The room was full, though not as jammed as the time I’d visited the summer before, when the space felt hot with the exhalation of hundreds of miserable souls. It was still full enough that I bumped into people and they bumped into me as we moved around with our heads bent uncomfortably backwards. A couple of women sat on the floor and leaned back to stare at the ceiling more comfortably, but an official, known unofficially as a shusher, indicated that they should rise. He and other shushers moved through the crowd of upturned faces whispering “shush” and “silenzio,” reminding us that the Sistine Chapel is a place of worship and not an art gallery.
A priest quietly asked a middle-aged English woman, who was with another middle-aged English woman and two young children, to stop taking photos. “Why?” she asked, not quietly. “Because this is a holy place,” he answered. “I still don’t see why,” she said to the other woman as the priest moved on. “It’s not hurting anything.”
“They just want you to buy the postcards,” said the second woman.
A man looked down at his shoes and muttered to his companion that he needed to get out of there, he needed coffee, he’d seen enough, let’s go already. A woman pointed to the central panels and said to her young companion, “Look at that, that’s famous. And, there, that’s famous.” She indicated Adam in the center, “Oh, and that one’s really famous.”
“Shush,” said the shushers. “Silenzio.”
In his book on Rome, the art critic Robert Hughes urged museumgoers to look at artwork quietly, to notice the object, allow your eyes to wander over a painting or sculpture and to keep your thoughts to yourself. It doesn’t have to be a reverential silence, just allow yourself to quietly contemplate the work in front of you and “shut the fuck up, pretty please.”
He makes his request in a situation much like this, while craning his neck trying to see Michelangelo’s famous ceiling. I tried to obey Hughes’s orders while resisting an urge to quote him loudly.
It’s only recently that I’ve begun visiting the Sistine Chapel. Living in Rome means I can go with relative ease and whenever I want, and yet for a long time I didn’t. I never quite felt up to the intellectual challenge: I didn’t want the experience to be superficial, but I didn’t know how it could be otherwise.
I moved here with my then boyfriend, who is now my husband, in 2002. Our first apartment was on a street that led to the ruins of Ancient Rome. We walked the city until our feet ached from the cobbled streets. We saw the Coliseum, the Palatine and the Pantheon. We saw gallery after gallery, museum after museum. We took the train to Florence to spend a day in the Uffizi. But we didn’t see the Sistine Chapel because the lines were endless and our patience was not.
James had seen it before it was restored, long ago when he was travelling with friends before work and responsibility took hold, when the colors were still dulled by time and lamp oil. He didn’t feel a pressing need to stand in a long line to look at it again. I bought a fold out reproduction in Vatican City, to study up for a future visit.
Then the ordinary business of life took over. We visited the sites less often. We worked. We moved house several times. We had a baby.
It never seemed like the right time to take on such an enormous symbol of Western culture. But after 13 years of actively not going, after 13 years of living in a city that still shows the beauty of having been touched by Michelangelo—the arch connecting two buildings on the Via Giulia, the shape of the Campidoglio and the stairs that I see from the window of the bus I take home from the city center that look like cascading water running down to the street below—it started to feel like I should go. The accumulation of all these little things seemed to nudge me toward his masterpiece. I searched for advice on how to approach the Sistine Chapel and found little that was truly useful other than Hughes’s suggestion that we all just keep our mouths shut and our eyes open.
But when I finally saw the ceiling for the first time, I couldn’t see it. The room was crowded, the shushers were shushing, the frescos were more than 20 meters above. I put glasses on, I took glasses off. Whatever trouble I had seeing the ceiling, it was not related to my eyesight.
On that first visit when I made my way through the Vatican Museums, up the stairs and over the very ordinary threshold to enter the Sistine Chapel, it overwhelmed me. And it confounded me. My experience was not pleasant and was certainly not what I expected. I knew the ceiling’s narrative, but I didn’t feel anything other than irritation and confusion when I tried to look up at it. It all seemed in motion. None of the figures were static and waiting to be seen but were instead in the middle of an action. Though it is a single work, it’s not a single image, not like Masaccio’s Trinity where a pale Christ on the cross pulls your gaze down to bones in a tomb, forcing mortality in your face, and then up to the Father where there is hope and redemption. A painting like that draws the viewer in with composition and perspective, even when the viewer is simply there for reasons of art and not of spirit. The Trinity is painted right on the wall of a church in Florence. You stand eye-level with Christ’s feet. The frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are maddeningly fluid and physically distant. They’re segmented and enormous, ungraspable and religious.
The priest stopped trying to quiet the crowd and made his way to a microphone near the entrance to recite a prayer in Italian. The English woman snapped a photo of him then turned and pointed her camera toward the ceiling with the story of Noah as she left.
I managed to get a seat on a bench under the scenes of the flood. I could rest my head against the wall while I looked up. The Deluge is part of a triad of flood paintings and is toward the back of the chapel. It’s the end of the world as Noah knew it. Though this is the last part of the story, Michelangelo painted it first. He painted the destruction of the world before painting its creation. He considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter, and art historians speculate that he wanted to warm up before he painted God.
I tried to find my way into this image by noticing the details that I had read about in the years before I ever came to visit, details such as the white patch in the sky where the plaster fell off in 1797 when the gunpowder depot at nearby Castel Sant’Angelo exploded. Though it’s hard to see from below, a woman carries a jug balanced on a table as she walks out of the water. I recall reading that Michelangelo had a similar jug in his own kitchen. It’s all interesting enough, and these facts allowed me to focus on a few particulars, while distracting me from the oppressive effect of the whole ceiling.
But then, as I looked at the people pulling themselves out of the water, it occurred to me that they’re not survivors as I had originally thought of them. These people are about to die. The water is rising. The table and the jug, in these circumstances, will be useless to the woman who has gone to such trouble to drag them with her. The mother and her children are not symbols of life and fertility, but of emptiness and death. Everything that seemed important before the flood is now inconsequential. The water, an essential element of life, is here an instrument of death. “Seen through half-closed eyes, The Deluge resembles a picture that has been partly whitewashed. The world is a picture that God can unpaint at any moment.” The art critic Andrew Graham Dixon wrote that, and I had read it before I ever came here, but now I felt the artist’s brush creating and obliterating.
The sounds of shuffling feet and murmurs fused into a hum, the movement of people changed character and became like a slowly swelling wave that never crests but only dissolves before it swells again.
It’s one thing to know the story of the flood and another to feel it, to feel something like finality. Annihilation (of the sort that now seems so plausible given the current state of the planet) is in the midst of happening in this image. But this is destruction by God. It tells us to seek redemption or we’ll soon be dragging ourselves and our useless possessions onto a shore that will not save us. This isn’t a story of hope, but of its opposite. The image seemed a little too current, too much like the photographs in the news of migrants and refugees in unstable boats being pulled from the sea. There’s something menacing, wrathful, and angry going on up there and it felt like a warning. While I watched my fellow men stumbling about underneath, looking up to the ceiling and tripping over other people, looking down to find their way but missing what’s going on above, I shivered.
All these people in the chapel had their own reasons for being there. Some were likely devout Christians, some most certainly were art lovers, some were checking it off their list of touristic sights to see. We all want something from the Sistine Chapel. We want to understand it, but we also want some of its glory sprinkled upon us like holy water. We want to perceive the messages painted into the plaster, to gain some insight into life here on Earth. We want to be people who have seen the Sistine Chapel. Even such seemingly shallow impulses lie on top of something more profound—the desire to see and be touched by greatness. When we arrive, if we’re really looking, we’ll see that Michelangelo is not showing us something beautiful, though there is beauty in it, but horror and destruction, the possibility that all our worldly concerns are pointless, that if the world ceased to exist, all our precious objects would amount to nothing. We were nothing and will be nothing, “… For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Michelangelo blends the sea and sky at the horizon into a void, an unbearable emptiness.
Yet, that void is somehow thrilling. As I sat there, head against the wall and mostly oblivious to the irritation I was causing by taking too much time on the bench, I felt like I’d experienced something essential, if slightly terrifying.
At that extreme moment of isolation, I felt like the ant who has suddenly grasped the colony; I felt a part of something much bigger than what I can see, yet also alone. I was struggling towards an answer to a question I hadn’t properly asked and wasn’t clear who I was addressing. Michelangelo is gone, and I can’t struggle with a deity I don’t believe in.
When I first visited the chapel I wondered if such a work could still be relevant 500 years after it was first painted in a city that was so unquestioningly Catholic. Now, people from all over the world come to see it. They don’t necessarily know the stories of the Old Testament, but mortality hasn’t changed, eternity and the void have not changed in 500 years. We still don’t know who we are, where we come from, or where we’re going.
After staring at The Deluge, I left the chapel with a sense of having glimpsed something more elemental than whatever I am. The whole of human history, the idea of civilization and of human beings collectively and individually striving towards something obscure all seemed stirred into the paint and the mist, the clouds and the chaos of creation and destruction. But I also left with a new sense of wonder and dread that shattered any idea I might once have held of art as pleasing and improving.
I walked into the part of the building with exit signs and fire extinguishers. I asked a few people what they thought, and if they felt as overwhelmed as I did this time. They used superlatives: “amazing” and “incredible” and “stupendous” and “breathtaking.” But even those who’d taken the audio guide didn’t seem to know that the central panels represent the first part of the Book of Genesis. It was a first visit for all of them and they weren’t able to see beyond the work’s reputation or through the fog of its fame. My questions were impossible to answer because this is a work of art that takes its time. It asks the viewer to work, to see what is represented on the ceiling above, to consider these depictions of once common and now largely forgotten Biblical stories, and to see that in spite of the superficial differences between ourselves and a Renaissance-era Roman or Florentine, the conditions of our existence are still the same.
It was well past noon, and my fellow museumgoers were more interested in finding lunch than in talking about Michelangelo’s masterpiece. I recommended they leave this area with its tourist touts, its gift shops selling rosaries and Vatican shot glasses, its criminally soft pasta served on tables covered in anachronistic check cloths. I suggested they take a long walk through the narrow streets of the center, past Bernini’s fountains and Bramante’s church and keep going to the point where the old city encounters the modern reality of Chinese restaurants and Halal butchers. I told them to ask for a table at Trattoria Monti where the waiter would give them an elegantly shaped flask of white wine from Le Marche and was sure to suggest they try the pasta with anchovies, raisins and sharp pecorino. I hoped they’d eat the fish pasta that they thought they wouldn’t like, that they’d let the wine take the edge off the day. And then I imagined they’d leave the restaurant with a sense of good feeling among men, notice the third-century triumphal Arch of Gallieno now nestled into the church of San Vito on one side. After they walked through the arch, I hoped they’d notice all the shoes outside the door to the building that attaches both to this ancient gate and to the fourth-century church and that leads to a prayer room, a make-do mosque. Perhaps the visible flow of time and turmoil might make them pause, might make them wonder, might make them go back to the Sistine Chapel for another look. I wondered if they might feel, as I was beginning to, that life on the street was still related in some fundamental way to the art in the churches, chapels, and museums.
In 1817, the writer known as Stendhal visited Florence. He had been living in art-rich Italy as French consul in Trieste and Civitavecchia since 1814 and yet during his visit to the city that is synonymous with the Renaissance, he was physically overcome by the Giotto frescos and the tombs of Michelangelo, Dante, and Galileo that he saw in the Basilica di Santa Croce. “Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations …,” he wrote. “Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”
In 1979, Dr. Graziella Magherini coined the term Stendhal syndrome to describe the tourists in Florence who ended up at her hospital suffering panic attacks and temporary bouts of madness after visiting galleries. They all attributed their symptoms to the art.
With a clinical, unromantic view of the phenomenon, Dr. Magherini documented 106 cases from 1977 to 1986, dividing them into three groups with various levels of mental problems ranging from psychosis to anxiety. She didn’t think the art provoked the response so much as the people were simply susceptible to such provocation, and the art served as a catalyst. Since Florence is so filled with art, susceptible people were more likely to be provoked when visiting that city. Before it had a name, Marcel Proust, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung all suffered bouts of it.
That people experience such a physical and negative response to something we so often describe as lovely suggests that art affects us at a level beyond the conscious. Celestial sensations and art speaking directly to the soul sound like desirable sensations, but Stendhal wished he could forget what it felt like. Art is provocative and what it provokes isn’t necessarily comfortable.
In fact, it can be violent.
The twentieth-century painter Barnett Newman created a series of paintings called Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue. Newman struggled with past masters, with Mondrian in this case because of his use of color, and in that struggle he saw himself in a line with the greatest painters in Western art. “If I am talking to anyone,” he once said, “I am talking to Michelangelo.”
The fourth painting in the series was attacked in The Nationalgalerie in Berlin in 1982. Ben Lerner, writing in Harper’s Magazine, suggested that the person who attacked it might have been responding with something more than simply taxpayer outrage over the 2.7 million Deutschmarks the museum paid for the canvas, which consisted of a block of red paint and a block of yellow separated by a band of blue. The attacker told police that he was angry that the gallery would pay so much money for something he thought he could paint himself. But he also told them that when he stood alone in front of the painting, he sensed Newman’s tremendous power and he felt an overwhelming sense of fear.
Newman was interested in the sublime, an enduring aesthetic concept dating back to the writer Longinus, who lived in either the first or the third century AD. Though Longinus focused on the sublime in writing, the concept grew to include a particular kind of encounter with art or nature that is not only awe inspiring but also terrifying in a way that evokes Stendhal’s experience in Florence. Longinus wrote that great writing was created by men who were “superior to what is merely mortal; … sublimity raises them near to the greatness of soul of God.”
Newman’s series provoked another attack when a vandal sliced the canvas of the third painting in a Dutch museum in 1986. The same person came back 11 years later and slashed another of Newman’s paintings, Cathedra. A woman in France kissed a Cy Twombly triptych, smearing it with lipstick. And in 2009, a Russian tourist threw a gift-shop mug at Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The painting was undamaged because it’s protected with bulletproof glass, which makes a person wonder why a painting needs protection from bullets.
Lerner, in his Harper’s article, writes that he often finds himself “sidling” up to certain paintings in museums and asking himself, “Am I being sufficiently moved? Am I having a genuine experience of art? The vandal who cuts or kisses a canvas seems to have no doubt.”
Early one spring morning, while back in the Sistine Chapel trying to get a good view of The Separation of Light and Darkness, I couldn’t help but notice the sculptural image of a muscular woman wearing a strapless orange dress that flows soft and billowy over layers of something transparent and white. She is seated but has twisted her body away from the viewer to pick up a huge open book of prophecy and is looking back over her left shoulder.
She is the Libyan Sibyl. Though a beautiful and otherworldly figure, she has the authoritarian demeanor of a civil servant fetching a ledger from the archives.
The sibyls, who are female prophets, appear in Roman and Greek literature as human, but have the power to connect to the divine and convey messages to humanity. Michelangelo placed the sibyls and prophets at the point where the ceiling curves, enclosing the central story of the creation and the flood. Here, they are almost architectural in their size and muscularity, and it is these mysterious, otherworldly, ancient beings that support the central story of the origins of humanity.
They strike me as representing artists—who, like the sibyls and prophets, are human and yet often connect to some deeper creative source to bring essential messages to the rest of us. Sibyls foretold a virgin birth that would bring prosperity to the world, which sounds like the coming of Christ. The sibyls with their books imply that Christianity has always been around—that it’s not built on top of paganism, but instead already existed as knowledge within the sibyls themselves. But, with their ancient lineage and visions of the future, they also convey a secular message of the accumulation of time, of lost knowledge and the mysterious fact of our own existence. They support the story of the creation of man and undermine it at the same time.
Just as Michelangelo painted God creating the world in the same position that the artist had to adopt to paint the ceiling, therefore drawing a connection between the divine and himself, he also made his sibyls and prophets—the beings who can connect to the creative source—the largest, most prominent figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Though Renaissance art appears to be subdued and used by Christianity, it would seem to be using Christianity too.
When I lived in the Monteverde Vecchio neighborhood of Rome, I’d watch, with a twinge of envy, the women from the green market leaving their shopping carts outside the church door while they went inside to pray for fifteen minutes. I saw this daily act of devotion from the secular safety of the coffee bar across the street, killing time with a cappuccino and the newspaper while the fishmonger filleted my anchovies.
Even though I’m not a Christian, I walk into a church at least once a week. Crossing the threshold of Santa Maria in Trastevere, an old favorite, is an act of moving from one world to another. Outside in the piazza, there’s always a crowd around the fountain, sometimes musicians play for coins, children kick soccer balls against the adjoining stone wall of the church. Statues of the saints Callixtus, Cornelius, Julius, and Calepodius stand above the portico facing across the piazza toward the coffee bar, the restaurant, and the apartment windows.
My son learned to walk in this piazza, running round and round the fountain at its center with other toddlers as they followed an ancient childhood instinct to circle. When the summer sun crested and the temperature reached the upper 30s, we would shelter, along with the Roma women who offer to help the faithful fulfill their obligations to give alms to the poor, under the portico. We’d stop so my son could run his hands over the twelfth-century marble relief of a lion on a sarcophagus at one end. Then we would cross inside.
In The Geometry of Love, Margaret Visser describes the effect of entering a church called Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura in Rome. She says the contrast between the exuberant outside and the somber inside is meant to remind visitors of a profound moment in their lives when they recognized themselves and God together. For me it’s about recognizing myself together with all of creation.
Outside Santa Maria in Trastevere is bright, hot sunshine; inside is cool darkness, stone and marble surfaces. Light from above filters through the stained-glass images of the Popes who later became saints. The stone pillars draw the eye up to the wooden ceiling; the arches bring your attention to the nave and focus you on the apse where you see a shimmering portrayal of Mary and Jesus in mosaic. Underneath are scenes from Mary’s life made by Pietro Cavallini towards the end of the thirteenth century. Candles flicker in the corridors, their flames representing the energy of prayer for a loved one. The whole effect is powerful enough to subdue both me and, in the early days, that rambunctious child.
On the other side of Trastevere, I wandered recently into Santa Cecilia, a church that was first established in the ninth century. I walked through the iron gates and into the sunny courtyard—another scene of toddler activity nearly a decade ago—under the portico and through the doors savoring for a moment the transition, which was heightened this time by the sound of female voices singing. Eight nuns in black robes holding bibles and rosaries were singing together as one voice, all the words inaudible to me except for “Hallelujah.”
Saint Cecilia is the patron saint of music. When she was forced to marry a nobleman, she sat apart from everyone at her wedding, singing to God. In her honor, the sisters come into the church in the afternoons and they also sing to God.
I didn’t want to shuffle around and disturb them, so I sat down, closed my eyes and listened. Their unamplified voices filled the church. They sounded so human, so female, and young, even though six of them were bent with age. They were oblivious to the few people moving around the church, their voices evoking the mystical and somehow mirroring the pathos of the sculpture of Saint Cecilia herself in a glass case below the apse, with her turbaned head twisted away from view and a deep, neat, long slash along her neck. From where I sat I couldn’t see the saint’s marble image, but I knew she was there. I couldn’t see the individual faces of the sisters; I could only hear them.
I’d been spending so much time looking at art, looking at Michelangelo’s frescos and struggling to focus, and to understand them, and here the music enveloped me. And I let it; I accepted its intangible nature and experienced it without probing it further.
The voices of the sisters in Santa Cecilia lift a corner of the everyday, of traffic and appointments, work and obligations, the life of amassing useless objects, and they move us toward what feels like the edge of the world. Under all this surface is something vast, they seem to be saying. Walk closer to the edge and peer over. You don’t have to be religious, you only have to be human.
I can’t just wander into the Sistine Chapel the way Henry James did in the nineteenth century. I certainly can’t take a nap there the way Goethe did in the eighteenth century. They were able to make a leisurely study of these frescos. Our high opinion of this work comes from people who could take their time in this room, to contemplate it and spread its shining reputation.
One morning before making another visit, I stopped at my local coffee bar for an espresso. When I told the two barmen where I was going, they commiserated with me, as though I were about to undergo something painful. They had been there, of course, at various times in their lives, but wouldn’t think of making regular visits. For them, it’s simply an extremely crowded tourist attraction.
I walked to the Garbatella Metro station and took a graffiti-covered train that smelled of burnt rubber to Termini. The station was crowded with commuters and tourists, with Roma people and African refugees. I transferred to the A line where the train was newer, though no less dirty. A man with an accordion played “Besame Mucho,” a song I liked before I moved to Rome. He added a little flourish at the end to make it his own, then he pulled a crushed McDonald’s cup from his pocket and walked slowly down the car.
I hate the accordions on the subway, I hate the clichéd music and the continual begging, but I fished a one-euro coin out of my wallet and dropped it in his cup. Something about the sadness of these men touches me, the way they look so weathered and time-worn, the slight impression they give of also having grown to hate “Besame Mucho.”
The train pulled into Ottaviano station. The doors opened. I ran off and up the stairs to the surface and along the street, past the tour guides offering the “most unforgettable experience of the Vatican Museum” and I kept going, past the usual, lengthy lineup, to the shorter line for those who’ve paid an extra fee and ordered tickets from the Vatican website. I felt guilty as I rushed past the Belvedere Torso and the Raphael school’s tapestries.
I’d like to be transported directly into the Sistine Chapel without having to first navigate the disorder of contemporary Rome and the distraction of the Vatican’s art collection. I’d love to arrive without accordion music in my head. But this is how a contemporary visitor sees the greatest work of Western art.
I pushed my way through the crowd and then looked up. I was directly under The Creation of Adam, the most well-known and copied part of the entire ceiling. I arrived intending to study the figure of God from the first three sections but decided to go where the crowd had thinned.
I’ve seen this image so often on postcards. There’s a popular GIF showing God and Adam in this famous pose but playing rock, paper, scissors. I once ate a plate of spaghetti atop this image on a disposable placemat, and in fact the Vatican Museum gift shop sells plastic placemats featuring God’s hand and Adam’s. I found it hard to forget all that when faced with the original.
Part of the reason it’s so familiar is because it was once so singular. Some of the first people to see the Sistine Chapel didn’t recognize the figure of the old man as God, according to Andrew Graham-Dixon. In Genesis, a mist comes up from the Earth, watering the ground, and God makes Adam from the soil and breathes life into his nostrils. Here Adam is already fully formed and is simply being animated by the spark through God’s hand.
This image is the victim of its own greatness and is the hardest part of the ceiling to really see afresh. I stood under it trying to acknowledge that I was looking at the first such portrayal of God and Adam, marking a change in the way the Christian tradition thought about creation. In fact, this patch of ceiling is responsible for the idea of God in my own head.
In the middle of the summer when my son was 10, I had a bad idea. It was hot, we were bored and I thought we should visit the Sistine Chapel together. Nicolas was born in Rome and it made sense for him to know something about the great art that was also born in the city. I wanted him to see it before his experience of it could be compromised by its reputation. We invited a friend along to make it more interesting. I promised gelato when it was all over.
It was July, and the crowds moved like a swarm through the un-airconditioned galleries. The boys found relief from their boredom, briefly, in the Egyptian collection where they saw the small wax shabti figures and statues of familiar gods from contemporary adventure stories.
Still, it took 45 minutes to shuffle our way along, following the signs for la Cappella Sistina. When we at last fit ourselves into the crowded room, I looked up and felt a sense of warmth and familiarity when I saw God flying, creating, and commanding. I felt the individual pieces of the narrative connecting and, though I still felt engulfed by the ceiling as a single work of art, I also felt my previous visits and the time I had spent taking it apart for my own analysis had at last given me a way to read it.
For the first time, I noticed smaller details such as Michelangelo’s obvious delight in painting muscular legs. I saw the softness of the feet, of the toes in particular, and of the ignudi, the naked sculptural figures. Suddenly, I couldn’t believe all the toes Michelangelo had painted and how that made this story a tale of humanity as much as divinity.
The boys looked around the room. I told Nicolas that the important part was on the ceiling. He looked up for a few seconds and then down again. I urged him to look up, but he couldn’t do it. He wasn’t being defiant; he looked quite confused. His friend looked equally mystified and, if possible, even more miserable.
I tried to point out some of the parts I had grown to like so much. I explained to them the importance of the sibyls. I recounted the story from Genesis by going along the panels. They conceded that they had heard that story before. I tried to help them focus on one panel and, though they tried, they couldn’t do it.
I looked at Nicolas and Luca trying to make sense of the ceiling. These boys have seen more than their share of biblical imagery growing up in Rome. The story is not the problem. But, it was obvious that they didn’t know why all these people would crowd this room and stare upwards. My first visit to the Sistine Chapel was irritating. All my subsequent experiences of it have been irritating in different ways. I was beginning to see that this feeling that had seemed like an obstacle is part of the experience of something that is so much larger than I expected. Arriving without preconceived ideas didn’t help them, I could not help them, and the audio guide for children didn’t really help either. I suggested we leave and find the museum café. Nicolas looked a little saddened as though he’d let me down. “I’m sorry,” he said, as we left the room and the crowds behind us. “I don’t know what to look at.”
Without thinking it through, I had hoped that encountering such an exalted work as children would give them a chance to see it fresh, to see it more naturally than I had done, and without the weight of its fame. I didn’t expect it to be a sudden revelation, but I wondered if they would have any reaction to it. But now I see there is something about this work that is like life, in the way that we are just born into the flow of time. We don’t start at the beginning and we don’t have the whole picture. It is also like life in the way it can—when we change our perspective a little, shift our weight and turn our head—suddenly appear to be so painfully beautiful, so filled with meaning, so sublime.
Seeing it amounts to struggling with the vast unknowability of this work, of the images trying to tell a story that is beyond human comprehension, made at a distinct time, painted between 1508 and 1512 and at the height of the Renaissance, when Leonardo da Vinci was still alive and Raphael was painting just down the hall, when Pope Julius II believed that art was great and could both project and inspire greatness, and before a mutinous, raging army marched into Rome along with some of the followers of Luther, slashing, burning, and murdering their angry way through the city in a burst of militant fury mixed with nascent, raging Protestantism and hatred for everything such a voluptuous work of art represented. This ceiling was painted before coverings were applied to hide nudity in paintings and on statues and before the Inquisition in Rome burned a man of science in a public square. The Sistine Chapel comes from a world before us with our twenty-first-century preoccupations, where we don’t really believe that art can do anything to us, but we come to see it anyway, just in case.
Jeannie Marshall is a Canadian writer and journalist who lives in Rome with her husband and their son. She is the author of The Lost Art of Feeding Kids. An earlier version of this essay was written during a literary journalism residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.