Stepping Up to Michelangelo

John Haber
in New York City

Up Close: Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel

Cristóbal de Villalpando

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. Michelangelo's Creation of Adam (Sistine Ceiling, 1511)For a while, New Yorkers could put themselves in his place, without so much as a ladder or a trip to Rome. "Up Close: Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel" brought thirty-four photographs to the World Trade Center PATH station, on their way to a second showing at the Garden State Plaza in New Jersey—for maybe, just maybe, a closer approach to art.

Speaking of heights in religion, art, and commerce, who would have thought to rank Puebla alongside the great cathedral cities of Europe? The Mexican city was barely fifty years old when Cristóbal de Villalpando completed The Transfiguration in 1683. Yet Villalpando left his mark as, says The Met, "Mexican Painter of the Baroque." When it comes to cathedral cities, maybe rank the Met's Lehman wing up there, too. Now it, too, thanks to him resembles a cathedral. I shall tell you why.

If Villalpando was young, the bishopric had moved there just thirty years before as well. Even now, Puebla hardly comes to mind after Mexico City, not far to the northwest. (Wikipedia does credits it with exquisite tiling and mole poblano, so count me in its debt.) Look to a history of painting in the Americas, and you are likely to begin in Philadelphia or Boston on the eve of revolution. Demand to look back further, and you may learn about ancient civilizations. Now, though, the Met asks for more.

Behind locked doors

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.

The Baroque in Mexico

At twenty-eight feet in height, Villalpando's painting spans two levels of the Lehman wing and presents a stunning view right from the entrance. (For the record, The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel is half again as tall, but Michelangelo did have at his disposal the Vatican.) One can almost look Jesus in his glory directly in the eye—or look down to see the scene's unexpected pairing with Moses in the wilderness. One can walk downstairs to look further at the Israelites, as the brazen serpent spares them harm from a swarm of real snakes. One can contrast the brightness of one scene with the murkier mix in the other, the shallow space of the heavens with the indeterminate and crowded space below, the golden wash with the more fluid handling of color, or the rapture with the terror. One can also step back upstairs for ten more paintings, all but one on loan from Mexico, for as much of a retrospective as Cristóbal de Villalpando is likely to get.

The drama may well be better in New York at that. The Mexican cathedral lacks an upper gallery, and the painter (like Michelangelo) intended views of a god and human trauma from below. He also planned the painting around its site. There it stands not as an altarpiece, but on a side wall—where windows above the altar illuminate its heavens, while candles barely penetrate the darkness. If that makes Villalpando a master of architecture and space, like Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Italy, he was also a creature of doctrine and of habit. He turns again and again to a shallow burst of yellow and a crowd.

As a Catholic and by disposition, he loved rapture. He also was indeed a Mexican painter, although with little regard for native peoples or culture. He was born in Mexico City, of presumably a Spanish family. One cannot say for sure when, but he was still in his early thirties when he undertook so large a painting. The Met can identify a likely teacher versed in the Baroque, but he knew Europeans like Peter Paul Rubens only from prints. Still, he internalized the art of Spain and its empire.

One can see Spanish and Flemish painting in the poorly defined spaces and often harsh colors. One can see, too, the persistence of Mannerism in his occasional choice of oil on copper. He must also have known The Transfiguration (also in the Vatican) by Raphael, the first to add a lower scene. The terror of snakes picks up Raphael's child possessed by a demon from the Gospels, but moves the scene to the Old Testament. The artist signed his works Villalpando inventor, but he must surely have bowed to the inventions of Puebla's bishop—just as Michelangelo must have had a theological advisor for all his boasts. Maybe they liked that Moses appears in the vision above, too—holding a staff with a serpent that stands for medicine even today.

Villalpando often returns to the contrast between the old order and the new. He paints a cross growing out of the Tree of Life—and then he pairs it with the Annunciation. He also sure loves those crowds. Even the Annunciation comes with tiered stadium seating for its cast of thousands of angels, and even Adam and Eve have plenty of company in paradise, if only other versions of themselves. Villalpando combines multiple events in a single painting, with god's repeated attempts to nurture and instruct the first couple. (Spoiler alert: it does not end well.)

He is resolutely upbeat, and the positive emotions run wild. Israelites at the foot of the brazen serpent appear less in fear than in ecstatic worship. As curators, Ronda Kasl, NYU's Jonathan Brown, and Clara Bargellini of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma in Mexico describe the Virgin Mary beneath her holy name as a painting of sound itself. When Villalpando depicts the holy family, he cannot settle for a manger with Joseph half asleep. He makes Jesus an unnaturally mature boy, while Joseph becomes a vigorous young man very much like a traditional Jesus. Amid the triumph of doctrine and deliverance, Villalpando's Baroque can still privilege humanity.

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"Up Close: Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel" ran at the Oculus of the World Trade Center transportation hub through July 23, 2017, and subsequently at the Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus, New Jersey, through October 15, Cristóbal de Villalpando at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through October 15. A related review looks at Michelangelo drawings.


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