Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Should they limit numbers to the Sistene Chapel?

On the BBC website today is an article asking whether the number of visitors allowed into the Sistene Chapel should be curtailed. One of the reasons given is the damage that the 5 million annual visitors exhalations must be doing to Michelangelo's frescoes.
That is surely something that must be given due consideration, without the frescoes the Sistene Chapel loses its appeal. It is the same old argument of preservation, income from tourism (not that the Catholic Church is short of funds) and access to works of art for the general public.

When I visited in 2007 the chapel was full of people and it made it difficult to see the works of art that line the walls as well as the ceiling. I sneakily took a seat to enjoy the art works and due to the press of bodies I was out of sight of the security man and got away with sitting down on the job. I think the numbers should be reduced, perhaps with only pre-booked tickets at designated times. That would alleviate the queueing issue (I stood for several hours in the August heat before getting inside), make viewing the chapel and other Vatican sights more enjoyable and deal with the preservation concerns. What I would not like to see is the prices increase. As the Vatican says  the Chapel is "not only a place of art but also a spiritual, religious place" so to price it out of most people's reach would not be a fair, or right thing to do. We shall just have to wait and see what actions the Vatican takes to preserve these wonderful works of art and hope they strike a happy balance.

Author: Clayton Tang
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Extract from A Little Bit of Italy


[...]my abiding memory of the Vatican was the Sistene Chapel. What had gone before, and what would follow, would be measured against the decorations in the chapel.

The chapel is a large hall dedicated for worship by the Pope. Commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV, after whom the chapel takes it name,  construction on the site of the Cappella Magna, a medieval fortified hall, began in 1475 and was completed in 1483. On August 15th   1483,  the  Pope  inaugurated  the  Chapel  to  Our  Lady  of the Assumption.  We  entered  through  a relatively  small  entrance  with stern  warning  that  we  were  not  to  take  any  photographs.  Light entered the chapel through arched windows above which lunettes and triangular webs climbed the barrel-vault to the ceiling and Michelangelo’s renowned work. I took a pew on one of the stone benches to absorb the artwork.

It took Michelangelo four years to complete the fresco (1508-1512)  replacing  the  original  decoration  of  gold  stars  on  a  blue background with his work on the theme of the history of mankind before the coming of Christ. In the areas above the windows are Christ’s ancestors as divulged in Matthew’s Gospel and representatives of humanity in general, all waiting for the birth of Jesus. In  the  four  corners  pendentives  are  painted  with  scenes concerning  the  salvation   of  the  people  of  Israel.  ‘Judith  and Holofernes’ shows Judith presenting the severed head of Holofernes to her maid, having killed Holofernes to prevent him  attacking the Israeli army. The story of ‘David and Goliath’ is shown in another whilst ‘The Brazen Serpent’ alludes to the story of the Israelites, who having  incurred  the  wrath  of  God  and  Moses,  were  plagued  by reptiles. When the Israelis repented, Moses created a bronze serpent that could save anyone bitten by a snake. The final pendentive shows ‘The Punishment of Haman,’ a Persian vizier whose edict to kill any Jew  who  did  not  bow  down  before  the  king  was  overturned  by Esther, resulting in Haman’s death.

Seated on thrones, six on each side of the ceiling, are the seven Prophets  of  the Bible and the five pagan Sibyls that predicted the coming of Christ. Each is reading a book or scroll, accompanied by angels or puttos. They lead to the nine rectangles that run down the centre of the ceiling. I stared long and hard at them fully expecting to see the Creation of Adam in the centre, so famous has that picture become (particularly in the UK where it was an integral part of the opening credits of a TV arts programme). It was not. The scenes were painted in a  chronological order, with The Creation, The Story of Adam  and  the  Story  of  Noah,  each  consisting  of  three  parts  in sequence. The scenes for The  Creation showed the Separation of Light from Dark, the Creation of the Celestial Bodies and Plants, and the Separation of Land from the Sea. Then, in the fourth scene, came the  Creation  of Adam.  The  famous  hands,  with  the  touching  of fingers,  are  off-centre  thereby  giving  prominence  to  God  in  the picture. God may be prominent, but it is Adam’s body that is a study of human magnificence – man made in God’s image. This meant that the Creation of Eve took centre place in the sequence of nine, which drew a smile to my lips. Here, in one of the  most misogynistic of organisations, was a woman taking centre-stage. It was a small victory, especially  when  Eve  was  shown  as  the  cause  of  all  the  world’s problems in the sixth scene – Original Sin and the Expulsion from Paradise.  The  Sacrifice  of  Noah  was  difficult  to  make  out  some twenty metres beneath and through a sea of heads and the Salvation from the Flood was little easier. The Drunkenness of Noah though was quite clear to see, as naked and inebriated he lay outside his tent as a man worked the land. The whole effect is a riot of colour and activity.

It is not just the ceiling that is decorated with biblical scenes. Pope  Sixtus  IV  commissioned  many  painters,  including  Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Pinturicchio, to decorate the side walls of the chapel. Scenes from the lives of Moses and Christ, saviours and liberators of humanity, run the length. The cycle  of redemption is ended with Michelangelo’s  painting  of  The  Last  Judgement  –  the  final  and absolute judgement on Man’s destiny. Twenty years had passed from the ceiling paintings to The Last Judgement, from the beginning to the  end.  The brightness of the ceiling contrasted with the darker colourings of The Last Judgement. Real terror was shown in the faces of those consigned to their  doom. Those that were on the path to salvation did not seem to have as equal a  measure of joy as those without  salvation  had  of  terror.  It  was  vengeance   rather  than forgiveness that we were seeing in the final picture. I gazed back up at the  ceiling  as  we  moved  from  the  chapel  so  that  brightness  not darkness was my final memory.




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