We today make a first visit to the Sistine Chapel and look generally at the three different waves of Renaissance frescoes that decorated it. Two of these are by Michelangelo.

Show Notes

You would be right to doubt me if I told you that these podcasts were following a perfectly neat pattern. After all, even though I have recently been discussing the destruction and disappearance of the monuments of ancient Rome, I just slipped in an unrelated pod on the Liberation of Rome from the Nazis, which occurred only two days before D-Day. I had no better reason for timing this when I did than that the date of my podcast was June 6, D-Day.

Still, there has been a certain order behind many of my podcasts in the last year, though both my sabbatical and my trip to Italy interrupted it and make it harder to see. Here’s the secret plan: I got started with major Renaissance sites last July, beginning with the Basilica of Saint Peter in Chains, where we found Michelangelo’s funeral monument for Pope Julius II, the most prominent and best-known part of which is the statue of Moses, so admired by Sigmund Freud and countless others. This gave me the opportunity to introduce two of the men most important for Renaissance Rome, the feisty pope and the great artist, and we then followed the Renaissance over to the Vatican, whose library was founded by Pope Julius’s uncle, Pope Sixtus IV. He also built the Sistine Chapel: “Sistine” is the adjective based on “Sixtus.” After marveling at the fact that the popes were now building libraries and museums, even ones to display the literature and art of the ancient pagans, their former archenemies, we then devoted seven podcasts to the frescoes of the four Raphael Rooms in the museums, especially the Stanza della Segnatura and the Hall of Constantine. Since this large Hall celebrates both the papacy and the triumph of Christianity over pagan Rome and its empire, I allowed myself to take up the flip side of this monumental victory, which is the destruction of paganism and its monuments, a subject referred to in two of the frescoes of the Hall of Constantine, one on the ceiling and one in the embrasure of a window.  Raphael also wrote a now-famous letter to Leo X appealing to the pope to stop the ongoing destruction of ancient monuments and to begin preserving them.

If we were visiting the Vatican Museums together on foot, our next stop after the Raphael Rooms would be the Sistine Chapel, so let’s go there next. I propose this with trepidation and my usual sense of inadequacy, for the Chapel is known to be a space of supreme importance and great complexity. I will not attempt here to take up every scholarly debate the frescoes of the Chapel have generated but to stimulate the thinking of those who have not yet studied the Chapel in depth.

On my first visit, I had no idea what I was looking at, and the half hour I spent in the Chapel with a guidebook was not enough to identify even the main frescoes, for I had to interrupt my reading by looking and my looking by reading. I’m not even sure I really enjoyed the visit, for have strong memories of the crowd pressing in on me and of the guards shouting “Silenzio.” Subsequent visits, when I was better prepared, went better. We’ll get started today, but we will stay in the Chapel for several podcasts.

The Chapel itself was built in the Renaissance, and it is a sign of the times that it was fortified with battlements, including crenellations, merlons, and machicolations. The Chapel is accessible only from within the Vatican palace, and this is another sign of concern for security. We rightly think of the Renaissance as a period of remarkable productivity in literature and art, but it was not free from the political turbulence that had plagued Rome for centuries. It would be brutally sacked once again in 1527, less than fifty years after the Chapel was built. This beautiful Chapel was solidly constructed with very real demands of security in mind, and the achievements of the period are more impressive because war did not stop them. It’s a good time to remember that Socrates lived thirty years of his life during Athens’ long war with Sparta, and this was the period of Athens’ great cultural flourishing. I don’t mean to undervalue the importance of peace but to pay tribute to genius that does not despair or go slack even in times of war.

At 134 feet long, 44 feet wide, and 68 feet high, the Chapel is large, and its proportions—that the height of the ceiling is half the Chapel’s length and one and a half times its width—were modeled on those of the Temple of Solomon as mentioned in the Book of First Kings in the Old Testament.[1] I suppose Sixtus IV wanted his Chapel to call attention to the old Temple since the Temple signaled a great triumph the history of the Jews. It was the first Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and it was built about the year one thousand BC, well before the founding of Rome. King David, had just united the Twelve Tribes of Israel and conquered Jerusalem, and it was left to his son, Solomon, to build the great Temple. As the Temple had marked a great moment for the ancient Hebrews, so Sixtus wanted the Chapel to do the same for the Christians of his day.

After Sixtus had the chapel built, he had much of it decorated with great frescoes. Then four popes and thirty years later, Pope Julius II, Sixtus’s nephew and a member of his Della Rovere family, decided to have Michelangelo repaint the ceiling, which kept him busy from 1508 to 1512. Then, another four popes and another thirty years later, the Medici Pope Clement VII commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgment on the wall behind the altar. He worked on this fresco and its more than 300 figures from 1534 to 1541.  Thus, the Chapel was decorated in three great waves of Renaissance painting over a period of sixty years.

Two of these three main waves of artworks are by Michelangelo. His lofty and well-deserved reputation may distract attention from the frescoes belonging to the first wave, but they too are quite remarkable; and if they lack the drama of Michelangelo’s work, they are filled with the grace and beauty characteristic of much of the Renaissance. After all, they were painted by the very best artists from the decades just before Michelangelo and Raphael came along, including Botticelli, Perugino, and Pinturicchio.

Michelangelo’s achievement not only has distracted attention from that of the great artists of the first wave, but each of Michelangelo’s two later waves required destruction of their work. Much of the Chapel is like a palimpsest in which the first layer of writing has been erased. Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, for example, covered a vast fresco of the Assumption of the Virgin by Perugino, Raphael’s beloved teacher, as we will discuss in a future podcast. The most important surviving works from the first wave are twelve large frescoes, six on one wall based on the life of Christ, and six on the opposite wall based on the life of Moses.

One reason I admire the great Renaissance fresco artists is that they often seek to say something important through their paintings; and to convey their messages, they compose complex works with large numbers of figures, rich architectural and natural settings, and important symbols. It is often said of Michelangelo that he had a great interest in the human form, perhaps especially when nude, and I think he did, but his human figures, and those of all the frescoes in the Chapel, are also particular people chosen to tell particular stories and to present an insight into the human situation. There are numerous characters from the Old and the New Testaments, Sibyls, sinners and saints, and even some characters from pagan myth, such as Charon, the boatman who ferried the souls of the dead to Hades. So, what story is told by the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel? A precise answer must await a closer look at the three waves of frescoes, but let’s start with a rough overview.

If we look at the Chapel’s side walls, we will first notice the horizontal band or register of twelve frescoes from the first wave, which represent scenes from the lives of Christ and Moses. Below it is a register of painted drapery with no figures, and above it is a register of twenty-eight portraits of early popes, who had died as martyrs. (Another four were covered by Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.) Generally overlooked amidst the Chapel’s many wonders, this series of frescoes is a reminder that the popes often made themselves and their office the subjects of the art they commissioned. We have already seen that Pope Julius II had himself painted into several of the frescoes of the Raphael Rooms and had commissioned Michelangelo to sculpt a ridiculously large and complex funeral monument in his honor. The consistent theme of the Hall of Constantine was to show that the papacy was supported from above by God and on earth by the Emperor Constantine the Great. As we have also seen, the statues, reliefs, and medallions throughout Saint Peter’s Basilica honor particular popes and seek to strengthen the authority of papal rule. The original design for the frescoes Michelangelo was to paint on the Sistine ceiling would fit this pattern, for they were to feature the Twelve Apostles above the windows, six on each side of the nave, and the 32 popes in the register below would then be shown to be receiving their authority from the Apostles. Great art would then again defend the august and even divine authority claimed by the papacy.

But Michelangelo persuaded Julius II to abandon this plan of papal promotion and to give the artist a greater role in designing a new one for the ceiling. This crucial change in subjects is portrayed with special drama in the old film, the Agony and the Ecstasy, which, at least as I remember it from long ago, offers a surprisingly good introduction to Julius II, Michelangelo, and their turbulent relationship. Nor, when Michelangelo returned three decades later to paint the Last Judgment, did he focus on papal authority. His subjects were more transcendent and less political. In thinking about the meaning or message of the three waves of frescoes I’ve mentioned, I thus begin with the road not taken: their art is not a direct glorification of their patrons or the papacy, though some signs of this theme do survive on the side walls. The frescoes are mostly concerned with transpolitical matters, and I think that this—as much as their beauty and technical excellence—contributes to their greatness.

As it turns out, our three waves of frescoes can be organized by their division of all time. The Last Judgment treats the end of time, or at least of man’s time on earth; the ceiling treats its beginning, when God created heaven and earth; and one of the side walls treats the time of Moses and his law, while the other side treats Christ and his revised law. In short, we get a divine plan with a beginning, end, and middle period, when human beings struggled to find their way amidst various temptations and two different moral codes of paramount importance, the Mosaic Law and the teachings of Christ that revised it.

The frescoes add an infinity of details, with their hundreds of figures in acting out roles in many different stories, and we will look at the most important in upcoming podcasts, but the first point is that the three groups of frescoes represent an ordered and purposeful world, made such by a supreme and just God. Nothing is left to chance, and our lives are not beyond good and evil.

This said, it is tempting to move rapidly to the challenges Michelangelo faced in completing his assignment, which the powerful pope Julius imposed on the reluctant artist, who wanted desperately to remain a sculptor, not become a fresco artist. These are riveting subjects, and we will get to them, but it is a bad habit to pass over the intended meaning of a work of art, if there is one, in order to address aesthetic and other questions, however dramatic. Let me risk a few more words bearing on the main subjects of the Chapel.

The vision presented by the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel is of what we might call a universe, in which all things form a unified whole. The modern world sees things differently. Whereas the universe of the Sistine Chapel brings together God, nature, and moral conduct, the prevailing modern world view tends to leave God out of the picture, hand the understanding of nature over to science, and surrender ethics to individual choice. Why do I say this?

Modern science tells us how things are, or at least gives us models of how they behave, but it refrains from saying how they ought to be. It examines the world we live in, but it does not seek to discover moral laws offering guidance about how to act. We are not sure where this world came from—a big bang, perhaps—and we don’t know where it is going. Science detects no intention or purpose in its studies of beginning and possible end. Nor was our species created for a purpose: it emerged from microscopic sea creatures after 3.5 billion years of evolutionary changes and countless events that might have gone otherwise. There is a kind of order, for the fittest do survive and reproduce, but the fittest are fit only in their ability to survive and reproduce, not by qualities we might call higher. In the end, and depending on circumstances, some sort of beetle might well prove to be most fit. This is fascinating, and Darwin concludes his masterpiece by saying, “There is grandeur in this [evolutionary] view of life, . . . that from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” But he shows reasonable restraint in not claiming to have discovered in the workings of nature any moral purpose, moral standards, or consolation for suffering and death.

Even as modern science was making its way in the world thanks to the work of Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, and Newton, and thanks also to its truly impressive contributions to the health, comfort, and length of our lives, God was receding as the focus of the attention of the leading intellects of the West, as Nietzsche and countless others have noted. Having done so much for us in so many ways, modern thought has also separated ethics from both God and nature, and this makes it unclear whether ethical judgments can have any foundation besides the power of those who assert them.

We still face choices and need some way of deciding what is right and wrong, but—speaking generally—the old authorities are no longer available to us. If we cannot base our opinions on either God or nature as disclosed by reason, perhaps we can only affirm them as acts of our will and promote them by shouting them louder and louder. The escape from God and His purported judgments, as they are represented in Michelangelo’s fresco, may seem a great liberation, especially since eternal damnation is a frightful prospect. It is nevertheless possible to be liberated from a demanding moral code and the fearsome punishments that help to sustain it, only then to find oneself in the awkward predicament of not knowing where to find one that is better or more authoritative.

I don’t say things are quite this simple. Belief in God has not entirely vanished, some would say that modern science can establish rules of morality, and perhaps many or even most people would say that morality can survive the death of God. One of my heroes, Aristotle, wrote his Ethics without turning to religion for guidance. There’s much more that must be said on all such vast questions. But when considering the neat scheme presented by the Sistine Chapel, where God, nature, beginning, end, moral standards, human purpose, and just rewards are all intimately tied together, I think it fair to say that there is nothing similar in the modern world. Whether this is an opportunity, a predicament, or both remains to be determined.

So much for a brief overview of the universe presented in the Sistine Chapel and how different it is from the one we inhabit today. We’ll add a little precision by taking a closer look at the Chapel’s three waves of frescoes in upcoming podcasts, and I promise not to forget the drama behind Michelangelo’s achievement. Like almost everyone else, I am impressed by what he was able to accomplish under difficult circumstances. It even makes me wonder whether the greatest lesson of the Chapel is to remind us of the power of talent, love, and ambition when brought together in a single individual.

[1] 1 Kings 6.

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