Scaffolding covers the exterior of the Chora Church, and the interior nave is closed, but the mosaics and frescoes whisper stories to those who visit. We took a taxi to reach the out of the way location, but the trip was worth the effort.
Constantine I built the monastery church outside the city walls in the 4th century. It was damaged by a strong earthquake in 558 AD and afterward restored by Emperor Justinian. By the 10th century, the church was near ruin. Maria Dukania, a devout Christian, financed the present building, a dome on four pillars (which we couldn’t see). Later several other buildings were added. The church remained safely in the hands of Orthodox monks during the Crusades. Theodores Methochides devoted his entire fortune to a needed restoration in 1305-1320. The exquisite mosaics and frescoes, including those in the funeral chapel, date from that period.
Today’s post will concern the Sistine Chapel, a site not included on the official Angels & Demons tour in Rome. To visit this famous church you must get a ticket for the Vatican Museums, then wait in a long line. However, much of the book takes place in and around the chapel, so we will add it to the blog tour.
“Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea
of what one man is capable of achieving.” –Johann Wolfgang Goethe, 1787
I own a book listing1,000 Places to See Before You Die, and goodness knows I live to travel… but truly, there are only a few locations that sustain unquenchable fascination and bring deep personal meaning. Such is the case for me and the Sistine Chapel.
Perhaps the film, The Agony and the Ecstasy starring Charlton Heston made an early impression on my psyche? My curiosity peaked by a man who excelled in art, sculpture, architecture and was also an inventor and poet. Whatever reasons…I retain a love affair with the Renaissance, Michelangelo and his work.
I understand not all are interested in art, but I doubt anyone could enter the sacred shine and not be awed by Michelangelo‘s achievement. The Sistine Chapel is simply one of those places that must be seen firsthand.
Surprisingly, the space is rather small. Built between 1475 and 1483 for Pope Sixtus IV, the structure was to match the size of the biblical Temple of Solomon, 40.93 meters long by 13.41 meters wide. The floor is covered in multi-colored inlaid marble. However, the vaulted ceiling covers 5000 square feet, a measurement to which I relate.
The ceiling was originally painted as a blue starry sky. Great artists were called in to decorate the walls: Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Pinturicchio, and Signorelli. They painted scenes from the life of Moses and Jesus and portraits of popes.
Twenty-five years later, Michelangelo was commissioned to redecorate the ceiling. He didn’t want the project, tried to refuse, and who can blame him? He considered himself a sculptor, but Pope Julius II commanded him to paint. So, for four years, 1508-1512, he climbed the scaffolding to fresco scenes from the Old Testament, sometimes working sixty feet above the floor. What he created became one of the world’s greatest masterpieces.
Michelangelo worked in fresco, the application of paint to wet plaster, requiring rapid skill. He used the technique of trompe l’oeil to create beams and architectural structures that fool the eye, they don’t exist. The upper ceiling tells nine stories from Genesis. Surrounding these large scenes, he added images of prophets and sibyls on marble thrones. In all, 336 figures are featured on the ceiling.
When a visitor finally enters from a side door, time is limited. People strain their necks to see high overhead, do backbends or lie on the floor. (Lying is frowned upon by the guards.) Find a spot on a bench, if possible, to lean backward with head support.
To attempt to describe the overwhelming aura of the room is impossible. The energy, the detail and three dimensional feeling is incredible. The video at the end of this post may help but I repeat, you must just go and see for yourself.
At the age of sixty, with failing eyesight caused from painting the ceiling, Michelangelo returned. Pope Clement VII commissioned ” The Last Judgment,” on the high altar wall.
This huge work, much more somber in tone, shows Christ on Judgment Day. The Savior lifts souls up to heaven and others are damned to hell. Michelangelo includes a self-portrait, his face on a limp body which Saint Bartholomew carries toward God. I personally prefer the ceiling art to The Last Judgment.
Recently, from 1980 to 1994, the Sistine Chapel’s art was meticulously cleaned and restored, a painstaking process using computer analysis. The restoration included removing several “modesty” drapes that had been added over some of the nude figures. Specialists worked on the frescos for about 30,000 hours, the entire process taking twice as long as it took Michelangelo to paint them.
Art historians protested and debates were heated, but the project continued, reviving the vivid colors that had dulled with time. The end result of the restoration continues to be controversial.
So now, let’s finally get back to the Angels & Demons story: In early chapters we learn the pope died and a conclave is called. Conclaves are held in the Sistine Chapel. The College of Cardinals, clergy from around the world, meets in secret for the purpose of electing a new head of the Catholic Church.
The cardinal’s ballots are burned after each voting session. If white smoke blows from the chimney on the roof, the world has a new pope. If the smoke is black, they reached no decision and the Cardinals remain locked in as the conclave continues.
Contrary to popular knowledge, conclaves were not always held in the Vatican. In fact, the cardinals were first sequestered during an election in Viterbo, Italy, about an hour from Rome. Following the death of a pope in 1268, they couldn’t agree on a candidate and were locked in to try to hasten the vote. (Mimi visited Viterbo in 2008 and will write about this tale in upcoming weeks.)
But, our heroes, Langdon and Vittoria, are in danger. A bomb-like canister of anti-matter is hidden within the Vatican . Should the conclave begin? The countdown is on; the race to locate clues leading to the lethal device continues…