least, I can’t honestly say that my experience of the ceiling was impoverished by the wall to wall tourists who filled the space at any one time. Because, always the eye is turned upwards. No one was ever in my way, no one’s head was too big to see over, no one pushed in front of or past me to get a closer look. The only place to look was up, and the line of sight was clear at all times.
I would even say that the multitudes had little effect on how moved I was to be in the presence of a work of art that is so famous that it is everyone’s dream come true to stand before it. I was overwhelmed along with everyone else. As I walked from the contemporary art galleries I could feel the anticipation and then, as I stepped inside and saw The Consignment of the Keys to St Peter with its incredible, luminescent colour, I began to cry. It wasn’t the reputation of the ceiling that overwhelmed me, but to be in the presence of a piece of art that is so masterful and so powerful, a piece of art that is so difficult to conceive of when we look at it, and impossible to imagine how it was executed, that’s overwhelming. I managed to grab one of the few seats along the right side of the chapel and as I sat there wiping away the tears, a woman who could barely speak English next to me, who had travelled from the Phillipines, said “it’s a lot to take in.” I thought she was trying to comfort me, acknowledging the sheer profundity of the experience. But she then said, “it’s like being in IKEA.” I couldn't quite bring myself to ask for an explanation. I didn't want to be robbed of my emotional revelations, and to admit I was crying from exhaustion after a two hour pilgrimage through the preceding galleries to reach the Sistine Chapel.If the crowds didn't alter my experience, it was because I refused to let them.
The most reproduced panel of the ceiling is, of course, the central panel depicting The Creation of Adam. There’s a reason for that: namely that it is stunning. That and the next panel, Separation of Land from Water, in which God bursts out of the sky looking as though he is heading straight for us, are so perfect. The adjacent panel that sees the Original Sin and the Expulsion from Paradise is also wonderful, but the perspective and placement in the foreground make the first two like magic. Because the ceiling was painted backwards, from the far wall and beginning with the end of the story in the flood, by the time Michelangelo reached the beginning of the story in the centre of the chapel, he had mastered the complex art of perspectival foreshortening. God and Adam are perfect because they are simpler, more grand, more graceful, more balanced in their perspectival rendition. They float through the air.
I also loved the prophets from the old testament and the sibyls from Classical tradition, because in them we see how brilliant is Michelangelo’s understanding of the perspectival illusionism in the story of Genesis on the ceiling proper. The twelve figures are oversized and overdressed in their gorgeous robes. They sit between the ceiling and the walls of the church, between heaven and earth, literally. I kept wanting to reach out and touch those robes. 20 meters up in the sky, and I felt as though I could touch them because of the mastery of perspectival illusion. Their telling of the coming of Christ – the reason behind Michelangelo’s selection of the twelve figures — makes them humble and beautiful. Not to mention the freshness and clarity of their robes, the delicacy of their facial expressions, the contortions of their bodies.
So while the stories are impressive and no doubt Michelangelo offers new and exciting interpretations of the Book of Genesis, what makes the Sistine Chapel a masterpiece is the perspective of images that cohere the long vaulted ceiling, and yet, echo the architectural design of panel separation. That, like bodies falling out of the sky, robes billowing thanks to the movement of bodies that nevertheless sit still, and the delicate features of faces painted five hundred years ago, 20 meters above my head, still seems like an impossible task to me.