Many months ago I attended a talk at the NSU Museum of Art by senior curator Dr. Barbara Buhler Lynes about the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes and how the restorations led to the discovery of hidden meanings, which I found fascinating. I took notes, researched the subject a little created a document that would eventually turn into a blog entry, but then I couldn’t find the time to go back to it. Until… I had lunch with my friend Elizabeth who so kindly asked if I would be interested in joining her to a trip to Rome to visit the Vatican and its museum on a special tour and even have an audience with Pope Francis. Now, I really wanted to go, and tried like crazy to make it, but it didn’t happen, I couldn’t go. I was really sad to lose such an opportunity to see the Sistine Chapel and a special invitation to see sections of the Vatican Museum normally closed to visitors. While I was toiling in the sadness of it all, Pope Francis himself posted on Instagram a picture of himself at the Sistine Chapel.
Instagram photo of Pope Francis at the Sistine Chapel
I said that’s it! I have to finish up my research on this. And while working on it my friend Maria Elena invited me to the opening of an exhibition at her design showroom which included photography of Massimo Listri, with images of the Vatican Museum of all places!
If this wasn’t the universe’s way to push me to write on this, I don’t know what else was!
A little background: The Sistine Chapel has the exact dimensions of the Temple of Solomon as described in the Bible. It was commissioned to be built by Pope Sixtus IV, hence the name Sistine Chapel, and held the first mass there in 1483. But what made it what it is today with the fantastic frescoes of Michelangelo on its ceiling was thanks to Sixtus IV's nephew, Pope Julius II who became the pope at 1503 and commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling. Pope Julius II wanted the ceiling to depict the 12 Apostles but Michelangelo was able to convince him that the ceiling should depict imagery from the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Michelangelo started to work on the ceiling in 1508 and finished it in four years in 1512. (Apart from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo also painted the Last Judgment behind the altar between the years 1536 to 1541).
Sistine Chapel Ceiling
Source: The Vatican Website
It is kind of strange that the Pope would choose a sculptor, not a painter—an artist prone to not complete projects and a known-bitter man—to do these frescoes. It is more strange that that artist chose this great project to start to learn about painting frescoes, at such an important location and to do that while –not lying on his back as imagined—but standing up with his head arched back. (By the way the scaffolding came off the sides of the walls, not from the ceiling).
Of course the most famous image we know of from the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling is the Creation of Adam. In the middle of the 9 panels this is the focal center of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. What I was first introduced at the lecture was that neuroscientists see the brain in this image. Hmm.. It is a known fact that Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)– an older contemporary of Michelangelo with whom there was a rivalry despite the age difference dissected bodies and studied anatomy, but turned out Michelangelo did the same. Analysts claim that Michelangelo placed God inside the image of a brain intentionally. Thanks to the restoration of the ceiling though, we are more able to see what is really on the frescoes, and that we can hypothesize more about the artist’s intention.
For example, during the lecture, Rustin Levenson, one of the most important conservation and restoration experts, was sitting two seats away from me. When Dr. Barbara Buhler Lynes at the end of her lecture asked whether we thought the restoration was a job well done, she raised her hand. Earlier she had told me she had worked as an intern during the restoration of the Sistine Chapel.
While many object to the restoration because the ceiling doesn’t look dark and dated but rather new with its bright colors, I’d say I think Michelangelo would have liked the way they are now. As we have better lighting and we are more enlightened!, we are more receptive to see and understand all these details. To this day the fascination continues: we still visit, pay attention, and experts from all different kinds of fields notice details. (I also love it that a most important religious institution is not afraid of nudity in artistic expression, and that God is depicted in the image of a man, with bunions and all). And lastly, we personally might like the frescoes to look old but how can we expect millennials to show any interest in anything that isn’t bright and shiny?
From the lecture I found out that in many instances a knowledge of neuroanatomy was displayed by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Also, apart from the ceiling, the wall behind the altar was painted by Michelangelo with the Last Judgment years after he had finished the ceiling. According to another lecture I watched and read about by Dr. Valerie Shrimplin of Gresham College, the Last Judgment, displays a Sun-centered universe by way of Christ, as if he is Apollo, the Sun God. She argues that even though Copernicus hadn’t published his work until after the Last Judgment was finished Michelangelo did already know about his work which was contrary to what the church taught which said that the earth was the center of the universe. Hence in a way questioning it all. I’d say artists intuitively know more and are ahead of times as they are creative creatures, connected more to this creative well some might even call God.
What was Michelangelo thinking when he was painting? He was a sculptor, creating these major frescoes. He was convinced by Pope Julius II to paint, and he in return convinced the Pope about what the ceiling should depict and had free reign. What did he think while Renaissance Humanism was taking hold, with so many scientific discoveries taking place, all the while dissecting bodies to study the human anatomy: that hundreds of years later the church would still exist, and people would be visiting, observing, hypothesizing, and that perhaps he could send clues ahead of time?
Like I wonder, what he was thinking when he included on the sides 7 minor prophets, and 5 Sibyls. Why not include 5 more minor prophets? Sibyls were known for being the prophetic women in Greece. Why combine minor prophets with Sibyls? Or, for that matter, an older post at the Vatican's Patrum app states in an older post (Check 'Three in one'), it can also look like God is placed inside a womb and that the shawl looks like an umbilical cord, really? Can it be?
As I was preparing for this I met with my good friends Barbara, and Perri who is a Renaissance scholar and asked about Michelangelo’s private life and how it could have reflected to the scenes on the ceiling. She pointed out the special relationship there must have been between Pope Julius II and Michelangelo specifically because of the acorns Michelangelo depicted throughout the ceiling, that they in fact look like phallic symbols.
I took a look at them after I got home. Michelangelo painted these bunches of acorns throughout the ceiling next to the Ignudis “Nudes” and turns out Michelangelo painted those in reverence to his patron Pope Julius’ family name Rovere meaning “Oak”. I don’t know. Why remember your patron only next to nudes—why paint nudes at all to begin with? Ok, that’s what he was good at—but with acorns that look really like penises?
And Perri and I see penises everywhere? When I talked to Dani about the acorns he immediately said it was probably just me—that I have a dirty mind I guess?—but seeing them himself in the examples below, he didn't object. What do you think?
I always ask, why? (I will never understand people who don’t ask why, or question, but just accept things as they are). And this is one of the things how art is supposed to be like: That hundreds of years later we try to understand, and feel there is something missing: What is the real intention? (And isn’t it just fantastic that what you get and I get can be totally different!)
I try to understand why Michelangelo who was not a painter, a sculptor took on this job? Such an important commission at such an important place, and this is the time you decide to learn painting frescoes? And why did Julius II himself choose Michelangelo, a man who sculpted, not painted, and mostly nude males at that? Many say the reason was because Raphael (1483-1520), and the architect of Saint Peter’s, Donato Bramante (1444-1514), both of whom did not get along with Michelangelo recommended him to Julius, believing he would mess it up and mortally embarrass himself. I don’t know…
And then all of a sudden I am reminded of Thorn Birds. Remember Thorn Birds? Colleen McCullough’s book made in to a miniseries starring Rachel Ward and Richard Chamberlain in which an Australian priest who almost becomes a pope is torn between his love of God and a woman. I remember watching it the first time as a teenager and crying my heart out. (I watched it many more times later). And I think, what if there is a love story here, a sad one at that: What if Michelangelo and Julius II are in love despite the great age difference. It’s been known to happen, it could even be just Platonic. So that Julius asks Michelangelo to come to Rome and quit building his tomb (maybe just to be with him), a daunting task for Michelangelo anyway, but perhaps because he actually loves Julius? So he goes to Rome, takes the commission and somehow manages to convince the pope about the subject matter and has free reign. For four years he paints with his head tilted backwards. He paints nudes and next to them places acorns (Oak/Rovere) to remember/ honor Julius II as he imagines him to be as the young man he once was. But is also torn between his love and his spirituality.
When the ceiling is finished Michelangelo leaves Rome to work on Julius' tomb. Julius II dies in 1513, and much later Pope Clement VII just before his own death asks for the return of Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgment behind the altar, a work he starts doing in 1536. Michelangelo comes back to the Sistine Chapel and is reminded of all these memories of Julius II and his love for him. By then Copernicus’ theories, even though not yet published are quite talked about: that the earth is not the center of the universe as the church teaches, and that perhaps all that he was believing in, causing him to feel guilty all this time was all a farce. He breaks down remembering of Julius II, his love, the longing, and the guilt, so many years later. With all these memories flooding in he has the windows behind the altar closed up as if in mourning. Let no light in. He thinks about this great Love, and that Love is the center of the universe. Julius was like the center of his universe, that he was his Sun. God like. So he paints Christ as the center of the universe, like Apollo, Sun-god like: He was my Sun, he says, and I worshipped him…
Such is the power of art. This is what it is supposed to do. At least great art. It makes us look, think, create something else, comment. After all, all we all want, is to hear stories, of love…
While the last paragraph is my imagination at work, for your consideration, Pope Julius II did have one daughter; and that quite probably in terms of sexual lives in artistic circles, the Renaissance period resembled ancient Greece. And that much like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, the man who sculpted David, a master in depicting the perfect male body, was gay too.
Pope Clement VII who commissioned Michelangelo the Last Judgment was a Medici. The succeeding pope Paul III during whose time the Last Judgment was finished in 1541, in fact had five children.
The Vatican has an app called Patrum which has fascinating information. One such info is about the last Council of Trent that convened during Pope Pius IV’s time, and ordered the images of genitalia to be painted over by Daniele da Volterra in 1564; the app has an interesting article about the distinction between nakedness and nudity (Check 'The Final Judgment').
Please visit the Sistine Chapel here in this interactive and look up closely.
When it comes to hidden meanings and intentions there is also the issue of the Golden Ratio. Apparently, in nature and the most timeless and admired works of art in history, the Golden Ratio has been utilized, which can lead you to think it is perhaps why they are so liked without really knowing and the same ratio has been utilized by Michelangelo at the Sistine Chapel's ceiling, hence our admiration and fascination with it.