Buon Compleanno, Cappella Sistina!
All Saints Day 2012 marked the 500th anniversary of Michelangelo’s completion of the ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Now the setting for one of Catholicism’s most sacred rituals, the papal conclave, by which a new pope is selected, the chapel has been at the center of a surprising amount of notoriety—much of it generated by Michelangelo’s gloriously gorgeous creation scenes, his virile God, an astounding tally of nudes and even a penis-eating serpent.
When idealizing the human form, Renaissance artists, Michelangelo included, often followed the lead of masters from the classical period of ancient Greece. This discipleship extended to their depiction of male genitalia. Tastemakers of the classical age had preferred males with small penises, and in the iconography of Greek statuary and vases, gods, heroes, warriors, athletes and assorted other comely young men are all teensily hung. Big penises—sometimes abominably ostentatious—were the endowment of lascivious old men, horny satyrs and other unsavory or comic types.
The Sistine Chapel ceiling is a well-policed riot of semi- and total nudity—mostly male. Adam is nude, of course, as are Noah (in the panel picturing his drunkenness) and Noah’s sons and other, more minor Old Testament figures. The Creator’s buttocks even make a cameo in the panel The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Planets. Moreover, in the fantastic trompe l’oeil architecture of the ceiling, the central, storytelling panels are set off by a series of 20 colossal male ignudi (nudes), whose pumped-up bodies and contorted poses add an erotic frisson to the entire composition. But no matter how beefy the beefcake, the penises (and testicles) on view are invariably classically minuscule.
The Sistine Chapel frescoes present a significantly different appearance today than they did just a few decades ago—a difference so extreme that it may justly be described as “day and night.” This radical change was brought about by a full-scale, Vatican-approved cleaning and restoration project lasting from 1980 to 1999.
Controversy dogged the project from its inception. No one could argue with the restorers’ good intentions: The frescoes were grimy, crackled and in places barely legible, blackened by centuries of candle smoke and damaged by water seepage and previous restoration attempts. But critics, led by Columbia University art historian James Beck, found lots to complain about in the cleaning techniques used, as well as the assumption the restoration team made that Michelangelo had worked only in buon fresco (fresh plaster) and had added nothing to the images after the damp plaster had dried. That assumption led restorers to remove not just the dirt but also any overpainting. By doing so, they revealed Michelangelo’s gloriously brilliant palette but, in the critics’ view, also stripped away dark washes Michelangelo himself had applied to mute the colors, deepen the shadows and enhance the images’ dimensionality.
Many of the figures in the Sistine’s ceiling frescoes are nude; by contrast, most of the figures in Michelangelo’s other Sistine fresco, The Last Judgment, are brazenly naked. Or, rather, they were naked when Michelangelo painted them. The erotic tumult of this work upset pious prudes even before Michelangelo completed it. The Judgment’s first would-be censor was Biagio da Cesena, a papal aide who objected to the fresco’s sacrilegious “obscenity.” Michelangelo’s deft riposte was to include a portrait of Da Cesena in the Judgment: He appears at the mural’s lower right as the donkey-eared Minos, judge of the underworld, his body encircled by a serpent. Where Da Cesena failed, however, later complainants succeeded, partly. Although there was talk, after Michelangelo’s death, of destroying the masterpiece, the Vatican instead hired painter Daniele da Volterra to cloak the private parts of Michelangelo’s naked dead. (Daniele earned the nickname Il Braghettone—“the Breeches Maker”—for doing this ignominious job.) A noncontroversial aspect of the Sistine’s recent restoration was the removal, by restorers, of some of those offensively inoffensive draperies. One amusing revelation: The genitals of the Minos/Da Cesena figure, long hidden under Daniele’s hackwork, are shown being devoured by the serpent constricting him.
“I’m no painter.” This, incredibly, was the self-assessment of the man who produced two frescoes universally acknowledged as among the world’s greatest masterpieces: the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling and the mural of The Last Judgment that covers the chapel’s altar wall. Three decades separated Michelangelo’s painting of the ceiling (1508–1512) and the Judgment (1537–1541), and the works are very unlike in format and tone. The ceiling is a complex vision of order: Its 175 separate pictorial units are framed within an ornate illusionary architecture whose elements pile upward toward the nine central panels illustrating the creation of the world, the creation and fall of humankind, and Noah and the flood. In these and other images (including portraits of the prophets), the ceiling interprets the Hebrew scriptures through a Christian lens, telling the story of a world that, though fallen, is headed toward salvation. The Judgment, by contrast, is a single composition—one so tempestuous that it flirts with chaos. The story here is one of damnation seemingly unrelieved by mercy. At its center hovers a wrathful Christ; the Virgin cowers behind him, the damned flinch toward hell, and even the figures of the saved look more shocked than relieved.
How many Christians, if asked to imagine what God the Father looks like, would conjure an image resembling God as portrayed by Michelangelo in The Creation of Adam? Plenty, probably, given how widely that picture is known and how influential it has been on Christian iconography. Although the God of Genesis is anthropomorphic (he walks in the Garden in the evening breeze; he talks to Adam and Eve), nowhere in Genesis is he physically described. In much early Christian art only the hand of God is portrayed. The Hebrew scriptures provide a sketchy description of God in the figure called the Ancient of Days, in Daniel 7:9, where he is an enthroned old man with a garment “white as snow” and hair like “pure wool.” Artists before Michelangelo had borrowed from that characterization, depicting God the Father as a white-haired (and white-bearded) patriarch or king. Michelangelo’s innovation, in the Adam panel and three of the Sistine ceiling’s other creation panels (The Separation of Light and Darkness; The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Planets; and The Creation of Life in the Waters), was to render God as a dramatically active being, muscularly involved in the business of world making.
The design of St. Peter’s Basilica was conceived by Pope Julius II and his architect, Donato Bramante. After their deaths, in 1513 and 1514, respectively, a succession of popes and their architectural advisors (including, briefly, Raphael) significantly changed Bramante’s original plan. This evolution culminated in a design executed by Michelangelo, appointed to superintend the basilica’s construction in 1547, when he was in his 70s. That the St. Peter’s we see today—including its distinctive ribbed dome, the tallest in the world—largely represents Michelangelo’s vision is ironic, given that Michelangelo had been a rival of Bramante’s for Pope Julius’s favor. Michelangelo, in fact, suspected Bramante of advising Julius to cancel the tomb project that was Michelangelo’s first papal commission, convincing the pope to instead fund the basilica project.
Michelangelo’s other contribution to the wonder that is St. Peter’s is the Pietà, his sublime sculpture of the Virgin cradling the body of her dead son. A product of Michelangelo’s youth, carved in 1498 and 1499, it originally resided in a mausoleum later demolished along with the basilica that occupied the site of the present-day St. Peter’s. The Pietà is displayed today in the first chapel along the right side of the nave.
Pope Julius II (r. 1503–1513) was dubbed Il Papa Terribile (“the Terrible Pope”) not because he was a lousy pontiff but because he was a terror-inspiring warrior who spent much of his pontificate consolidating papal power in the Italian peninsula. Among his achievements was regaining the Vatican’s hold over the Papal States, which had become fiefs of the Borgia family during the reign of his nepotistic predecessor, the Borgia pope Alexander VI. Julius was also the founder, in 1506, of the Swiss Guard, a corps that has served as the pope’s bodyguard ever since.
But Julius is as notable for being a champion of the arts as he is for leading armies. Beyond his patronage of Michelangelo, Julius commissioned the murals by Raphael (including The School of Athens) that decorate the papal apartments, established the Vatican Museum and—working with architect Donato Bramante—conceived the bold plan of building a new St. Peter’s Basilica as the splendid centerpiece of a Vatican-controlled Rome. Julius oversaw the laying of the basilica’s cornerstone on April 18, 1506. The building—still one of the largest churches in Christendom and certainly among the grandest—was completed 120 years later.
Although named for its sponsor, Pope Sixtus IV (r. 1471–1484), the Sistine Chapel may be said to belong to Pope Julius II (called “the Terrible”), who commissioned the masterwork that covers the chapel’s upper reaches. It may also be said that Michelangelo belonged to Julius from 1505 to 1512, when the pope’s projects consumed most of his energy. Already renowned for sculpting the Pietà and the David, Michelangelo was summoned to Rome in 1505 to create a tomb for Julius. The artist enthusiastically dived in, proposing a magnificent multistory design featuring more than 40 statues. To Michelangelo’s annoyance, however, the pope soon shelved the project. (A greatly scaled-down version of the tomb, incorporating Michelangelo’s Moses, was built years later and installed inside Rome’s Church of St. Peter in Chains.) Following the tomb’s cancellation, artist and pope were on the outs, and Michelangelo strongly resisted Julius’s invitation to paint the Sistine’s ceiling, in part because he considered himself inadequate in the fresco medium. Although Michelangelo did, of course, ultimately give in, he devised a much more elaborate design than Julius had envisioned, and the pope’s patience was sorely tested during the four years it took Michelangelo to complete the work.