Sistine Chapel Draws Souls to Eternity

Famous church, the papal conclave site since 1492, showcases the ‘Bookends of the Bible’ in stunning detail.


For the two short days of the conclave, the eyes of the world were focused on the four forbidding walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Dwarfed by the grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica, the unobtrusive chapel appears merely a humble attendant. The brick exterior makes for drab attire, compared to the polished travertine of the basilica, and the whole chapel would be engulfed in one of the wings of St. Peter’s transept. Yet, in this intimate space, the captain of the barque of Peter is chosen.

The room is best known for the formidable contribution made by Pope Julius II, when he hired a reluctant Michelangelo to paint the ceiling, as well as the glorious conclusion given by Paul III Farnese, when he persuaded a still-reluctant Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgment. Still, the Sistine offers other, subtler messages to the cardinals during these critical moments in Church history.

Pope Sixtus IV hired an architect with military experience for the construction of the chapel, which boasts thick walls, high windows and defensive additions. The building, completed in 1477 and bearing the pope’s name ("Sisto" in Italian), had a single entrance, allowing it to be sealed off like a fortress. This space was destined for praying, preaching and, as of 1492, picking the next pope. Herein lies the secret of the chapel: The exterior may be sturdy and simple, but the interior transports the spirit as only the Renaissance knew how — through glorious art and inspiring music.

To adorn the chapel, Sixtus called in a "dream team" of Florentine artists, including Botticelli, Perugino and Ghirlandaio (who would become Michelangelo’s painting teacher). These giants of painting decorated the side walls with the stories of Moses and Christ in parallel along the nave. As Moses escapes into the desert, so Jesus retreats for 40 days; as Moses gives the Ten Commandments, Christ delivers the Sermon on the Mount. Like the polyphonic harmonies of the Sistine choir, these frescoes boast a startlingly variegated palette: They shimmer with gold leaf and hypnotize with lapis blues. Vast landscapes carry the mind to faraway lands, while the newly constructed hospital of Santo Spirito returns the viewer to the Rome of Sixtus. Studded with portraits, the paintings are a veritable who’s who of Renaissance celebrities.

The two most important works speak directly to the cardinals of the conclave: Perugino’s Delivery of the Keys and Botticelli’s Punishment of Korah. In these two panels, these Renaissance rivals employed their wildly divergent styles to send one of the most powerful messages to the conclave: the need for unity. Perugino presents a vast piazza with stately flagstones that lead the eye from Christ giving the keys to St. Peter in the foreground to three monumental constructions framing the horizon. Botticelli, for his part, narrates the tragedy of the Korah family, who contested Moses’ decision to pass his staff of authority to his brother Aaron. Where Perugino’s apostles pose peacefully, Botticelli’s characters are windswept, caught up in the turbulence of their disputes. Both painters drew on ancient art for their backgrounds, but the triumphal arches of Perugino stand pristine and intact in the Delivery, while Botticelli’s Arch of Constantine, a symbol of the hard-won religious liberty earned in 313, is crumbling. Only Perugino includes a Christian structure — an eight-sided edifice — a symbol of renewal and regeneration.

Placed on either side of the entry into the voting area, these two panels — painted by rivals who learned to collaborate for the sake of the Church — admonish the cardinals to stand by the decision made in that room. If the recent displays of joyful collegiality around Pope Francis are any sign, it seems that the message has been received, at least by this generation.

Imagine Michelangelo’s chagrin when he was charged with decorating atop the work of his masters. Yet, undaunted, he overshadowed them all with his revolutionary art.

In four years, Michelangelo frescoed the 1,200 square feet of the vault with the stories of Genesis, a perfect iconographical complement to the works below. When he unveiled it on Oct. 31, 1512, his contemporaries were stunned at the achievement of making a narrative readable from 68 feet below. Eschewing the versicolor palette and the sumptuous settings of his teachers, Michelangelo drew upon his sculptural training to produce figures that seem hewn from stone to propel his story. God the Father is seen as a dynamic force of energy that ultimately, in the creation of man, transfers his own divine spark to Adam, elevating him above all creation. Even though the fever pitch of creation is followed by Adam and Eve’s temptation, the Fall, the flood and, finally, Noah sprawled in a tragic parody of Adam’s awakening, the story does not end in the last dark panel.

From that dark scene, Michelangelo’s palette changes to brilliant hues as prophets, sibyls and the ancestors of Christ lead the viewer back to the altar. There, perched in the most challenging position of any figure on the ceiling, is Jonah, appearing to fall from the heavens to the altar. The quintessential symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection, he brings the Old Testament into the real time of the liturgy. Invisible beginnings and invisible endings delineate the chapel — the bookends of the Bible.

Twenty-two years later, in the heat of the Reformation, Michelangelo returned to the chapel to paint the Last Judgment. This massive work, covering the entire altar wall, looms sternly above the cardinals as they cast their votes in the urn. The swirl of bodies draws the eye from the newly resurrected through the souls assisted by saints, angels or, in one case, a rosary, to the heroic lineup of the elect. An awe-inspiring Christ sits at the heart of the work, his head turned away, while Mary nestles by the wound in his side, continuing to draw souls to her Son. The powerful nude bodies — which caused so much commotion over the years that several were "fig-leafed" with painted drapes — are meant to remind us that the crown of heaven is a prize to be won by heaven’s athletes, and the man the cardinals elect is called to be their spiritual trainer.

Blessed Pope John Paul II — who oversaw the cleaning of the chapel and ordered the removal of many draperies — chose the Sistine as the permanent home of the conclave. In this room, the cardinals realize that they are not only rendered naked before the eyes of God, but confronted — thanks to Michelangelo — with the Pope’s true role: saving souls.


Elizabeth Lev is an art

historian based in Rome.

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