Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Conclusion of Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling

Looking at the Sistine Chapel ceiling brought to mind Wordsworth’s observation about “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” Works of creative genius lose some of their transcendence when subjected to descriptive words. No one needs to hear me trip over myself trying to describe the indescribable.

I was so glad to have read Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling before viewing the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Without the knowledge gained from the book, I would have appreciated the beauty of the work, but I would not have understood what I was viewing.

One comment on the prior post: I mentioned that Michelangelo was an anatomist who dissected corpses in search of the truth. I did not mention that Ross King says on p 157 of his book that Michelangelo accurately depicted anatomical structures that to this day have not been named. Prior to modern medicine, there were accusations that he invented these structures, but modern medicine has born out the truth of his observations.

Another interesting fact that I picked up from the book was the idea that artists often “quoted” other artists. For example, Michelangelo might study ancient Roman sculptures, draw what he saw, and put it in his own work. One of the works he quoted when finding poses for the ignudi (nude men) was the ancient sculpture of Laocoon. I will have to admit my until recent ignorance of the story of Laocoon. I saw a painting in May at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC of El Greco’s version of Laocoon’s story. I was interested enough to google and read the story of the Trojan priest and his two sons. Soon after this, in Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, I happened upon the story of how the ancient sculpture of Laocoon and his two sons was lost for centuries and found during Michelangelo’s time in Rome. Ross King says that Michelangelo was present at its excavation. It is currently in the Belleverde Courtyard in the Vatican Museums. It is a powerful and moving piece of art and is thought to be over 2,030 years old. For some reason, I was particularly fascinated by the serpent’s head about to bite into Laocoon’s left hip. It just looks so real and so sinister. The forms and poses of the male bodies in the sculpture look like much of Michelangelo’s work.

One of the chapters of the book describes Raphael’s work, The School of Athens. This fresco was one of the works Raphael painted in the papal apartments during the time that Michelangelo painted the chapel ceiling. Raphael had completed The School of Athens prior to the mid-point viewing of the Sistine Chapel. According to Ross King, after Raphael saw what Michelangelo had accomplished in an only half-finished work, he went back and scraped off enough plaster from the lower center left of The School of Athens to insert a portrait of Michelangelo in blue, alone, and brooding on the steps.

I used to wonder why so much of classical art had as its subject religious stories and characters. I seem often to forget that prior to recent history, the majority of the population could not read. Therefore, in order to teach them the Bible stories and lessons, the church had to provide visual narratives, through art, for the people to "read."

As Michelangelo was preparing to unveil his work on the first half of the ceiling, his patron, Pope Julius, was once again preparing to go to war. It was at this point that Julius made a pact, still standing today, with the Swiss guards to provide the pope and the Vatican with protection. After Julius finally returned from war, Michelangelo was ready to begin work on the rest of the chapel ceiling when Julius fell ill, delaying the project even further. Death was feared imminent. Had Julius died, the chapel might never have been finished. A new pope might not have wanted to complete what his predecessor began.

Fourteen months after work ceased on the first half of the ceiling, Michelangelo began to work on the second half. After viewing the ceiling from the floor, he changed his approach to include fewer, but larger figures. Looking at the ceiling, you can see where the new approach begins with The Creation of Adam. In the next few scenes, God appears in the image we are familiar with. I find it interesting that God was not portrayed in this grandfatherly manner until the 14th century. Apparantly, the image for God was taken from older images of Zeus. (King, p 244) Another interesting item I had never heard before is that the famous rendering of Adam’s left hand is not currently Michelangelo’s work. It was damaged and restored in the 1560s by an artist named Carnevale. (King, p 246)

Toward the end of his four years of work on the chapel ceiling, Michelangelo painted a portrait of Jeremiah, which is thought to be a self-portrait. In the picture, Jeremiah sits slumped over his knees with his head in his hands. This portrait is thought to have influenced Rodin’s Thinker and possibly to have been an acknowledgement of Raphael’s portrait of Michelangelo in The School of Athens. The list of artists who have quoted from Michelangelo includes Titian, Rembrandt, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Pissarro, Rubens, William Blake, and Diego Rivera.

I am in awe that the works on the chapel ceiling even exist. Imagine if Michelangelo’s natural reticence toward fresco work had won over his daring to accept the challenge. So many quotidian decisions affected the existence of the works of art, literature, and music that make up our culture. The ceiling has been endangered by shifting foundations, unimpressed popes (one of whom threatened to destroy it but died before he got around to it), oil and candle smoke, and is even damaged by the evaporation of the water released into the air by all the daily visitors to the chapel, but still it survives as a testament to what man can do if he is given free reign to indulge his genius. These works fill our lives with beauty, even making possible moments of sublimity in our humble, plain, everyday existence.

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