The Sistine Chapel As You’ve Never Seen It Before

David Ekserdjian
·8-min read
<p>Detail from The Last Judgement by Michelangelo, and one of many photographers in the Sistine Chapel</p> (© Musei Vaticani )

Detail from The Last Judgement by Michelangelo, and one of many photographers in the Sistine Chapel

(© Musei Vaticani )

The Sistine Chapel is one of the artistic wonders of the world, to which during the summer season peak something like 20,000 visitors flock every day. Like Julius Caesar’s Gaul, its frescoed decoration is divided into three parts. The main attraction by far is Michelangelo’s ceiling, with its Genesis narratives, ignudi (male nudes who flank the narratives on the ceiling), prophets and sibyls, and so much else besides.

However, it should not be forgotten that he later also covered the entire altar wall with a scene of the Last Judgement, nor indeed that in the late fifteenth century the walls had previously been painted by a team of highly gifted artists, of whom the most celebrated is Botticelli, with paired narrative cycles devoted to the lives of Moses and Christ.

Now – to an incomparably greater extent than was ever previously possible – we can visit the Chapel from the comfort of our own homes, with a monsterpiece of a book, each of whose three volumes is devoted to one of those parts.

Books Do Furnish a Room is the title of the tenth of the twelve novels in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, but this one pretty much does the job on its own. It is not just any old book, but truly is something completely different, and not just because of what it costs.

Inevitably, its £16,500 price tag – admittedly for three 24 x 17 inch volumes weighing in at a mighty 60 pounds – is fated to be the main headline-grabber, but there are almost equally daunting facts and figures running it a close second.

The work in question has taken five years to be come into being, which is a year longer than it took Big Mike to fresco the ceiling, and is the progeny of a very special collaboration between Callaway Arts & Entertainment and The Vatican.

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo - detail© Musei Vaticani
The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo - detail© Musei Vaticani

The project involved photographers employing a 33-foot tall scaffold and rig to take in excess of 270,000 individuals photographs of the Sistine Chapel over 65 nights after it closed to the public. These were then stitched together by some species of computer magic to create complete images of the various frescoes that adorn the Chapel.

The book is published in a limited edition of 1999 copies, of which 600 are in English. It will not be reprinted, although it is devoutly to be wished than some sort of more modest spin-off will eventually see the light of day (not least because even rapacious bibliophile reviewers are only allowed to have a copy – accompanied by a pair of snooker referee-style white gloves - on temporary loan). At the same time, the possibilities for employing the internet to disseminate this unique visual archive, of which the book can only reveal a part, should be irresistible, and would be of extraordinary educational value.

Who will buy the book, I hear you cry? One answer is the one that invariably applies when works of art sell for tens and even hundreds of millions of pounds, and auction records are broken, namely that there are quite enough very rich people out there to fork out and not feel the pinch any more than the rest of us do when we buy a bag of crisps or a bar of chocolate because we are feeling a bit peckish. Indeed, seen in the context of serious art collecting £16,500 smacks of the bargain basement, and let us not forget there are a mere 1999 copies to shift.

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo - detail© Musei Vaticani
The Last Judgement by Michelangelo - detail© Musei Vaticani

Happily, cosying up to a zillionaire may not be the only way to turn these mighty pages, since Callaway Arts & Entertainment are very much hoping that a goodly number will be acquired for university and museum libraries as a result of the generosity of benefactors. In an ideal scenario, one could imagine masters and mistresses of the universe seeing the value of having one copy at home while donating another to a deserving institution (what’s £33,000 between friends?). If you are still reading, I teach at the University of Leicester…

One of the paradoxes about these volumes is that – unlike the photographic campaign that made them possible – they are highly selective. On reflection, that is hardly very surprising. Large chunks, especially of the Sistine ceiling, comprise vast expanses of sky where – to put it mildly - not a lot is happening. Even on line, it is hard to imagine the most committed viewer wanting to spend much time on them. In some instances one may regret the fact that one detail has been favoured for star billing over another, but it seems important to add that nothing crucial has been omitted from close-up treatment.

At the same time, and no doubt wisely, the wordage has been kept to a bare minimum. In terms of the art history, it is entirely reliable, and – where appropriate – briefly expounds scholarly differences of opinion. Oddly enough, the one howler I spotted was ornithological: the skies of three of the fifteenth-century frescoes, respectively by Perugino, Ghirlandaio and Rosselli, are peppered with birds, which may well have been derived from some kind of shared sketchbook (a remarkable similar jay is common to all three). Be that as it may, the bird accorded a large-scale detail from Ghirlandaio’sCalling of Saints Peter and Andrew on page 125 here is a bee-eater and not a kingfisher. More generally, anyone studying Volumes II and III will presumably take the trouble to seek out various highlights of the vast literature on Michelangelo, and also to compare the finished works with the surviving preliminary drawings, the best of which are among the most beautiful sheets of paper in the world.

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo - detail© Musei Vaticani
The Last Judgement by Michelangelo - detail© Musei Vaticani

Arguably, the greatest merit of these volumes is that they encourage a new kind of looking. This is in large part because the 1:1 details and gatefolds allow one to get unprecedentedly close, and the sheer quality of the reproduction is so stunning. These factors have the supreme merit of revealing how everything was done. In frescoes, the pigment is applied to wet plaster at speed before it gets too dry, and ‘cartoons’ – highly finished 1:1 preparatory drawings – as a rule acted as guides in the execution of the design. Here, both the dotted lines of the transfer process of the cartoons and the joins between the ‘days’ of work are often thrillingly apparent. These images also underline how differently the paint has been applied in each of the three realms, and in addition point up the variations between the techniques of the individual members of the fifteenth-century team.

The other major excitement has to do with two other perhaps rather unexpected benefits. The first is the intense concentration that comes from being obliged to focus on one thing at a time. Binoculars have something of the same effect, and anyone who visits the Chapel without a pair needs their head examined. Inevitably, different people will be struck by different elements – colour, form, technique - and the degree to which they are surprised will naturally depend on their previous familiarity with the frescoes, but it is hard to imagine anyone emerging from their study of these volumes unchanged by the experience.

I reckon to know my way around the Sistine frescoes pretty well, but had never before spotted Michelangelo quoting from a classical sarcophagus he returned to later on in his career in one of the fictive bronze roundels being held by the ignudi who are such a striking feature of the overall conception. Conversely, I had noticed Michelangelo’s quirky way of conveying the arrested motion of one of Noah’s sons, who is about to cover up his father’s nudity, by showing his genitals flying around as opposed to at rest, but – like everything else - it is that much more obvious here.

The second is that in the Chapel itself I am certain virtually everyone spends almost all their time looking up at the ceiling. Sitting at home in the company of all three volumes, it makes perfect sense to adopt a more balanced approach, and do full justice to the fifteenth-century frescoes and theLast Judgement.

The press release from Callaway Arts & Entertainment claims that this book allows one to marvel at the Chapel ‘on a scale no one in the world has seen since Michelangelo and the artists of the fifteenth-century frescoes first painted them’. Strictly speaking, this is not true, because in the 1980s and 1990s, and beginning with the ceiling, the frescoes were dramatically restored - above all revealing their true and radiant colours from under centuries of accumulated blackness - under the aegis of Fabrizio Mancinelli, who died far too young at the age of 54 in 1994.

As a young art historian, I was lucky enough to become a friend of his, and had the unrepeatable good fortune to mount the restoration scaffold of the ceiling on two occasions, and find myself within touching distance of Michelangelo’s work. I reckon I have a pretty decent visual memory, but that was nearly forty years ago, so it is hard to say exactly what – beyond a hazy sense of euphoria – one is recalling. For now, and for future generations until the next techno-breakthrough, there is this book, and for that we can all give thanks.

With luck, it will be followed by others in the same vein, and it is certainly fun brooding on which artistic masterpiece ought to come next.

The Sistine Chapel will be available exclusively in the U.K. from Philip Mould and Company. For more information

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