Sistine Chapel … Look Up

September 3, 2012

Michelangelo, The Bronze Serpent, 1508-1512
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

Last corner. I don’t think I’ve ever really looked at this corner of the Sistine Chapel. It’s so dramatic!

The panel depicts a story from the Old Testament. The Israelites were out in the desert and they did something to tick God off (again). To punish them, he sent a swarm of poisonous snakes. The people cried out to Moses and Moses interceded (again). God told him to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole, and whoever looked at the sculpture would be saved.

Michelangelo is very literal in his interpretation of this story. Snakes fly through the air to attack the mass of people on the right. They coil, constrict, and bite. There’s no hope for these victims as they struggle and succumb. Meanwhile, the crowd on the left gaze up at the golden serpent in the middle. They look mesmerized.

I like the way Michelangelo contrasts the bronze snake wrapped around the pole with the green snake coiled around its victim right below—it’s so similar, even down to the tip of the tail around the poor guy’s ankle. Yet the contrast is stark. The bottom serpent is the agent of death, the top one is the agent of life.

But that sculpted snake is more than a miraculous cure or a protective shield, it is a symbol of God’s grace and mercy. The Israelites deserved to be punished, but God is offering a way out and all the people have to do is look up–to put their trust in the power of that piece of metal.

Of course, that story has long been understood as a parallel to the New Testament story of salvation. Christ, too, was lifted up on a pole of sorts when he was crucified, and we, too, can be saved by simply looking to the cross. All we have to do is believe and we will be spared the punishment that is due because of all our disobedience.

Michelangelo makes the choice pretty clear. We can writhe in agony as we get what we deserve, or we can look up and be mesmerized by the mercy and grace of God. Hmm … that’s a tough one.

Here’s the thing that strikes me about the four corners of the Sistine Chapel. We see four Old Testament stories: David killing Goliath, Judith beheading Holofernes, Esther orchestrating the death of Haman, and the bronze serpent—all stories of unexpected salvation for the Israelites. In each, they seemed doomed. In each, God provided a way out. And (importantly) in each, salvation came through believing in God’s desire to save. David, Judith, and Esther all believed that God was on their side, that God wanted the Israelites to live on. They acted on that belief, just like the Israelites who looked up at a sculpture of a snake in order to live.

So what does it mean for us? Not sure. I would like to act based on certain beliefs like these OT heroes did. But what do I believe? And what action does it require? My convictions seem rather general and lackluster. I think I need to listen a bit harder to what God might be telling me. Where is the battle line? Where are the stakes high and action called for? If you have any ideas, I’m listening.

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This week, I’m looking at another corner of the Sistine Chapel. This fresco shows three scenes from the Old Testament story of Esther. It’s a confusing panel, but it also packs a punch.

The story of Esther is a bit like a soap opera. Being quite the beauty, Esther was picked by Xerxes, the king of Persia, to be his next wife after he executed the previous one. Not long after, Esther’s cousin Mordecai, discovered a plot to kill the king. He told Esther, Esther told the king, and the assassins were caught. Kudos to Mordecai. Things got dicey, though, when Xerxes issued a decree that everyone should bow down to a high-ranking official named Haman and Mordecai refused because he would only bow to God. That hacked Haman off and, in revenge, he convinced the king issue another decree to kill all the Jews. What Xerxes didn’t know was that Esther, his lovely queen, was a Jew herself. And so the plot thickens. Mordecai convinced Esther that she had to intervene for the sake of her people, but to do so would mean risking her own life. She did muster up her courage to approach the king, and after a long string of dramatic events, he ordered Haman to be executed. All was well.

Michelangelo, Crucifixion of Haman, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

There seems to be some uncertainty about what exactly Michelangelo has depicted here. On the far left side, Mordecai is conferring with Esther, possibly telling her about Haman’s plot. On the far right side, we see King Xerxes in bed with Esther at his side. This could show the episode when Xerxes had some restless nights during which a scribe read to him from the annals and he realized he had never properly honored Mordecai for saving his life. That sort of fits, but the way he sternly points towards the crucified man on the other side of the door suggests that he is ordering Haman’s execution instead. Esther cowers by his bedside, clearly a little nervous that she might meet the same fate as his previous wife for overstepping her bounds.

This brings us to the most important part of the panel. At the middle of the panel, in an amazing demonstration of Michelangelo’s skill with foreshortening and anatomy, we see Haman striped naked and strung up on a tree. But here’s the thing … the biblical story says he was hung on a gallows, not crucified on a tree. What gives?

As usual, Michelangelo takes some liberties with the story to make a bigger point. There are several theories about this, but I am intrigued by the idea that Michelangelo is making a connection between Haman and Christ.

On the one hand, it seems so wrong to compare an evil, conniving character like Haman to Christ, but there is at least one important parallel. Jews have long seen the death of Haman as a moment of salvation of the Jewish people, just as the death of Christ was the salvific event for all humanity. In this way, Haman is an anti-type for Christ. He is everything evil; Christ is everything good. Yet, both of their deaths meant a whole group of people received new life.

Michelangelo makes this connection between the two, but he also underscores the difference between them. He twists Haman’s body so that he appears to be squirming in pain. He is not the noble figure surrendered on the cross, like Christ is usually depicted, but a despicable criminal dying a much-deserved death. No mercy here.

While the theological messages may be interesting, at the moment I am drawn to the way Michelangelo paints Esther as she addresses Xerxes on his bed. The whites of her eyes glow as she hides behind the other guy and glances cautiously in the direction of Xerxes’s gesture. Here is a woman who is more than a little nervous. Honestly, that’s kind of nice to see in a heroine. She’s not the icon of courage and resolve, but of apprehension and even hesitation. Still, she does the right thing.

Way to go, Esther. We don’t all have to be confident or eager, but would we all be more inclined to find the courage to do the right thing anyway.

Michelangelo, Judith and Holofernes, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

In one corner of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo painted the story of Judith and Holofernes. If David is the unexpected boy hero (his story is in another corner), then Judith is the big female hero. She’s got it, all right.

The story is found in the book of Judith, which is not in Protestant Bibles, so it’s less familiar than some other stories. Once again, the Israelites are at war, this time with the Assyrians, and are not doing so well. Judith decides to take matters into her own hands and ingratiates herself with the enemy. Holofernes, the general of the Assyrian army, takes the bait and invites the alluring Judith to his tent. He proceeds to get drunk, and when he passes out, she cuts off his head and carries it away in basket. When the body is discovered, the Assyrians freak out and abandon their position, and the Israelites carry the day.

During the Renaissance, this story was quite popular–perhaps because it involved war, murder, and a beautiful woman, but probably because it offered a stellar counterpoint to the story of David and Goliath. Just like with David, we have an unlikely hero who single-handedly pulls off a total victory when the Israelite army seems tied up in knots. And here again, a mighty adversary loses his head.

So what’s Michelangelo’s spin on this story?

Instead of the climax, we see the denouement. Judith and her maidservant are sneaking off with the head (on a platter, this time). Judith looks over her shoulder at Holofernes as if she expects him to come chasing after her. What’s odd is that it does seem like he is still writhing on his bed like a snake that has just been decapitated. Fitting, I think.

I appreciate that Michelangelo depicts both men in the scene as physically big and muscular, but also incapacitated. Their strength is worthless to them. Meanwhile the women are shown in action, their bodies mirroring each other in order to double the effect. Their strength is in their boldness (note the vibrancy of the colors) and also their gracefulness (it almost looks like they’re dancing). Some people have claimed that Michelangelo was misogynistic, but I think this is a nod to the strength of women.

I’m glad that the Bible (or the extra-biblical texts) record the stories of women like this, and I’m even more glad that artists have chosen those stories for the walls of such hallowed places. It’s good for us, no?

Michelangelo, David and Goliath, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

Up in one of the corners of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo painted a scene from the story of David and Goliath. He had already depicted the story in stone with impressive results. Before, he showed a strong and determined (and naked) David right before the battle (see my post on that one). This time out, David seems like a scrappy young kid in the act of slaying a giant. I like it.

You’ll remember the story. The Israelites are embroiled in a war with the Philistines. The latter would like to end it once and for all in a one-on-one fight between the best warriors from each army. The Philistines have a giant named Goliath; the Israelites have … well … nobody—at least no one that seems able to defeat this guy. Then David comes along. He’s a teenager (either pious or just plain cocky) and he is astonished that the Israelites have so little faith in God. He volunteers and with only a slingshot defeats his mighty foe.

Most interpretations of the story imply that Goliath fell over dead when the rock from David’s slingshot hit his head, but Michelangelo puts a more dramatic spin on it by suggesting that the rock only knocked Goliath down. He shows a tension-filled moment when the huge Goliath stirs and starts to rise again. Will David have time to strike before Goliath throws him off?

The composition adds to the drama. Michelangelo incorporates lots of diagonals—like the sides of the tent, David’s leg combined with Goliath’s right arm, and (most prominently) the line created by the other three arms. The latter is accentuated by the blade of the sword which arcs back. This creates a sense of movement. You can practically feel the swoosh of David’s arm as he swings his arm around.

Yes, of course, David wins. We don’t need to see blood spurting or a head held high to know what happens here. This is the triumph of the little guy, but we must remember that the point of the story is that the victory was actually God’s. This is not a fair match-up (look how small David looks!), so God had to orchestrate the battle so David came out on top (literally, here).

And that’s the point, right? We are all scrawny little teenagers facing our own personal giants. It’s nice to imagine that the fight could be over with one rock out of a slingshot, but I like that this image suggests that our battles might not be so easy. Instead, we need to take on that giant with confidence, determination, and a fair bit of chutzpah. No fear. No hesitation. It’s a pep-talk in paint.

Does it work?

Michelangelo, Jonah, 1508-1512
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo also painted a number of prophets—those Old Testament men (all men in this case) who warned people that they better shape up, or else. His painting of Jonah has always intrigued me, so this week I want to take a closer look.

First, the story. Jonah was told by God to go prophesy against the city of Nineveh, but Jonah thought that the Ninevites were so evil that they didn’t deserve a warning about the impending wrath of God, so he actually got on a boat headed the opposite direction. Nice try, Jonah. An unusual and beastly storm arose and the sailors figured out that it was Jonah’s fault, so as a last resort to try to save the ship, they threw him overboard. Famously, Jonah was then swallowed by a whale (or big fish, depending on the translation), and while inside its belly, Jonah prayed to God. Three days later he was spit out. Having learned his lesson, he headed to Nineveh and told the people to repent, and (much to his dismay) they did. He was so hacked off by this that he actually went off and pouted about it, but God would have none of it and not-so-subtly reminded Jonah that mercy is the bottom line—for the Ninevites and for him.

Roman Sarcophagus, 3rd century
(Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Denmark)

This has been a popular story since the early days of Christian art. From ancient Rome, we find scenes from Jonah on the sarcophagi and in the catacombs, probably because the story represented the whole idea of the resurrection. Just as Jonah was “dead” for three days in the whale and then got a new life, so the men and women interred in the sarcophagi and the catacombs were destined to live a new life beyond their graves. And so, there are lots of images of Jonah getting vomited out of a fish’s mouth, along with some scenes of him preaching and pouting. The funny thing is that the iconography didn’t change much over the next 1,200 years—over and over again, we see the same scenes.

Never one to follow tradition, Michelangelo took a completely different approach in the Sistine Chapel. Here we have a portrait of the prophet. We do see symbols for his identity—the big fish and the vine—but this is not a vignette from his life. Instead, it captures his character, his disposition.

He leans way back and looks up. It seems like he’s actually looking into another panel on the ceiling—the one that shows God separating the light from darkness. And it makes sense—the God that commanded him to go warn the Ninevites is the God of creation, after all. But clearly, this command has thrown Jonah off balance. With his shoulders so far back and his feet dangling, he looks like he could tip over backward. And, as if to underscore his inner conflict, Jonah seems to point in opposite directions. You want me to go where? You want me to do what?

Michelangelo has hit the nail on the head here. Jonah is not one of those steady Old Testament prophets who unflinchingly spoke the word of God. No. He was a reluctant prophet. He let his own opinions outweigh the call of God. And Michelangelo depicts this hesitancy, this unsteadiness. He’s squirming. He doesn’t want to go.

And yet, it’s clear that God is going to win here. Jonah seems a little trapped and powerless. There’s no where to run to. There’s no where to hide. He will end up going where God wants him to go.

Once again, I’m grateful to Michelangelo for putting a new spin on things. We get a more honest, more human depiction of this Old Testament hero. And, we get a sense of the power of God as well. How often do we think we know better than God? How often do we blatantly move in a direction against the call of God? It’s good to know that God can and will steer us back in the right direction and he can and will remind us that we don’t know everything. I’m just glad that it usually doesn’t involve a big fish.

 

Michelangelo, The Flood, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

When you walk in the Sistine Chapel and look up, the first three scenes you’ll see on the ceiling tell the story of Noah (honestly, they are rather crowded scenes with relatively small figures, so you’ll need opera glasses). Michelangelo chose to paint the Flood, the Sacrifice of Noah, and the Drunkenness of Noah, which are some unusual choices and so worthy of some deeper consideration.

The first part of the story is relatively well-known. Sometime after Adam and Eve are kicked out of the Garden of Eden, humanity has largely turned away from God. Fed up with it all, God decides to wipe everybody out with a massive flood, but chooses to save the one man he finds to be righteous—Noah. He tells Noah to build an ark and fill it with his immediate family and pairs of animals. When the rains come, the ark becomes a floating shelter.

Michelangelo paints the moment when the flood is rising and people are trying to save themselves. It’s a sobering scene. A husband carries his wife on his back up the hill, a mother tries to save her two babies, a father hoists his adult son onto the rock, couples hold each other. These are supposed to be the people who are evil through and through, but that’s not the impression we get here. Instead, we see people who love each other—they are mothers, fathers, innocent children. Are they really that bad?

And so, Michelangelo forces us to consider the most difficult part of this story: the fact that God killed lots of people. It’s easy to picture the people as despicable, horrible, and no-good (a whole society of criminals, say) and overlook just how alarming this divine act really was. Was everyone really that bad? The Bible says that “every inclination of their hearts was only evil all the time.” Really? It seems like such an absolute statement has to be hyperbole. I think Michelangelo agrees with me here. He seems to suggest that the real picture had to be more complicated than that. But the problem is that he doesn’t offer any answers to this theological question. Ugh.

What I think he does do is pose a different question: Are you any different from them? Each one of us is pretty bad, after all—maybe we haven’t murdered someone, but we all have ugly thoughts, immoral desires, and impure motivations, which is what these people were accused of. Would I have been deemed righteous like Noah? Mmmm … probably not. So, I would have been facing the same fate at the rest.

I guess this makes Michelangelo’s panel a morality tale. The message? Shape up, because you too will be judged. You can’t rely on being “good enough.” Pursue righteousness. Get rid of those inclinations toward evil. Be good.

Where’s grace in all this? Noah. He could not have been completely righteous, right? He simply “walked faithfully with God,” which prompted God to extend grace to him in the form of a lifeboat. We don’t need to be pure in order to be saved, we just need to walk faithfully (with earnestness and integrity) with God. Then, Christ becomes our lifeboat.

In the painting, three guys are getting pulled onto the ark. They can’t be Noah’s sons, because there are already at least four men on board. This seems to be Michelangelo’s way of depicting grace. When the waters started to rise, these three didn’t simply look for higher ground or find a little boat for themselves (both of which are logical actions in those circumstances), they turned toward the thing that will really save them. They finally believed Noah’s warnings. They believed God. And so, they too are saved. If that’s not grace, I don’t know what is.

Michelangelo, scenes of Creation, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

As you walk from the west door to the front altar in the Sistine Chapel, the scenes on the main panels of the ceiling go backwards in time. You start with scenes from the story of Noah, then comes the scenes dealing with Adam and Eve, and finally you see these three scenes of creation. Michelangelo actually painted the ceiling in this reverse chronological order, so here in these later images, we see some of his most dynamic and gutsy compositions.

The bottom (first) panel depicts the separation of light and darkness on the first day of creation. In the next panel, the third and fourth days are combined, so we see the creation of dry land and vegetation on the left and the creation of the sun and moon on the right. The top panel shows us the second day, when God separated the waters, although some assert that this could also show the fifth day when God filled the waters with living creatures.

One thing is immediately apparent: this not the usual way creation was depicted in art. Here we have a God who may have the grey beard, but is anything but an old man. His body is muscular and energetic. He flies through the air, twisting and turning, reaching and pointing. His authority over the universe is expressed in his powerful and commanding presence in space.

This approach solves a big representational problem. In the biblical account of creation, God speaks the universe into being. He says, “Let there be light,” and light appears in the darkness. He says, “Let there be plants,” and green things emerge from the new soil. But how do you paint that kind of speech act? Michelangelo doesn’t even try. Instead, he translates that speech into gesture. The force of God’s creative power is expressed in the force of his gestures. He points, pushes, raises a hand, and the universe is compelled to follow his command.

What I love about these paintings is the way they reach past the literal account of the creation found in Genesis 1, and get to the heart of the narrative—that is, God’s marvelous creative power. The story underscores the extent of God’s creative act (there was nothing, now there is everything), but also the simplicity of God’s power (he only spoke, but those words were enough to make the universe and everything in it). These paintings communicate that quiet but absolute authority.

I suppose that should make me nervous, but it actually is comforting, probably because I believe that God is good. The God that wields such power is not capricious or violent or maniacal. And so I breathe easier knowing that God has got everything under control, even when things seem to be falling apart.

Perhaps this is why, when I look at these paintings, my eye tends to gravitate towards the figure in the middle of the center panel—the one below the sun. He looks up at God with an expression of awe and admiration. On my better days, I feel like him. He is very aware of the great power and authority of God. And so he seems just slightly nervous, as if he’s not quite sure what to expect next, but he wants to keep close. His eyes are wide open. His eyes are fixed upon God.

Again … on my better days.

Michelangelo, Creation of Eve, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

Moving chronologically (at least for now), I’m turning to the panel that depicts the Creation of Eve. Michelangelo takes a pretty traditional approach in this case, but a few unique details pack a punch.

Like countless artists before him, he based his depiction on Genesis 2, and not Genesis 1. In this version of events, God decides Adam needs a helper, so he puts Adam into a deep sleep and removes one of his ribs, out of which he forms a woman. Artists tend to abbreviate the story, skipping the whole rib part and showing Eve stepping fully-formed from Adam’s side. Michelangelo does the same. In this way, these artists clearly make the point that Eve (and thus all women) may be a special creation, but she still came from Adam (the man).

As a woman (and something of a feminist), I could be offended by this emphasis on Eve’s secondary and derivative nature, but Michelangelo does a number of things in the painting to equalize the status of the first man and first woman. First, Adam looks like he has passed out rather awkwardly. His body is curved up and twisted slightly with his neck bent sharply to the side (oh, the neck-ache when he wakes up!). One arm is squished beneath him and the other crosses over his torso, and both wrists are folded forward. His body may be idealized, but here he looks weak and vulnerable. I appreciate the way his body position here echoes the one in the previous panel (the Creation of Adam), as if to remind viewers of Adam’s fundamental passiveness and (ahem) impotence.

Then, look at Eve. In contrast to Adam, every muscle in her body is flexed as she steps out toward God. She looks strong and sturdy, even as she balances in that awkward lunging stride. This is no feeble female. I like that. At the same time, she shows deference to her Creator. She keeps her head low and holds out her hands in a gesture of piety or subservience. Michelangelo calls our attention to this gesture by foregrounding it against the pale blue sky and adding the stumpy tree branch which follows the same line. He doesn’t want us to miss this.

And that gesture is an important detail because it reflects the relationship God is establishing with Eve. God has called her into being with a simple and controlled move of his hand; she responds by showing her respect and devotion to him. We see the relationship also in the way God bows his head ever-so-slightly to meet Eve’s gaze more directly. He reaches out to her with his eyes. I imagine that he wants her to get something—perhaps the uniqueness of what’s happening here, or maybe his desire for her trust him, or even (given what happens in the next panel) the crucial need for her to remain obedient.

God probably wishes he could make this kind of eye contact with each one of us on any given day.

Michelangelo, Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel, 1508-1512 (Vatican, Rome)

I recently paired up with a student of mine to dialogue about an artwork in public. We chose The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel, in large part because we knew people would be more or less familiar with the artwork already. I’ve looked at this painting hundreds of times and analyzed it with students a bunch, but as we reflected on the painting in preparation for the event, some of the ideas sunk in a little deeper.

First, the basics. This panel is almost at the center of the ceiling, sandwiched between the creation scene of the separation of the waters  and the creation of Eve. The composition is relatively simple with God occupying the right half of the painting surrounded by heavenly creatures (angels?) and Adam on the left half lying back on a grassy slope. The largely warm tones of God’s side is contrasted with the cooler tones on Adam’s, and the white field in the middle emphasizes even further distinct separation between the two.

There is no doubt that Michelangelo is making a distinction between the human and the divine. God is all motion as he swoops in—the red mantle billows out behind him, his hair and beard are blown back, his garment and green sash seem to flutter with the wind. His arm reaches toward Adam with all his muscles bulging. Here, God is not an old guy in the clouds, but a dynamic and poweful force. In contrast, Adam seems sluggish. He does hoist himself up and extend his arm, but it seems like his whole body is heavy—he has to prop himself up on elbow and his arm rests on his knee as if he doesn’t have the strength to hold it up. Even his hand seems weak as he limply holds it out toward God’s. Adam may be alive, but he lacks vitality and energy. Michelangelo seems suggests that humanity is utterly weak in comparison to God’s power. We are fundamentally passive, inert, static. It is God who animates.

But here’s what I was thinking about this week. We don’t actually know if this is the moment after the divine touch that has brought Adam to life, or if this is the moment right before God touches Adam. If that’s the case, then Michelangelo may be getting at a deeper truth. The true moment of Adam’s creation is not when his body come alive, but when God touches Adam and something else happens. A Renaissance viewer might conclude that God is imparting to Adam those things that make us uniquely human—free will, a spirit, reason. That’s when humanity was created. Until then, we were just another animal in creation, but with spirit and reason, now we’re something altogether different, special, unique.

And part of that uniqueness is our relationship to God. Michelangelo makes that clear enough. The bodies of God and Adam rhyme with one another—they are positioned at the same angle, their right legs are aligned, and their arms and hands mirror one another. In this way, Michelangelo depicts the age-old doctrine of imago dei—the belief that Adam (and all humanity) was made in the image of God. This is underscored here in the way Michelangelo idealizes both their bodies. It makes sense (especially in the context of the Renaissance) that God’s body is idealized, but to have Adam’s body also exhibit well-defined muscles and perfect proportions imparts to him a certain dignity. Thus, Michelangelo expresses in Adam’s physical form the notion that humanity does have the spark of the divine.

I kind of feel like Adam looks. I sense that I have a unique relationship with God, that God has given me special gifts of reason and spirit. But, frankly, oftentimes I feel heavy, inert, weak. I guess I’m experiencing one of those paradoxes of humanity—we do have the spark of the divine, but we are also burdened with what it means to be human. Call it sin, call it the human condition, call it existential angst—whatever it is, it provides a regular reminder of our limitations. That’s why I’m so glad that Michelangelo paints God the way he did. God is so active, and so intentional. He swoops in, he reaches out, he does the work. That’s the uniqueness of the Christian God, right? Boy, am I glad that’s my God. It gives me a little hope.

 

Sistine Chapel (Vatican, Rome)

Click this image to visit a virtual tour.

The Sistine Chapel is a smallish room off the Pope’s ‘private apartments’ in the Vatican, right next to Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. There is nothing particularly remarkable about the architecture—it’s just a simple barrel vault—but this room is still utterly spectacular because of the paintings that cover nearly every square inch of the walls and ceilings.

The walls were painted by a group of very well-known Italian painters in the 1470s and 1480s. They depict scenes from Moses’s life on one side and Jesus’s life on the other. During the same period, a bunch of portraits of previous Popes were painted between the windows high on the walls.

Over twenty years later, in 1508, the Pope commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling. It had been painted to resemble a starry sky but recent renovations required the ceiling to be repainted and Pope Julius saw this as an opportunity to do something more extravagant. (I think he got what he wanted.) In a very complicated program of iconography, Michelangelo incorporated scenes from Genesis, the ancestors of Christ, a bunch of prophets and sibyls (the pagan version of a prophet), and scenes from the Old Testament. The final work covers over 5,000 square feet and contains over 350 figures.

Much later, in the 1530s, Michelangelo returned to the Chapel to paint the altar wall. He pulled out the stops and painted a Last Judgment scene that is powerful and a bit scary. Jesus strides forward in mid-air with his hand raised in judgment. On one side, the damned are dragged down into hell by a hoard of demons; on the other, the saved are hoisted up to the heavens. No question … you want to be among the hoisted.

These paintings are so intriguing to me. This room is crammed with dense iconography, painted by cutting-edge artists in close proximity to the most powerful theologians of the day. So, what have we got here? I mean, really … there has to be a lot to chew on in this room–much more than what I’ve already digested when I’ve looked and contemplated before.

I want to spend some time looking more closely at these frescoes, so over the next couple months, I’m going to keep going back to the Sistine Chapel. I’ll take a look at some frescoes I’ve never paid much attention to, but I’ll also return to some panels that I’ve studied closely before. We’ll see what happens.

If you haven’t already, check out the virtual visit site.