Jeannie Marshall is the author of All Things Move: Learning to Look in the Sistine Chapel.
Visiting the Sistine Chapel is uncomfortable. It’s always crowded, and you have to walk through the vast collections of the Vatican Museums before you even get there. And when you finally reach this famous room, you have to look up at images that are difficult to see from the ground. Every time I’ve been, I can sense a current of irritation running through the room. Even if you do have the place to yourself, these frescoes will not yield themselves easily. Many people experience it as more of a duty than a pleasure and others admit they find the whole thing boring. So what can be gained by spending our precious time contemplating a half-millennium-old religious view of the world painted by a deeply Catholic artist?
It’s useful to consider the person who is uninterested in this artwork because this might be the most honest approach that a contemporary visitor can take. To approach it with unexamined reverence is to risk missing it completely. Perhaps the person who is willing to court ridicule by asking what’s so great about it is the person who might find an answer.
Art is a difficult pleasure, and this art does not offer easy platitudes. Michelangelo’s masterpiece doesn’t tell you how to be, or what to do. It isn’t practical or useful, and it doesn’t even show you an easy path to heavenly eternity. Although the ceiling is an illustration of the Old Testament, and the altar wall is of the Last Judgment, these frescoes are not instructive. Instead they tell an old human story of struggle and uncertainty. They tell you to consider your solitary life and think about what it means to be a human being in the world. These questions are not so unlike the ones we all have today, but we usually leave them unaddressed under loads of laundry and piles of unfinished work and the other pressing obligations of daily life.
On the surface the frescoes would seem to be about Catholic doctrine, but instead they show you that Catholicism in the early 16th-century was quite different from what it is today. The frescoes are not simply illustrations of biblical stories, but instead look at the deep questions those stories bring up. They acknowledge that the Bible itself is an artful text, a mysterious collection of verse and prophecy that comes out of a human past that we don’t know so much about.
Each part of the ceiling is a fresh look at an old story. God in the Separation of Light from Darkness is a vigorous old man pulling the universe into being with only his hands and out of nothing, which is an image that raises questions such as “what comes before existence?” and “who created God?” The sibyls are enormous masculine women who prophesied the birth of a saviour, but they existed before Christianity and are not in the Old Testament.
In the Deluge, Michelangelo doesn’t tell the familiar tale of Noah’s ark and the animals going aboard two by two. We see the ark in the distance, but the attention is focused on the grey sky meeting a rising body of water and on the people struggling out of it to survive a flood, which we know they will not survive. The artist makes us stay with the condemned while the ark floats away.
The Deluge is the first of the panels that pulled me in at a point where I was almost ready to give up. The story in Genesis says that God intends to flood the Earth, wipe it clean and start again. It’s hard not to think about climate change and rising sea levels when contemplating the fate of God’s flawed creatures who have seemingly brought this upon themselves. But there’s no trace of moral superiority in this depiction, or righteous pleasure to be had from looking at the victims of God’s displeasure. By making the viewer confront those who have been left behind, Michelangelo raises questions about fairness and mortality and even about what kind of god would be so harsh.
On a recent visit I looked again at this panel and thought about Michelangelo portraying these people as wanting to live and to go on, as we would want to go on. He doesn’t portray the woman carrying her children or the men in the sinking boat as deserving of their fate.
Michelangelo isn’t an apologist for this terrifying Old Testament God. And we know, though Michelangelo would not have, that this story is older than the one told in Genesis. We know that such tales were also told in ancient Mesopotamia centuries earlier; like the story of Atrahasis where a cranky god, finding humans to be irritating and noisy, tries to silence them with a flood while a kinder god tries to save them.
We only know these older stories because of excavations in the 19th century. But the artist sensed something about God’s victims, a trace left from the original story, and when I think about that for a moment, time doesn’t seem so linear. Yes, it is about birth, then life, then death, but in art time flows backward and forward and we as viewers are caught in these strong currents, making meaning out of what we can see, what we know. We might stand there looking outwardly passive while inwardly experiencing a connection through the art to an unknowable past that runs through us and on into the future.
We keep it going by looking and wrestling with the images made by a man who is long dead in the hope that someone else will stand where we are and think about this artwork in the future.
While looking at the Sistine Chapel frescoes isn’t going to make you a better person (or help you out from under your chores, either), it will make your inner life richer. Any piece of art that can sustain long, slow scrutiny will reward the person who looks at it with an expanded sense of wonder at the long history of art made by people communicating something that feels essential, urgent, and relevant through time. To feel connected to it, all you have to do is look.