The Sistine Chapel Where the Popes Are Crowned
( Originally Published 1907 )
This chapel is thus named because it was erected in 1473 by Pope Sixtus IV. Its six windows, three of which you can see, are over the frieze, and the walls are decorated with paintings by the most famous masters. The building is fifty feet wide and one hundred and thirty-three feet long. At the far end is a modest altar, with four steps ; to the right of it is a platform upon which is a chair, reserved for the Pope. He says Mass here on great occasions ; here also are held the consistories or assemblies, in which announcement is made of the appointment of Cardinals, bishops and other prelates. The gallery at the right is for the choir, and the singing on great festivals is said to be the most beautiful and impressive in the world. The screen just in front, of chaste and artistic marble, surmounted by eight marble lamps, is more precious than a cluster of diamonds and pearls. The six panels with their cherubs and festoons could hardly be more delicate and beautiful. The work on the frame of the door and the marble columns is as dainty as lace and more priceless.
The fresco of The Last Judgment by Michelangelo on that distant end wall is the glory of the chapel. Its colors have been dimmed by dampness which has played havoc with the walls, so that we have no idea of the splendor of the Chapel just after the artist finished his work, but enough remains to justify the praises lavished upon it by each generation of artists and critics. It may fade altogether in time, for time respects nothing made by man ; but the influence which it wielded for centuries upon artistic workers is a power than can fade only with civilization itself.
As this chapel is for the use of the Pope only, or for his delegates, when the artist was asked to decorate it his first thought naturally turned to the subject suited to the place as well as to his own talent. The result of his cogitation is seen in the general plan of pictorial decoration.
The Last Judgment takes up the whole west wall, but the frescos on the ceiling and along its edge all lead up to that judgment. The history of man from the Creation to Christ is depicted on the ceiling; at the edge of the ceiling is a long and solemn array of the prophets and sibyls who foretold the coming of the Redeemer. The day of judgment will be the summing up of the earthly history of mankind; the work of the Church is to prepare men for the business of life here in such a way that they may pass the last ordeal in triumph; after that, their celestial career has its beginning and will never have an end. It was to remind the Popes of this great duty that the artist formulated this plan of decoration. Thus genius preached the gospel to the preachers of the gospel in a brilliant and enduring sermon, which speaks still, though in subdued tones, after the lapse of centuries.
It took Michelangelo seven years to complete his work. He suffered some annoyance from the delicacy of one Cardinal Biagio of Cesena, who objected to nude figures and who asked the Pope to order the artist to drape them all. The Pope wisely declined to interfere. The irritated Cardinal evidently complained to his friends, and aroused some feeling against the continuance of the work, for Michelangelo in his anger against him wiped out one of the faces he had placed in the do-main of lost souls, and then painted the features of the troublesome Cardinal in its place. There it remains until this day, over a door at the extreme right-hand corner of the chapel, the face of one standing wrapped about with the folds of a serpent. In vain His Eminence protested to the Pope against this vengeance. "In this case," said His Holiness, wittily, "even the Pope has no power; Your Eminence knows that out of hell there is no redemption! Such is the teaching of the Church." The only consolation the Cardinal got was knowing that his face would go down to posterity. Somewhat later the Pope had the painter Volterra put clothing on the nude figures. The painter was however as unlucky as the Cardinal, for he was nicknamed the "Breeches-maker," and carried that title to his death.
The center of the painting is held by the majestic figure of Christ in the act of judging the human race, His right arm upraised as He pronounces final sentence upon the just and the unjust. His Blessed Mother supplicates Him in behalf of the souls crowding around the seat of judgment. On His right the souls of the faithful are mounting towards heaven with glorified faces and hymns of joy; on His left demons are hurrying the souls of the lost to their home in the Inferno. No words may describe the action and the power of this painting; probably Michelangelo was the only painter of his time who had the power and skill to make the scene a counterpart, in its effect upon the mind, of the real judgment. Evidently he drew part of his inspiration from the Revelation of St. John and from Dante's Inferno. Thus one great mind affects another, and both impress themselves upon the whole race. John the Beloved Disciple saw one vision of human destiny, and the great Dante another ; and Michelangelo turned both visions into massive reality, for the enlightenment of man and the despair of all artists.
This palace is a treasure house of manuscripts and historic curios as well as of paintings. Refer again to Map 2, and find a long, narrow corridor which extends almost the en-tire length of the west side of the palace. Our thirteenth standpoint is marked at its farther (north) end, and the red lines show the direction in which we are to look.