10.9.17 — Stepping Up to Michelangelo

It was never easy to take in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo himself labored on scaffolding of his own design, while struggling to reach the figures taking shape overhead. Others, like Raphael painting the very next room, could see nothing of the work in progress behind locked doors.

It may be harder still today. It means braving the lines and craning one’s neck to see the ceiling, around crowds as never before. Imagine, then, Pope Julius II joining the artist for a closer look. Forget the scenery chewing of The Agony and the Ecstasy, the 1965 movie with Charlton Heston as the artist and Rex Harrison as the pope. Julius, always engaged and always supportive, visited often, stepping up from a ladder—and Michelangelo lent a hand. For a while, New Yorkers could put themselves in his place, without so much as a ladder or a trip to Rome. Michelangelo's Creation of Adam (Sistine Ceiling, 1511)Up Close: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel” brought thirty-four photographs to the World Trade Center PATH station this summer, on their way to a second showing at the Garden State Plaza in New Jersey, ending October 15—for maybe, just maybe, a closer approach to art.

Instead of locked doors, the PATH Oculus presented the obstacles of hype, an upscale shopping mall, and a healthy admissions price, but one could choose not to pay it. A walk around the mezzanine took one close to the upper registers of The Last Judgment, much like the view of a two-story painting by Cristóbal de Villalpando at the Met. A walk round the perimeters of the lower level filled in the gaps. With decent enough eyesight, one could even read much of the accompanying text. Besides, even at a distance one can appreciate the unfolding drama of the Sistine Ceiling. One can appreciate, too, broad areas of highlights on blue, red, orange, and naked flesh.

Michelangelo thrived on obstacles. Misanthropic as ever, he banished assistants and started again after the first of his frescoes began to mold, and he executed them his way—transferring full-scale drawings, or cartoons, with a stylus. In the process, he created an ideal of the artist as stubborn, lone creator that endures today. He thought of himself only reluctantly as a painter, which may be why he put off the pope’s first request, for paintings of the twelve apostles. They would be poor work, he explained, because the apostles were poor as well. The pope, he later wrote, replied that he could paint what he liked (so long, presumably, as he liked the Church’s program), and off he went.

That, too, presents an obstacle. Even scholars have trouble making sense of the scheme—which includes prophets and oak leaves (from the pope’s family crest) along the edges, ancestors of Jesus in the lunettes between them, violent acts from the Hebrew Bible and rams’ heads in the corners, and the great scenes from Genesis down the middle. (Michelangelo removed a section or two in order to add The Last Judgment many years later.) The opportunity to get close adds its own difficulties. One cannot see the ceiling’s architecture as a whole, in all its colliding messages and rhythmic borders. One has not a hint of other frescoes either, by such leading lights of the early Renaissance as Pietro Perugino and Domenico Ghirlandaio, on the chapel’s walls.

One can never forget, too, that one is looking at reproductions. Erich Lessing’s photos stand in arbitrary groupings, on the sides of blocks on the floor. They even resemble magazine spreads in their pairing of text and image on the same surface. Instead of the ceiling’s tunnel vision ending in the chaos of an early universe, they also present something of a maze. For all that, they have their advantages, even apart from the chance to get close. They combine the resolution and luminosity of contemporary prints with the depth and luminosity of paint.

As a painter, Michelangelo had a lot to learn as he took the Renaissance into a new century. More and more in the course of things, figures fill the frames. The prophets take on bulkier forms, sharper and even terrifying features, and more pronounced gestures beyond the picture plane, while the ancestors of Jesus withdraw into a greater anxiety. That leaves the proverbial agony and ecstasy of Adam, Eve, and their god in the trademark scenes of creation and expulsion. More and more, too, they display the sweeping brushwork of a real painter, with a translucency rare in fresco. Italian art restorers tend to overclean by American standards, but they have shown Michelangelo as a bold colorist capable of reaching out to his viewers—suiting that view from a distance.

Unlike Santiago Calatrava with the transportation hub, he also completed the job pretty much on schedule and under budget. When the doors opened at last, on Halloween of 1512, the whole came as a shock to, among others, Raphael. The younger man had never seen the combination of mass, motion, psychology, doctrine, and narrative. He had all but finished his own bridge to the High Renaissance next door, The School of Athens, but he added a portrait of Michelangelo as Heraclitus, morose and withdrawn, but more prominent than anyone around him and with a greater inner life. People looking for artistic rivals might see it as a slight, but a book on Michelangelo uses it for its cover. It also returns the painter to his self-image in the smock and shoes of a sculptor, and he was soon to resume work on the pope’s tomb.

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