We can’t just wander into the Sistine Chapel the way Henry James did in the nineteenth century. We certainly can’t take a nap there the way Goethe did in the eighteenth. The entrance is controlled, and visitors are encouraged to move through the room and out the exit even when it’s not particularly crowded. James and Goethe were able to make a leisurely study of these frescoes. Our high opinion of this work comes from them and others like them, from people who could take their time in this room, to contemplate the artwork and spread its reputation.
One morning before making yet another visit, perhaps it was my fourth or fifth time, I stopped at my local coffee bar for an espresso. It was late May and I wanted to go before the crowds would become too thick. When I told the two barmen where I was going, they commiserated with me, as though I were about to undergo something painful. They had been there, of course, at various times in their lives, but wouldn’t think of making regular visits. For them, it had simply become an extremely crowded tourist attraction. They couldn’t imagine that it would be worth the trouble to go and see it, as though its meaning and importance had been worn out and overexposed.
I walked to the Garbatella Metro station and took a graffiti-covered train that smelled of burnt rubber to Termini station, where it was crowded with commuters and tourists, with Roma people and African refugees. I transferred to the A line, where the train was newer, though no less dirty. A man with an accordion played “Bésame Mucho,” a song I liked before I moved to Rome. He added a little flourish at the end to make it his own, then he pulled a crushed McDonald’s cup from his pocket and walked slowly down the car.
I hate the accordions on the subway, I hate the clichéd music and the continual begging, but I fished a one-euro coin out of my wallet and dropped it in his cup. Something about the sadness of these men touches me, the way they look so weathered and time-worn, the slight impression they give of also having grown to hate “Bésame Mucho.”
The train pulled into Ottaviano station, the doors opened, and I ran off and up the stairs to the surface, along the street, and past the tour guides offering the “most unforgettable experience of the Vatican Museums.” I kept going, past the usual, lengthy lineup along the Vatican wall, to the shorter line for those who’ve paid an extra fee and ordered tickets from the Vatican website. I felt guilty as I rushed past the Belvedere Torso this time, and past the tapestries designed by Raphael’s students.
I’d have liked to be transported directly into the Sistine Chapel without having to first navigate the disorder of twenty-first century Rome and the distraction of the Vatican’s art collection. I’d have loved to arrive without accordion music in my head. But this is how a contemporary visitor comes to see the greatest work of Western art.
I pushed my way through the crowd and then looked up. I was directly under The Creation of Adam, the most well-known, the most reproduced, and likely the most parodied part of the entire ceiling. I arrived intending to study the figure of God from the first three sections but decided to go where the crowd had thinned.
This patch of ceiling is responsible for the idea of God in my own head.
I’ve seen this image so often on postcards, I almost can’t look at it now. There’s a popular GIF showing God and Adam in this famous pose but playing rock, paper, scissors. I once ate a plate of spaghetti atop this image on a disposable placemat, and the Vatican Museums’ own gift shop sells plastic placemats featuring God’s hand and Adam’s. I found it hard to forget all that when faced with the original.
Part of the reason it is so familiar is because it was once so singular. Some of the first people to see the Sistine Chapel didn’t recognize the figure of the old man as God. In one of the creation stories in Genesis, a mist comes up from the earth, watering the ground, and God makes Adam from the soil and breathes life into his nostrils. Here, Adam is already fully formed and is simply being animated by the touch of God’s hand.
This image is the victim of its own greatness. It is the hardest part of the ceiling to really see afresh. I stood under it trying to acknowledge that I was looking at the original image that inspired all those variations. In fact, this patch of ceiling is responsible for the idea of God in my own head.
A few months later, I had a bad idea. It was summer. My son was 10 and we were at home, too hot and quite bored, and I thought we should visit the Sistine Chapel together. It was almost exactly a year after I had made my first uncomfortable visit, and I should have known better. I thought the effort might make it part of the adventure. Mainly, the opportunity was there, and he was still young and malleable enough to agree to it. Nicolas was born in Rome, and it made sense for him to know something about the great art that was also born in the city. I wanted him to see it before his experience of it could be compromised by his understanding of its reputation. We invited his friend Luca along to make it more interesting. Luca’s mother hadn’t seen it in years, and she decided to come as well. I promised gelato when it was all over.
I had been visiting the Sistine Chapel at this point for a year alone without telling anyone what I was up to. I didn’t really know myself why I kept returning. One visit I could justify, since it was long overdue for someone who lives in Rome. But to return again and again requires an explanation, which I couldn’t supply. Each time I would leave Vatican City feeling either irritable and confused or slightly excited by something I managed to notice. Each time I thought was my last until within a few weeks I would be looking at my calendar to see if there was a morning I could set aside for another visit. I felt drawn to it even while dreading the crowds and worrying about the time it would take out of my day. After a year, I thought it might yield itself to me in some way if I brought along other people.
Going with friends made it seem like something you might do on holiday, and it helped to lighten my approach. But it was late July, and the crowds of people who actually were on holiday moved like a swarm through the warm galleries. The boys found relief from their boredom, briefly, in the Egyptian collection, where they saw the small wax ushabti figures and statues of familiar gods they knew from contemporary adventure stories.
Still, it took 45 minutes to shuffle our way along, following the signs for la Cappella Sistina. When we at last fit ourselves into the crowded room, I looked up and felt a sense of warmth and familiarity when I saw God flying, creating, and commanding. I felt the individual pieces of the narrative connecting and, though I still felt engulfed by the ceiling as a single work of art, I also felt my previous visits and the time I had spent taking it apart for my own analysis had at last given me a way to read a part of it.
Every little thing in this fresco has meaning, and for the first time, I began to pay attention to some of the smaller details, such as Michelangelo’s obvious delight in painting muscular legs. I saw the softness of the feet, of the toes, and of the ignudi, the naked sculptural figures. Suddenly, I couldn’t believe all the toes Michelangelo had painted and how that made this story a tale of humanity as much as divinity.
The boys looked around the room. I told Nicolas that the important part was on the ceiling. He looked up for a few seconds and then down again. I urged him to look up, but he couldn’t do it. He wasn’t being defiant; he looked quite confused. His friend looked equally mystified and, if possible, even more miserable.
I tried to point out some of the parts I had found interesting. I recounted the story from Genesis by going along the panels. They conceded that they had heard that story before. I tried to help them focus on one panel, on God creating the universe, and, though they tried, they couldn’t do it.
It is also like life in the way it can—periodically, when we change our perspective a little, shift our weight, and turn our head—suddenly appear to be so painfully beautiful, so filled with meaning, so sublime.
I looked at Nicolas and Luca trying to make sense of the ceiling. These boys had seen more than their share of biblical imagery growing up in Rome. The story was not the problem. But it was obvious that they didn’t know why all these people would willingly crowd into this room and stare upward. My first visit to the Sistine Chapel was irritating. All my experiences of it have been irritating in different ways. I was beginning to see that this feeling that had seemed like an obstacle was actually a part of the experience of something that is so much larger than I expected.
Arriving without preconceived ideas didn’t help them, I could not help them, and the audio guide for children didn’t really help either. I suggested we leave and find the museum café. Nicolas looked a little saddened, as though he’d let me down. “I’m sorry,” he said, as we left the room and the crowds behind us. “I don’t know what to look at.”
Without thinking it through, I had hoped that encountering such an exalted work as children would give them a chance to see it fresh, to see it more naturally than I had done, and without the weight of its fame. I didn’t expect it to be a sudden revelation, but I wondered if they would have any reaction to it. But now I see there is something about this work that is like life, in the way that we are just born into the flow of time. We don’t start at the beginning, and we don’t have the whole picture. It is also like life in the way it can—periodically, when we change our perspective a little, shift our weight, and turn our head—suddenly appear to be so painfully beautiful, so filled with meaning, so sublime.
Seeing it amounts to struggling with all the unknowns in our world, beginning with our existence and ending with whatever happens once we no longer exist. The images tell a story that is beyond human comprehension, and they can only gesture toward meaning. Finding its meaning for ourselves is something we learn to do. These frescoes were made at a distinct time, painted between 1508 and 1512 at the height of the Italian Renaissance, when Leonardo da Vinci was still alive and Raphael was painting just down the hall, when Pope Julius II believed that art was great and could both project and inspire greatness, and before a mercenary, starving army marched into Rome along with some of the followers of Luther, slashing, burning, and murdering their way through the city in a burst of militant fury mixed with nascent, raging Protestantism and hatred for everything such a voluptuous work of art represented to them.
This ceiling was painted before coverings were applied to hide nudity in paintings and on statues and before the Roman Inquisition burned a philosopher in a public square. The Sistine Chapel comes from a world before us with our twenty-first-century preoccupations, where we don’t really believe that art can do anything to us, but we come to see it anyway, just in case.
From All Things Move by Jeannie Marshall. Reprinted by arrangement with Biblioasis. Copyright © 2023 by Jeannie Marshall.