The heavenly art of the Sistine Chapel masks a human competition that produced the greatest creative work in history, according to a new book from a leading Italian Renaissance scholar.
The walls of the small rectangular chapel in the Vatican Palace contain priceless religious frescoes by Sandro Botticelli, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Domenico and Rosselli and other Florentine masters. For ceremonial occasions, Raphael designed tapestries depicting events from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles to cover the lower walls.
But the architect and restorer Antonio Forcellino argues in The Sistine Chapel: History of a Masterpiece, published recently by Polity Books, that the “almost superhuman” ceiling frescoes of Michelangelo Buonarotti top them all.
Commissioned in 1508 to paint the chapel’s ceiling, the Florentine sculptor accepted the job as part of an “overwhelming ambition” to do things nobody had ever done before, according to the new book. And he had never painted a fresco before.
“From his earliest attempts, Michelangelo was striving to surpass everything that had been done by those who could be deemed his masters,” Forcellino writes.
Michelangelo ultimately covered the ceiling – which measures about 131 feet long and 43 feet wide — with well over 5,000 square feet of frescoes that he hoped might draw the attention of viewers upward from the work of his competitors.
Forcellino, who is one of the world’s leading Michelangelo scholars, argues that the great man broke free of art’s medieval heritage in this work, making no effort to match the more formal style that his colleagues had used in the wall frescoes.
Michelangelo painted events and figures from the Old Testament, including the famed image of God giving life to Adam, for Pope Julius II from 1508 to 1512.
He later painted the Last Judgment fresco on the west wall for Pope Paul III from 1534 to 1541.
“The last scenes on the Sistine Ceiling,” Forcellino explains, “are the culmination of a creative quest fueled by technical confidence, a desire to test limits and set new goals not only for painting but for human vision.”
Noting the buzz that Michelangelo’s rendering of God the Father created in Rome as the artist finished the ceiling in 1512, Forcellino adds: “That severe, gigantic Eternal Father, so beautiful in flight with his angels, shown with a gestural expressiveness that has almost nothing to do with the narrative (the sun, the moon, and the darkness are almost unrecognizable in their abstraction), became a sensational attraction long before the carpentry structure was taken down.”
The book contends that the professional ambitions of the artist found a match in the heroic ambitions of Pope Julius II, a warrior pope who created much of Rome’s most iconic Renaissance art as he fought to expand the Papal States.
Unlike his uncle Sixtus IV, who had faced the threat of invasion by the Ottoman Turks, Julius II felt more threatened by cardinals who saw themselves as rivals to his authority. Julius insisted that the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes focus on Old Testament figures and the personification of ideals like wisdom to reinforce the idea of papal primacy.
“This emphasis on the Old Testament and on western philosophical wisdom,” Forcellino writes, “served to identify Christian legitimacy with papal legitimacy.”
But Forcellino sees the Sistine Chapel as more than just a tale of successive popes and two generations of artists laboring to create a powerful symbol of Christian spirituality and papal authority — and that is what sets his laboriously researched book apart from other histories of the subject.
He presents the chapel as a revolution in the history of Western art.
The Sistine Chapel, which celebrated the 510th anniversary of its dedication on October 31, brought together the most innovative and spiritual artists of the Renaissance. For art buffs, the author spends pages describing the fresh artistic methods they devised in their work.
By focusing on the artistic techniques of the chapel more than on politics, Forcellino’s book presents itself as an example of what Bishop Robert Barron might call the evangelizing power of beauty.
A few years ago, Bishop Barron described the nature of evangelizing beauty in the Gospel story of the risen Jesus appearing to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He notes how the disciples feel drawn and attracted to Jesus as he walks and talks with them, even before they recognize him.
“And through this process, they begin to understand the Bible in its totality, and their hearts burn within them,” Bishop Barron says in his reflection. “The two disciples press him to stay with them as they draw near the town of Emmaus. Jesus sits down with them, takes bread, says the blessing, breaks it, and gives it to them — and in that moment they recognize him.”
The bishop goes on to note that the disciples finally “understand Jesus Christ” in the experience of sharing the Eucharist, not in the Scriptures alone.
“The embodiment of the Paschal Mystery, the Eucharist is Jesus’ love for the world unto death, his journey into godforsakenness in order to save the most desperate of sinners, his heart broken open in compassion,” Bishop Barron says.
In the same way, the messy realities of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church opened the way to an incredible artistic outpouring. And the mixed motives of the artists and popes who created the Sistine Chapel created a legacy that might invite non-religious people to elevate their hearts and minds, even today. It can do that by creating a small crack in the door of their hearts for God’s grace to enter.
Art, including books about art like Forcellino’s latest, can feed the imagination of people who otherwise feel distant from an unseen God in a difficult world.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, himself no stranger to the Sistine Chapel, has famously said: “Art and the saints are the greatest apologetics for our faith.”
In a famous passage from his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola invites the person praying to contemplate the love of Jesus hanging on the cross. He suggests picturing Jesus still alive and looking at the person praying. He then asks the retreatant to pray over three questions: What has Christ done for me, what is Christ doing for me, and what will Christ do for me?
The Spanish mystic, famed for praying with his imagination, finally invites the retreatant to reflect on whatever thoughts and feelings arise inside — and, finally, express them to Jesus in conversation.
Forcellino points out that Michelangelo’s realistic images of the human body in his Last Judgment frescoes challenged the Catholic Church of his day.
They offer a kind of art that cannot be seen anywhere else in the world, except perhaps in life-sized reproductions like an exhibit that recently toured the United States. And they fire the religious imagination like nothing else.
While Forcellino does not discuss the Catholic faith that the art of the Sistine Chapel portrays, he notes how the chapel forever identified “spirituality with visual art” in a distinctively Italian way that the Protestant Reformation later rejected.
He notes on the last page of his book that the work of Michelangelo and his artistic rivals does not survive today only in papal conclaves. It also survives in digital media, art schools, and popular films that look to the chapel for inspiration.
“These same media simply amplify the emotional power of the building, almost as if, in the intervening five hundred years, nothing new has been built that is capable of standing up to it,” Forcellino writes.
The Sistine Chapel: History of a Masterpiece
By Antonio Forcellino
Polity Books, 2022
Hardcover, 250 pages
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