Let Your Eyes Ascend

Sistine Chapel Ceiling (detail) — Vatican Museums


It had never before occurred to me that the sound that demands silence is understood in all languages.  A guard in the Sistine Chapel was enforcing the No Talking rule and hundreds of tourists instantly complied — for a few seconds.  Then the buzz  began again, as we all stared in amazement at one of history’s monumental artistic achievements.

Michelangelo rightly considered himself more of a sculptor than a painter, which is one reason he was reluctant to accept the commission (demand) of Pope Julius II to come to Rome and paint the ceiling of this building.  It had originally been built in the 1470s at the behest of Pope Sixtus IV.  The involvement of Sixtus is why it’s known as the Sistine Chapel, in case you were wondering.

The building had undergone some renovations due to structural flaws; Michelangelo started in on the new ceiling in 1508.  There were problems:  For one thing, he had relatively little experience with fresco.  That technique involves applying paint to wet plaster, so the artist and his assistants had to estimate how much plaster they thought they could paint before the surface dried.

Another issue was even more basic:  How do you work on a large horizontal surface that is 60 feet above the floor?  The easiest approach would have been to build scaffolding towers, but the pope and cardinals wanted the floor to be clear so they could continue holding their meetings in the chapel.

Michelangelo figured out a way to bolt the scaffolding into the side walls; he and his assistants climbed up to their perch and did that marvelous work while leaning backward.  The first half of the ceiling — the eastern side — was completed in 1510.

When that scaffolding was taken down, Michelangelo was dissatisfied with the result.  There were too many figures in the panels, he felt; from the floor they appeared small.  When you visit the Sistine Chapel, you’ll notice that the figures in the other end, starting with the iconic “Creation of Adam”, are larger.

You’ll also notice that it’s not easy to find a spot from which to view the ceiling; you have to tip your head back to the point of toppling over.  Other tourists around you are pointing up to the ceiling, a gesture that I felt was unnecessary.  Seriously — if you’re in the Sistine Chapel, you really don’t need to be shown that there are paintings on the ceiling.

There are also paintings on the walls, including some by eminent artists like Boticelli and Ghirlandaio, who was Michelangelo’s teacher.  By far the most impressive wall painting, though, is the massive “Last Judgment” behind the altar on the west end, which took Michelangelo several more years to complete.  In total, he did over 12,000 square feet of fresco in the Sistine Chapel.  When you see it you can’t help but exclaim, in spite of the guards’ best efforts to shush you.

If you’re planning a visit, it’s helpful to know that in addition to the prohibition against talking, no photography is permitted in the Sistine Chapel.  And, as the website of the Vatican Museums says, access to the Sistine Chapel “is permitted only to visitors dressed appropriately.”  In other words, they won’t admit people who are exposing shoulders or knees into a room full of paintings of naked saints and sinners.

3 responses to “Let Your Eyes Ascend

  1. I visited the Sistine Chapel for the first time last summer. It was a record day in Vatican City: hottest day of the year and a record number of visitors. We were rushed through the church and once we got the chapel it was far too hot and stuffy, with hundreds of guests talking and taking photos. The guards couldn’t do anything but their classic SHH!

    It was beautiful, of course, but miserable due to circumstances of that day.

    There is also that awkward metal fence dividing the chapel giving it more of sweaty prison feel rather than a Holy place. Still, one of the greatest works of art in the world.

  2. There are days — and you must have been there on one of them — when the Sistine Chapel has many thousands of visitors. Under those circumstances, you’re right that it is far from a religious experience. As you also acknowledged, one can’t help but be awed by the artistic achievement it represents. Thanks for your comment, Chris.

  3. Postscript: At the end of 2012 Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican museums, announced that new measures will be implemented to reduce pollution damage to the Sistine Chapel caused by tourists. Layers of grime have been accumulating from the heat and dirt that the thousands of daily visitors generate.

    The plan is to put down special carpet outside the entrance that will clean shoes, and to install suction vents to suck dust from tourists’ clothing. A third step is to set the thermostat to lower interior temperatures in the Sistine Chapel. As Paolucci explained, that will “reduce the heat and humidity of bodies.”

    No plan was announced for reducing noise pollution, so presumably the low-tech “Shhhh!” of the guards will continue to be used.

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