The unheard story of the Sistine Chapel
by Elizabeth Lev
The Sistine Chapel is one of the most iconic buildings on earth — but there's a lot you probably don't know about it. In this tour-de-force talk, art historian Elizabeth Lev guides us across the famous building's ceiling and Michelangelo's vital depiction of traditional stories, showing how the painter reached beyond the religious iconography of the time to chart new artistic waters. Five hundred years after the artist painted it, says Lev, the Sistine Chapel forces us to look around as if it were a mirror and ask, "Who am I, and what role do I play in this great theater of life?"
00:11 - Imagine you're in Rome, and you've made your way to the Vatican Museums. And you've been shuffling down long corridors, past statues, frescoes, lots and lots of stuff. You're heading towards the Sistine Chapel. At last -- a long corridor, a stair and a door. You're at the threshold of the Sistine Chapel.
00:36 - So what are you expecting? Soaring domes? Choirs of angels? We don't really have any of that there.Instead, you may ask yourself, what do we have?
00:47 - Well, curtains up on the Sistine Chapel. And I mean literally, you're surrounded by painted curtains, the original decoration of this chapel. Churches used tapestries not just to keep out cold during long masses,but as a way to represent the great theater of life. The human drama in which each one of us plays a part is a great story, a story that encompasses the whole world and that came to unfold in the three stages of the painting in the Sistine Chapel.
01:17 - Now, this building started out as a space for a small group of wealthy, educated Christian priests. They prayed there. They elected their pope there. Five hundred years ago, it was the ultimate ecclesiastical man cave. So, you may ask, how can it be that today it attracts and delights five million people a year,from all different backgrounds? Because in that compressed space, there was a creative explosion,ignited by the electric excitement of new geopolitical frontiers, which set on fire the ancient missionary tradition of the Church and produced one of the greatest works of art in history.
01:59 - Now, this development took place as a great evolution, moving from the beginning of a few elite, and eventually able to speak to audiences of people that come from all over the world. This evolution took place in three stages, each one linked to a historical circumstance. The first one was rather limited in scope. It reflected the rather parochial perspective. The second one took place after worldviews were dramatically altered after Columbus's historical voyage; and the third, when the Age of Discovery was well under way and the Church rose to the challenge of going global.
02:39 - The original decoration of this church reflected a smaller world. There were busy scenes that told the stories of the lives of Jesus and Moses, reflecting the development of the Jewish and Christian people.The man who commissioned this, Pope Sixtus IV, assembled a dream team of Florentine art, including men like Sandro Botticelli and the man who would become Michelangelo's future painting teacher,Ghirlandaio. These men, they blanketed the walls with a frieze of pure color, and in these stories you'll notice familiar landscapes, the artists using Roman monuments or a Tuscan landscape to render a faraway story, something much more familiar. With the addition of images of the Pope's friends and family, this was a perfect decoration for a small court limited to the European continent. But in 1492, the New World was discovered, horizons were expanding, and this little 133 by 46-foot microcosm had to expand as well. And it did, thanks to a creative genius, a visionary and an awesome story.
03:51 - Now, the creative genius was Michelangelo Buonarroti, 33 years old when he was tapped to decorate 12,000 square feet of ceiling, and the deck was stacked against him -- he had trained in painting but had left to pursue sculpture. There were angry patrons in Florence because he had left a stack of incomplete commissions, lured to Rome by the prospect of a great sculptural project, and that project had fallen through. And he had been left with a commission to paint 12 apostles against a decorative background in the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which would look like every other ceiling in Italy.
04:24 - But genius rose to the challenge. In an age when a man dared to sail across the Atlantic Ocean,Michelangelo dared to chart new artistic waters. He, too, would tell a story -- no Apostles -- but a story of great beginnings, the story of Genesis.
04:42 - Not really an easy sell, stories on a ceiling. How would you be able to read a busy scene from 62 feet below? The painting technique that had been handed on for 200 years in Florentine studios was not equipped for this kind of a narrative.
04:56 - But Michelangelo wasn't really a painter, and so he played to his strengths. Instead of being accustomed to filling space with busyness, he took a hammer and chisel and hacked away at a piece of marble to reveal the figure within. Michelangelo was an essentialist; he would tell his story in massive, dynamic bodies.
05:18 - This plan was embraced by the larger-than-life Pope Julius II, a man who was unafraid of Michelangelo's brazen genius. He was nephew to Pope Sixtus IV, and he had been steeped in art for 30 years and he knew its power. And history has handed down the moniker of the Warrior Pope, but this man's legacy to the Vatican -- it wasn't fortresses and artillery, it was art. He left us the Raphael Rooms, the Sistine Chapel. He left St. Peter's Basilica as well as an extraordinary collection of Greco-Roman sculptures --decidedly un-Christian works that would become the seedbed of the world's first modern museum, the Vatican Museums. Julius was a man who envisioned a Vatican that would be eternally relevant through grandeur and through beauty, and he was right. The encounter between these two giants, Michelangelo and Julius II, that's what gave us the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo was so committed to this project, that he succeeded in getting the job done in three and a half years, using a skeleton crew and spending most of the time, hours on end, reaching up above his head to paint the stories on the ceiling.
06:32 - So let's look at this ceiling and see storytelling gone global. No more familiar artistic references to the world around you. There's just space and structure and energy; a monumental painted framework which opens onto nine panels, more driven by sculptural form than painterly color. And we stand in the far end by the entrance, far from the altar and from the gated enclosure intended for the clergy and we peer into the distance, looking for a beginning. And whether in scientific inquiry or in biblical tradition, we think in terms of a primal spark. Michelangelo gave us an initial energy when he gave us the separation of light and dark, a churning figure blurry in the distance, compressed into a tight space. The next figure looms larger, and you see a figure hurtling from one side to the next. He leaves in his wake the sun, the moon, vegetation. Michelangelo didn't focus on the stuff that was being created, unlike all the other artists. He focused on the act of creation.
07:46 - And then the movement stops, like a caesura in poetry and the creator hovers. So what's he doing? Is he creating land? Is he creating sea? Or is he looking back over his handiwork, the universe and his treasures, just like Michelangelo must have, looking back over his work in the ceiling and proclaiming, "It is good."
08:09 - So now the scene is set, and you get to the culmination of creation, which is man. Adam leaps to the eye, a light figure against a dark background. But looking closer, that leg is pretty languid on the ground, the arm is heavy on the knee. Adam lacks that interior spark that will impel him to greatness. That spark is about to be conferred by the creator in that finger, which is one millimeter from the hand of Adam. It puts us at the edge of our seats, because we're one moment from that contact, through which that man will discover his purpose, leap up and take his place at the pinnacle of creation.
08:50 - And then Michelangelo threw a curveball. Who is in that other arm? Eve, first woman. No, she's not an afterthought. She's part of the plan. She's always been in his mind. Look at her, so intimate with God that her hand curls around his arm. And for me, an American art historian from the 21st century, this was the moment that the painting spoke to me. Because I realized that this representation of the human dramawas always about men and women -- so much so, that the dead center, the heart of the ceiling, is the creation of woman, not Adam. And the fact is, that when you see them together in the Garden of Eden,they fall together and together their proud posture turns into folded shame.
09:39 - You are at critical juncture now in the ceiling. You are exactly at the point where you and I can go no further into the church. The gated enclosure keeps us out of the inner sanctum, and we are cast out much like Adam and Eve. The remaining scenes in the ceiling, they mirror the crowded chaos of the world around us. You have Noah and his Ark and the flood. You have Noah. He's making a sacrifice and a covenant with God. Maybe he's the savior. Oh, but no, Noah is the one who grew grapes, invented wine, got drunk and passed out naked in his barn. It is a curious way to design the ceiling, now starting out with God creating life, ending up with some guy blind drunk in a barn. And so, compared with Adam,you might think Michelangelo is making fun of us.
10:23 - But he's about to dispel the gloom by using those bright colors right underneath Noah: emerald, topaz, scarlet on the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah foresees a light coming from the east, and we are turned at this juncture to a new destination, with sibyls and prophets who will lead us on a parade. You have the heroes and heroines who make safe the way, and we follow the mothers and fathers. They are the motors of this great human engine, driving it forward.
10:53 - And now we're at the keystone of the ceiling, the culmination of the whole thing, with a figure that looks like he's about to fall out of his space into our space, encroaching our space.
11:04 - This is the most important juncture. Past meets present. This figure, Jonah, who spent three days in the belly of the whale, for the Christians, is the symbol of the renewal of humanity through Jesus' sacrifice,but for the multitudes of visitors to that museum from all faiths who visit there every day, he is the moment the distant past encounters and meets immediate reality.
11:29 - All of this brings us to the yawning archway of the altar wall, where we see Michelangelo's Last Judgment, painted in 1534 after the world had changed again. The Reformation had splintered the Church, the Ottoman Empire had made Islam a household word and Magellan had found a route into the Pacific Ocean. How is a 59-year-old artist who has never been any further than Venice going to speak to this new world? Michelangelo chose to paint destiny, that universal desire, common to all of us, to leave a legacy of excellence. Told in terms of the Christian vision of the Last Judgment, the end of the world,Michelangelo gave you a series of figures who are wearing these strikingly beautiful bodies. They have no more covers, no more portraits except for a couple. It's a composition only out of bodies, 391, no two alike, unique like each and every one of us. They start in the lower corner, breaking away from the ground, struggling and trying to rise. Those who have risen reach back to help others, and in one amazing vignette, you have a black man and a white man pulled up together in an incredible vision of human unity in this new world. The lion's share of the space goes to the winner's circle. There you find men and women completely nude like athletes. They are the ones who have overcome adversity, and Michelangelo's vision of people who combat adversity, overcome obstacles -- they're just like athletes.So you have men and women flexing and posing in this extraordinary spotlight. Presiding over this assembly is Jesus, first a suffering man on the cross, now a glorious ruler in Heaven. And as Michelangelo proved in his painting, hardship, setbacks and obstacles, they don't limit excellence, they forge it.
13:27 - Now, this does lead us to one odd thing. This is the Pope's private chapel, and the best way you can describe that is indeed a stew of nudes. But Michelangelo was trying to use only the best artistic language, the most universal artistic language he could think of: that of the human body. And so instead of the way of showing virtue such as fortitude or self-mastery, he borrowed from Julius II's wonderful collection of sculptures in order to show inner strength as external power.
13:58 - Now, one contemporary did write that the chapel was too beautiful to not cause controversy. And so it did. Michelangelo soon found that thanks to the printing press, complaints about the nudity spread all over the place, and soon his masterpiece of human drama was labeled pornography, at which point he added two more portraits, one of the man who criticized him, a papal courtier, and the other one of himself as a dried up husk, no athlete, in the hands of a long-suffering martyr. The year he died he saw several of these figures covered over, a triumph for trivial distractions over his great exhortation to glory.
14:39 - And so now we stand in the here and now. We are caught in that space between beginnings and endings, in the great, huge totality of the human experience. The Sistine Chapel forces us to look around as if it were a mirror. Who am I in this picture? Am I one of the crowd? Am I the drunk guy? Am I the athlete? And as we leave this haven of uplifting beauty, we are inspired to ask ourselves life's biggest questions: Who am I, and what role do I play in this great theater of life?
15:12 - Thank you.
15:13 - (Applause)
15:17 - Bruno Giussani: Elizabeth Lev, thank you.
15:20 - Elizabeth, you mentioned this whole issue of pornography, too many nudes and too many daily life scenes and improper things in the eyes of the time. But actually the story is bigger. It's not just touching up and covering up some of the figures. This work of art was almost destroyed because of that.
15:39 - Elizabeth Lev: The effect of the Last Judgment was enormous. The printing press made sure that everybody saw it. And so, this wasn't something that happened within a couple of weeks. It was something that happened over the space of 20 years of editorials and complaints, saying to the Church,"You can't possibly tell us how to live our lives. Did you notice you have pornography in the Pope's chapel?" And so after complaints and insistence of trying to get this work destroyed, it was finally the year that Michelangelo died that the Church finally found a compromise, a way to save the painting, and that was in putting up these extra 30 covers, and that happens to be the origin of fig-leafing. That's where it all came about, and it came about from a church that was trying to save a work of art, not indeed deface or destroyed it.
16:27 - BG: This, what you just gave us, is not the classic tour that people get today when they go to the Sistine Chapel.
16:33 - (Laughter)
16:35 - EL: I don't know, is that an ad?
16:37 - (Laughter)
16:39 - BG: No, no, no, not necessarily, it is a statement. The experience of art today is encountering problems.Too many people want to see this there, and the result is five million people going through that tiny doorand experiencing it in a completely different way than we just did.
16:55 - EL: Right. I agree. I think it's really nice to be able to pause and look. But also realize, even when you're in those days, with 28,000 people a day, even those days when you're in there with all those other people, look around you and think how amazing it is that some painted plaster from 500 years ago can still draw all those people standing side by side with you, looking upwards with their jaws dropped. It's a great statement about how beauty truly can speak to us all through time and through geographic space.
17:25 - BG: Liz, grazie.
17:26 - EL: Grazie a te.
17:28 - BG: Thank you.
17:29 - (Applause)