“The Creator Made Italy, from Designs by Michelangelo” MarkTwain
With the Papal conclave starting this week, it’s interesting to note that, while inside the Sistine Chapel, the cardinals are surrounded on all sides by masterpieces meant to provoke them. As George Braque once said: “Art is meant to disturb”!
In his book “When in Rome “, Robert J. Hutchinson noted that “the papal apartments in Castel SantʼAngelo are decorated in frescoes that would have made Hugh Hefner proud…” while the Sistine Chapel “ is covered with naked men and women, all piled on top of one another in what looks for all the world like some sort of biblical orgy “.
Scandalous! Well, that is how some cardinals saw the progress of work in the Sistine Chapel when Michelangeloʼs Last Judgement wall began taking shape.
In fact Biagio di Cesena, papal Master of Ceremonies, visiting the Sistine with Pope Paul III gasped at the naked figures in church and threatened that, if the Pope did not act, he would take it up with the Curia.
Asked to explain his work, Michelangelo pointed out that Armageddon (the Second Coming or end of the world) would find us before God in the form in which He had created us. The Pope said nothing more but, as they left, Biagio was heard still muttering about the “immorality”.
When they returned a few days later the official had a fit because amongst the figures in hell, he had found his portrait. “Holy Father, order him to take me out of there!” – but the Pope would only say that, had he wished to be taken out of Heaven, it could have been arranged, but that Hell was outside his authority. Biagio is still there.
A much-told old story but this is the dramatic spectacle that will confront the cardinals as they take their oath of secrecy at the start of the 2013 conclave. They will also be aware of the spectacular presentation of Old Testament stories above their heads, the only ceiling that “everyone must see before they die
During pauses they may also note a macabre detail on the upper part of the famous wall. It is a self-portrait of a long suffering Michelangelo as a skin hanging from the fingers of St Bartholomew who was flayed alive. Pope Paul III himself is gratefully portrayed as St Peter, holding the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.
These are but a few of the stories held within the walls of the Sistine Chapel, meant to remind the conclaved cardinals of their duties to the outside world.
The conclave starts with a cry of “Extra Omnes!” (everybody out) to outsiders, and as the cardinals start their pensive gazing at their surroundings for the next few days or weeks, we too applaud and murmur “Go Cardinals! The whole world is watching!”