Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Cracking the Code

The Judge and Mary, Joseph’s hand with the crossed beams, Anne (bottom left), Bartholomew’s knife, and Joachim (behind Bartholomew). From The Sistine Chapel: A New Vision, Abbeville Press. Photo credit: ©Archivio Fotografico dei Musei Vaticani, A. Bracchetti/P. Zigrossi.

Standing in the Sistine Chapel may be the single most overwhelming experience you can have indoors. Like the great vistas of nature’s most beautiful works, you find yourself straining to see it all at once, hoping somehow to take it all in. Unlike those landscapes, however, the Sistine Chapel encloses you in majesty on all sides, surrounding you with visual stimulation. First you crane your neck up to take in Michelangelo’s ceiling frescos. As you neck begins to cramp, you lower your eyes to his towering Last Judgment and feel yourself being judged by Christ in glory (above). I made a point of looking at the other wall frescos by Botticelli and others, the forgotten masterpieces overshadowed by Michelangelo’s mastery. As you shuffle outside with the rest of the crowd, you can’t shake the feeling that you’ve missed more than you’ve appreciated.

Father Heinrich Pfeiffer, S.J., now comes to your rescue. In The Sistine Chapel: A New Vision, Father Pfeiffer takes you on a personal tour of the Sistine Chapel, lingering over every inch of every one of the frescoes, including those “hidden” by Michelangelo’s achievement. After studying the Sistine Chapel since the 1950s, Father Pfeiffer offers in this text a new vision of that most holy space of art and religion by recovering the original vision of the artists and those who advised them. “We can no longer naively believe that painters like Raphael and Michelangelo, however great their genius, could have invented themselves the content of the subjects they depicted in their paintings, much less that of painters who worked in the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo could have done so,” Father Pfeiffer writes. Taking his text from five articles published since 1990, now translated from the original German, Father Pfeiffer reveals the intricate theological “code” of the art of the Sistine Chapel, an intricate network of meaning linked to the deep theological ideas that theologian advisors conveyed to the artists, who then realized the ideas in paint. Thanks to these “technical advisors” to Michelangelo et al, the Sistine Chapel became a vast religious book to be read by the initiated. “To us today, by contrast, this biblical visual idiom is largely lost,” Father Pfeiffer laments. Thanks to his efforts, we can now read again the language of that idiomatic code. Fans of the mythical Da Vinci Code should revel in this real-life religious code-breaking performed right before our eyes.


Southern wall: Sandro Botticelli, The Punishment of Korah, with scenes of the ships of Solomon and Jehoshaphat at Ezion-geber waiting to depart for the green land of Ophir, and the attempt to stone Moses. From The Sistine Chapel: A New Vision, Abbeville Press. Photo credit: ©Archivio Fotografico dei Musei Vaticani, A. Bracchetti/P. Zigrossi.

In 1482, Pope Sixtus IV, a Franciscan who “cultivated allegorical Biblical exegesis,” called upon artists Botticelli, Cosimo Rosselli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Perugino to begin work on decorating the Sistine Chapel. Sixtus IV dedicated the Chapel to the Virgin Mary. “Mary’s immaculate conceptiion,” Father Pfeiffer writes, “and hence the true role of the Mother of God in God’s will, influenced the artistic conception of the fresco decorations of the chapel from the outset.” Even works such as Botticelli’s The Punishment of Korah contain hidden references to Mary from the Old Testament book of Exodus. Throughout the rest of his analysis of the Sistine Chapel, Father Pfeiffer returns over and over to the centrality of Mary in the scheme of the art. Not only does Mary reach back to the Old Testament, but she reaches forward to the Church as the theological “type” of the Church and the “bride” of Jesus, her son. Parodoxically both wife and mother, Mary’s relationship with Jesus represents just one of the complex interweavings of multiple layers of meaning found in the works of the Chapel, which speak to one another as they speak to us with one powerful voice. Father Pfeiffer amazes with his ability to wed the visual evidence of the art and trace it back to specific theological concepts and even the specific original texts and authors of those concepts. If they ever film Indiana Jones and the Vatican Archives, Father Pfeiffer should get the part.



The prophet Daniel, symbolizing reason, draws his vision on a piece of paper with charcoal. The nude figure representing will carries the large open book, while memory is portrayed behind the prophet’s shoulder. The two pairs of children in the illusionistic marble reliefs perform their nuptial dance. From The Sistine Chapel: A New Vision, Abbeville Press. Photo credit: ©Archivio Fotografico dei Musei Vaticani, A. Bracchetti/P. Zigrossi.

After demonstrating the interplay of typology between the Jesus frescoes and the Moses frescoes along with walls, Father Pfeiffer tackles the grand ceiling frescoes of Michelangelo, which he began in 1508 at the request of Pope Julius II, Sixtus IV’s nephew. Julius II clearly wanted to carry on his uncle’s program. The ceiling frescoes detail the world before Mosaic law, completing the trinity begun by the walls that examined the world both during and after Mosaic law. I use the word “trinity” specifically to give a sense of how even the religious concept of the Trinity takes physical and artistic form in the Chapel in so many ways over and over. These ideas ricochet everywhere in the text, and Father Pfeiffer beautifully handles every carom and angle in explaining these interconnections without losing the reader. When he explained how the five male prophets (including Daniel, above) correspond to the female sibyls in another bride/groom allusion, I saw those familiar figures in a whole new light. When Father Pfeiffer went on to explain how the two smaller figures accompanying each of the prophets and sibyls play out the mental state of the larger figure in a “psychological trinity” (there’s that word again), I finally accepted that no detail, however small, can be considered arbitrary in the Sistine Chapel. Everything, even the colors of the clothing worn by each figure, contributes to the nexus of meaning.


The Fall, detail: Adam does not take the fruit from Eve, but picks it with his own hands. The stump with the leafless branches symbolizes the Tree of Life, or the cross. From The Sistine Chapel: A New Vision, Abbeville Press. Photo credit: ©Archivio Fotografico dei Musei Vaticani, A. Bracchetti/P. Zigrossi.

Father Pfeiffer’s main concern is the embodied theological meaning of the art, but he still demonstrates the artistry of the masters, especially Michelangelo. As Michelangelo grew more confident in his fresco technique, he evolves from the painter of huge crowded scenes of the story of Noah to the creator of simpler, more focused images starring larger figures such as Adam and Eve in The Fall (above). Michelangelo’s artistic confidence parallels a theological confidence as he began to internalize all those years of theological advisors whispering in his ear. In The Fall, Eve takes the fatal fruit from the hand of the serpent, who has the upper body of a woman but the lower half of a snake, but Adam picks the fruit with his own hand, deviating from the Biblical text. Any fears that Father Pfeiffer’s thesis would diminish the acheivement of the Sistine Chapel artists, transforming them into painterly stenographers, disappear as Michelangelo emerges as the first artist to serve as his own technical theological advisor.


Mary’s head shows the technique of spolvero, or pouncing, in which the composition is transferred from the cartoon by rubbing charcoal dust through holes pricked along the lines of the cartoon. The dots left by the charcoal dust are visible, for example, along the lips. From The Sistine Chapel: A New Vision, Abbeville Press. Photo credit: ©Archivio Fotografico dei Musei Vaticani, A. Bracchetti/P. Zigrossi.

When Michelangelo begins work on The Last Judgment in 1534, he refuses any theological advisors at all. (Pietro Aretino, who would have been that advisor, took offense and retaliated by accusing Michelangelo of homosexuality. In response, Michelangelo used Aretino’s face for that of St. Bartholomew, who holds the flayed skin upon which Michelangelo painted his own self-portrait.) The Last Judgment serves as a curtain call for all the other figures in the Sistine Chapel—the neat bow with which the total package is wrapped. The mad press of nude bodies seen in The Last Judgment represents the “architecture” of the Church itself, composed of the bodies of the living members on Earth. The Virgin and Christ as judge co-star in this final act. Mary (above, in close up) actually appears pregnant, representing “the Church in birth pangs with the whole of humanity.” Christ, modeled on the Apollo Belvedere in a show of Michelangelo’s classical, pagan aesthetic, commands the scene with his raised hand of damnation, the “gesture [that] causes the entire painting to tremble, down to the last, lowest corners.” By going character by character and teasing out the meaning of every glance and gesture, Father Pfeiffer makes sense of the riotous chorus of the saved and the damned and gives us a long, deep look into the mind of Michelangelo as he conceived the mind of God. (Da Vinci Code fans should note that Mary Magdalene appears to the right of Christ, dressed in yellow-green. Make of that what you will…)

Father Pfeiffer remarks in his epilogue that he hopes that his study of the theological underpinnings of the Sistine Chapel’s art brings back the study of the ideas embodied by art and not just the surface beauties of the work. His exegesis of the Sistine Chapel will instill a new reverence and awe for even those who have studied these works for years. Just as Father Pfeiffer’s text focuses more and more closely on every detail of the art, the illustrations accompanying the text offer a vision of the art that I’ve never encountered before. To come close enough to see the charcoal dust remaining on the Virgin’s lips as a remnant of Michelangelo’s technique is to see these works as the artist himself saw them centuries ago on the scaffolding. While the miraculous restoration effort restored the colors beneath the grime, Father Pfeiffer’s A Sistine Chapel: A New Vision restores the imaginative power and spiritual intensity of that truly magical space.

[Many thanks to Abbeville Press for providing me with a review copy of this book as well as the images above.]

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