Finding Meaning at The Vatican Museums
The Vatican museums contain thousands of priceless treasures that cover over four thousand years of history. From the earliest which is the statue head of the Egyptian King Mentuhotep which is from 2050 B.C., (The term “Pharaoh” was used for the sovereign of Egypt only after the 16th-century BCE.) to the most recent modern art pieces.
The Vatican Museums consist of multiple museums. From the Egyptian Museum and the Etruscan Museum to the other various museums named in honour of patron Popes. If you add the former Papal Apartments, the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica, the challenge is how to find meaning among all this symbolism of power and prestige.
After all the corridors of amazing objects, beautiful statues and colourful paintings at the Vatican, one of the last masterpieces remaining is the Sistine Chapel. Although crowded with tourist, the Sistine Chapel provides seating space (you might have to wait for a vacancy) to sit back, block out the continuous movement of people (5 million visitors per year) and attempt reflection and meditation.
The Sistine Chapel is the room where the College of Cardinals are locked in and required to decide on the next Pope. All the walls, floors and the ceiling are decorated. The base of the walls has painted curtains. The higher-level walls are painted with frescoes by various artist and the Masterpiece of the ceiling fresco is painted by Michelangelo. Of all the masterpieces at the Vatican, we will reflect on the painter Michelangelo and his work on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. What meaning can we find?
Pope Julius II ordered the 33-year-old Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the chapel. Michelangelo ran away back to Florence on the first opportunity but was ordered to return by the Pope. Michelangelo preferred to sculpt and not paint. Unfortunately, the Pope assured him that he would have to complete the Sistine Ceiling before he could resume his sculptural projects.
The Sistine Ceiling painting stretched over four long years and was one of the longest and most challenging projects Michelangelo undertook. Below is Michelangelo’s despairing poem about painting the Sistine Chapel.
I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!
My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.
Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.
My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honour.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.
As is clear from his sad poem, even the great Michelangelo with his giant ego questioned his abilities. Yet he became the most celebrated living artist during his lifetime and is today regarded as one of the greatest artists of all time.
The poem above in a small way reflects the significant challenges Michelangelo had in completing the ceiling painting. Below are just some of the difficulties faced by Michelangelo:
- He had to first remove all the old plaster from the ceiling with it earlier decorations and not damage any of the wall frescos.
- The Chapel had to stay open as the Pope’s personal chapel for services and functions while he was painting.
- Standard scaffolding was not going to work, as the Pope required full access to the Sistine Chapel.
- The height of Ceiling was over 18 metres or 60 ft high.
- Michelangelo had to design a new form of scaffolding to leave the floor clear for the Pope.
- Michelangelo had to hide his progress from all the inquisitive eyes so he could proceed with freedom of expression.
- Michelangelo had limited experience in fresco painting and needed to practice with new techniques.
- The daily routine required significant physical effort in climbing stairs and scaffolds.
- Making corrections in plaster was not easy and took a long time.
- Michelangelo had one of the most demanding patrons in history with Pope Julius II, harassing him to finish and wanting to give advice on the work.
- Michelangelo saw himself as a Sculptor, not a Painter; painting was not his preferred medium.
- Michelangelo had to prepare his own colour pigments.
- Summers in Rome got very hot, and there was not enough ventilation with the scaffolding and curtains to give him privacy.
- Fresco painting is one of the most challenging forms of artwork, requiring detailed stencils to transfer drawings to the horizontal ceiling and requiring work at speed before the wet plaster set.
After four years of struggles, Michelangelo delivered one of the world’s greatest masterpieces and proved he was a genius for all time
Michelangelo’s central painting is the story of Genesis from the Bible. His vision was beyond anything anyone else had ever envisioned. No one had ever portrayed God as he did in “The Creation of Adam” and the other panels on creation.
Unfortunately, there was controversy about the number of the large nude in the Pope’s private chapel. The controversy increased after Michelangelo painted the fresco called “The Last Judgment” on one of the walls below his ceiling masterpiece. At that time, the press was emerging and the press labelled his art as pornographic. This controversy propelled more people go and see the artwork and exacerbated the controversy.
During the year of Michelangelo’s death, a new Pope allowed thirty separate draperies to be painted to provide modesty cover for some of the nude figures in “The Last Judgment”. Fortunately reaching the ceiling was too challenging and no modesty draping was applied to the ceiling fresco. It was around this time that many male nude statues in the Vatican also received their fig leaf addition.
Michelangelo used giant nude figures because it was the best universal artistic language available to him. Michelangelo portrayed inner strength and nobility by using physical muscular, athletic power and energy. He was inspired by all the copies of Greek human sculpture that Pope Julius II had collected in the Vatican such as the Laocoön sculpture. Michelangelo wanted to inspire us to glory with his art, and the human body was his best artistic expression.
Reflecting on Michelangelo’s heroic and visionary masterpiece, created under significantly challenging circumstances, we cannot avoid the big questions of life. The fresco acts as a mirror for us to reflect on the big issues in our lives.
What is my role in the evolving human drama presented in the Sistine Chapel?
Which of the many figures best represents me?
How do my challenges compare to Michelangelo’s?
- Name: Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni
- Date: 1475
- Birthplace: Caprese near Arezzo, Republic of Florence
- Died: 1564 (aged 88) Rome, Papal States
- Talent: Sculpture, painting, architecture, and poetry
- Masterpieces: Statues: The David & The Pietà, Paintings: The Last Judgment & Sistine Chapel ceiling
- Period: High Renaissance
“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.” Michelangelo
Photo Credit: 1) By Владимир Шеляпин (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 2) See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 3) FSU Guy at English Wikipedia [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 4)Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 5) Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons