If the smoke is black, the question is yet at issue; if white, by majority vote the College of Cardinals has elected a Pope.  Many recall 2013 when a seagull, metaphor of opportunism, perched atop the Sistine Chapel chimney as black smoke from burning election cards emerged in puffs from a stove deep within the Sistine Chapel.  Some yet believe in omens; most believe in science.  Next day, white smoke, and Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina was selected.  He took the name “Francis”, 266th pope, 265th in line of succession from Peter, the longest serving pope (34 or 37 years, experts disagree).  On average, popes serve for 7.5 years.  Francesco della Rovere, Pope Sixtus IV, presided over 13 years of patronage, building, and expansion, and it was he who commissioned the Sistine Chapel (1473), the personal papal chapel where popes are elected, a chapel that all the world knows for its ceiling decoration, an illustration of the Old Testament.

Giuliano della Rovere, Genoese son of Rome, in honor of Julius Caesar assumed the name Julius and became Pope Julius II, warrior who consolidated the Papal States and centralized power, the pope who formed the Swiss Guard and established bishoprics in the Americas, and as you will remember, the pope who commissioned Michelangelo’s Old Testament illustrations.  Manly and virile, Julius imposed his will, sometimes after deep contemplation, sometimes in a flame of action, as when he struck a complaining Michelangelo.  Men of strong will, Julius and Michelangelo were often in conflict toward the same end, the Glory of God, the saving of souls, achievement of greatness, each for his kingdom on earth.  Few of us have opportunity to form imagination of millions upon millions, fewer are capable of the task, fewer still are worthy of the task; most who try make a mess of things; Michelangelo formed, refined, enriched, enlarged all we all.


The Sistine Chapel, Walls and Ceiling

The Sistine Chapel.  credit: Jurete Buiviene


You might like to know that the Sistine Chapel Ceiling covers some 12,000 square feet, that its vault tops at 68 feet, that there are some 300 persons depicted in the picture’s five chapters: universal creation, creation and desolation of Adam & Eve, Noah’s story, prophets and sibyls, ancestors of Jesus.  Michelangelo destroyed his first attempt (wasn’t prepared in mind and heart) and began again, finishing four years later (1512).  Diligent in his work, I have heard that after long sessions when removing his boots, skin from his foot would peel away (a phenomenon which I know), and I can tell that the body will accept a contortion hour on hour, day after day, week after week if the will demands … in this too Julius and Michelangelo were alike, of that type who merely begin when others are finished.

Some prefer the architecture Michelangelo created in trompe l’oeil (eye fooling), a make-believe of organizing, architectural structure.  Some prefer the conceptual scope, the episodes of storytelling which show us the yet indistinct pictures in our minds.  Some prefer the outline and coloring-in of the hero, the truth we each know of ourselves inside, that reprimand and hope of what we might be, the divine, pefected creature of Revelation … which might yet prove true, but that is the episode of Final Judgment, another story illustrated by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, and we’ve only the morning to complete this letter.  In truth, the Sistine Ceiling would not be, would not be as it is without Michelangelo’s preternatural wisdom in architecture, pictuary, statuary, each of which would not be without God.


The Sistine Chapel, exterior

Sistine Chapel, exterior, Vatican.


The chapel’s exterior is impressive, sturdy, “muscular,” you might say, “silent in the way strength”.  Of brick, balanced in bay and arch, buttressed, showing structure, restrained in ornament, a façade untelling the beauty and brilliance within.  This chapel, alike many Renaissance chapels, has good bones and patience, waiting centuries for the rich skin of stone, a blank canvas anticipating the form and color that will give it civil dress.  The Sistine Chapel façade yet waits.  Sistine’s interior was dressed from the first in pictuary by Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Perugino, Rosselli and unrecorded masters of the workshops.  The ceiling was as light and airy as the façade is heavy and solid; it was night blue, decorated with pretty, sparkling stars that in dumb silence awaited the imagination of man, a speaking of knowledge beyond stars, a picturing essence and meaning of things.

When last in the chapel, I was fortunate to be with one who was there first time (and hundreds more crowded in) so I was allowed to describe this detail or that, choosing one or another story I favored, or that suited my point.  Yes, I am delighted by the 20 Ignudi, the “male athletes” engaged in activities of their own concerns, as who is not, and this because Michelangelo exhausted the subject, much as did Bach with the fugue.  Most all agree that the ceiling can begin and end in the Creation of Adam at God’s fingertip, the most open and quiet place of all 12,000 square feet, a place that the chapel itself favored by a crack that points to the energy, the anticipated spark of creation.  Everywhere, the becoming, the one thing fulfilling purpose, its action in transition, never change, as in Adam & Eve sprung from temptation to desolation, or God alike His created stars revolving inevitably, irreversibly through the universe.  At the story’s end, drunk Noah, stasis, lethargy, a pointing at man devolved in sin.  And there, greatest of the Ignudi, Jonah, the person directly above the Sistine altar, shown as he is, a person unwilling to do as God commands, and there, the fish who swallows Jonah, prevents him from doing as he would, and going where he would go, a fish who swims Jonah to where God chooses.  You know the story.


Sistine Ceiling Zechariah

Zechariah, Sistine Ceiling, Michelangelo.


And there is this detail, seldom seen in the vast confusion of things, a little gesture by a little putti in the shadow of the prophet Zechariah.  Notice directly below the prophet the shield of arms, the della Rovere family crest.  Know that the prophet Zechariah is a portrait of the della Rovere prince, Julius II.  Understand that Zachariah foretold Christ’s coming, that Zachariah was the “branch” to Christ, a branch seen in the della Rovere oak tree family crest.  As Zachariah foretold Christ founding His nation on earth, Julius founded his nation, a Roman, Christian state (a nation now reduced to the Vatican).  Look again at the shadowed detail of the putti, see the one behind Zachariah’s cloak, the golden-haired boy who slings his arm over his fellow, the supposed Michelangelo self-portrait in caricature.

Notice Michelangelo’s gesture, the fig, thumb between fingers that recreates the central feature of female anatomy, a gesture alike the common, obscene American middle-finger.  Well, we all have our opinions of the great who exercise authority on and over us.  Sometimes our opinions are justified, sometimes not.  As always, popes will do their will, occasionally in folly, occasionally in wisdom.  Popes too must take the world as they receive it.  Trouble is, popes are people, imperfect and tangled, subject to the attractions of hope.  Today, in the building of a new world from the confusion of things, we hope for much that is not wise.  As always, one will stand behind the pope, and the other will stand behind the pope giving him the fig.


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The Sistine Chapel, Altar

The Sistine Chapel Altar.


After some little whispering time (this is, after all, the pope’s private chapel, a sacred space that he allows us to visit in curiosity or in faith), perhaps half-an-hour, a priest entered as priests will do, and offered blessing to those who would approach the altar.  Half-willing (who among us would be singled from the crowd) a handful of faithful approached, queued beneath Jonah, and offered ourselves to blessing.  The crowd parted, allowing space around the altar.  My companion and I were second-up, so were not long isolated in singularity.  No, this was not the meek and gentle priest of the moderny type, but a priest of Africa, born accustomed to struggle, to battles physical and spiritual.  Firmly, he asked if we would be confessed or blessed, well you can guess, who would confess before a minor multitude.  We were blessed, directly, sincerely.  We left.  You know how it is, the walking on, the body at peace, the soul refined, the oddness in time, like everyday yet like everyday in the vast universe, knowing the foot’s touch of the floor, the eye’s ending at the wall, the mind perceiving there is more, an eternity beyond infinity.  Something like that, though even now I am unsure if the cause of euphoria was enlargement by blessed Michelangelo or enrichment by God’s blessing, but then I suppose the two are one in the same.


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Sistine Chapel Ceiling Vatican Michelangelo

Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Vatican, Michelangelo.


You might appreciate Michelangelo’s poem on his experience painting the Sistine Ceiling, “To Giovanni a Pistoia – On the Painting of the Sistine Chapel”, here translated by John Addington Symonds (1878):


I’ve grown a goitre by dwelling in this den–
As cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy,
Or in what other land they hap to be–
Which drives the belly close beneath the chin:
My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in,
Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly
Grows like a harp: a rich embroidery
Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin.
My loins into my paunch like levers grind:
My buttock like a crupper bears my weight;
My feet unguided wander to and fro;
In front my skin grows loose and long; behind,
By bending it becomes more taut and strait;
Crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow:
Whence false and quaint, I know,
Must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye;
For ill can aim the gun that bends awry.
Come then, Giovanni, try
To succour my dead pictures and my fame;
Since foul I fare and painting is my shame.


Michelangelo was devout his life through, each year deepening in faith, and writing toward the end of life, “Neither statues nor pictures will longer serve to calm my soul, now turned toward Divine Love who on the cross opened His arms to take us in.


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Featured Image: Sistine Chapel, Screen. credit: The Vatican

The Beautiful Home: American Sacred Architecture, the Houses of God