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Michelangelo’s Agony: The Sistine Chapel

Updated: Jul 15, 2019

“Capiche L’anglaise?”




What I Saw as I Aproached the Vatican

My travels in Italy were long and exciting, but nothing gave me more pleasure than to see some of the original works of the Masters. I got to see Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus at the Uffizi in Florence, as well as works from Gentileschi, Da Vinci, and amazing original Roman sculptures that could steal breathe and keep the heart racing. However, nothing compared to the awe that came with personally viewing the Sistine Chapel.

When I arrived in Italy, ashamed of myself for not learning more of the language, I found that most people that I encountered spoke English. As the lazy American who could not be bothered to learn the language, they accommodated me with easy communication in my own language.

However, one taxi drive that I encountered in Rome that I approached after leaving the Colosseum exchanged the dialogue with that appears at the beginning of this post – and yet we still managed to get to my destination: The Vatican.

My parents were a fan of art museums and museums of history. I was indoctrinated at a young age to appreciate the antiquities of the centuries, especially those works previous and up to the Renaissance. I gained an appreciation of history from beauty that was left behind by those who came before us.

However, stepping into the chapel where I knew Michelangelo had lost much sight from painting on his back, the oils dripping down in flooding his eyes damaging his retina. The low light in which he had to painstakingly stroke each highlight and dark shadow further put at risk the sight of a master. The work took 16 years, during which time he was at odds with the Pope. I can still see in my mind’s memory as Rex Harrison played Pope Julius II in The Agony and the Ecstasy, demanding news about when the artist would finish.

Ceiling of Sistine Chapel

Then, staring up into that ceiling I felt an awe that rushed over me, the finger of Adam just a slight measure away from touching the finger of God.

It was not quite as I had imagined it would be like as I went through this chapel. I have to admit I had a naïve belief of being there on my own, communing with God even as I appreciated the wonder of a human being.

It was not quite that spiritual.

Of course, there were long lines that moved through hallways filled with lovely pieces of art and artifacts from eras long past. There was a relatively loud hum of conversation, all with the Italian guards saying over and over “No Flash Photography, Please”, even as bulbs and lights went off constantly.

Personally, I did not even take my camera in, having been taught the importance of preserving these artworks for the future by not exposing them to the flash of camera lights because that would eventually do harm to the delicate and very old paints and varnishes.

Even now, it is possible to say that so many of the works have been redone to repair damage, meaning that much of the original strokes of the masters are likely gone.

Still, I was standing under the work of genius, the paint glimmering in the low light with which the chamber was lit. The hum of the crowd and the drone of the repeated phrase from the guards did not take away from the importance of that moment. I was in the Sistine Chapel, and for that moment, there was incredible peace that rose above the din.

My Favorite Part of the Chapel - Because I was so Horrified and Thrilled as a Child when my Mother Told me that the Odd Human Shape Hanging Just Left and Down from Center was the Skin of St. Bartholomew. I did not Care Why, but was only Fascinated by its Presence in the Painting

When traveling to those coveted destinations where an attachment exists before you ever get there, it is always a good idea to check expectations and leave them behind. It will never be what you expect. However, it may be something so much more. My personal place of Zen is found in the imagination of those who came before, and of being so close to the space that existed between their brush or tool, and the material that formed their masterpieces. No matter how frustrating the environment, focusing on that place of Zen helps me to know that my dream of the adventure will always be mine. No one can take that place in which I set my mind, and where I know that the reality of my experience will stay with me forever. I will never forget looking up at the Master’s work and seeing how a true genius made a part of his spirit last forever inside of that chapel. That moment of discovery will always be mine to cherish.

As you travel through the word and seek to find the genuine realities of those objects that you have long thought to see, remember that even though some of your expectation may not be found, the feelings that you have that connect you to that artifact can never be stolen. You are always in control of what you take from an experience.

I think of the Sistine Chapel as mine now. I was there – I walked in that sacred space and saw what the Church and the master artist Michelangelo created. For a moment, I was a part of that sacred bond. For a lifetime, that can give me artistic peace.

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