—Johann Wolfgang Goethe,
23 August 1787
I love the Sistine Chapel: that jewel of the Vatican, repository of some of the best art of the Renaissance: the dramatic frescoes on the life of Moses and the life of Christ, painted by Perugino, Botticelli, and Ghirlandaio; the papal portraits; the trompe l’oeil draperies which adorn the walls—all inspire and amaze.
Since 1483, the Sistine Chapel has been the site of papal conclaves where the Cardinals have gathered to elect a new pope. The mystery and romance of the black smoke/white smoke “secret message” in the sky when the Cardinals cast their ballots is the stuff of legend.
But the pièce de résistance in the chapel is the ceiling, where Michelangelo has rendered the Creation and the Last Judgment, with its heavily muscled and tortured figures glancing fearfully at a righteous God. That Michelangelo painted one of his enemies, a cardinal who opposed his work, in hell adds humor and pathos to the masterpiece.
But what do you most remember of the Sistine ceiling? The iconic image which comes to mind most frequently is Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam—with God extending his divine Finger to instill the spark of life.
It’s the sketch most often reproduced: I have a serving tray and an umbrella emblazoned with the familiar image.
It’s also often parodied, as evidenced here:
(I’ll bet that formed the basis for the “God and the Machine” blog, written by fellow Patheos writer Tom McDonald.)
It’s used in advocacy and advertising:
And in humor:
New Advent featured an article this week about a 1990 paper by Philip Meshberger (published in the Journal of the American Medical Association) alleging that the depiction in God Creating Adam in the central panel on the ceiling was a perfect anatomical illustration of the human brain in cross section. According to Meshberger, Michelangelo had depicted God the Father surrounded by a shroud which corresponded to a cross section of the human brain. Michelangelo, who had elsewhere painted anatomical sketches, was conveying that God was endowing Man not only with life, but also with supreme human intelligence.
For those who cannot explore the treasures of the Sistine themselves, the Vatican now offers a virtual tour. Check it out: It’s well worth your time!