Happy birthday, Sistine Chapel ceiling!

by Kevin Birnbaum

The Prophet Jonah by Michelangelo

A seminarian friend in Rome informed me that this Halloween was the five hundredth anniversary of the unveiling of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, one of the world’s great treasures. The 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari wrote that “when it was uncovered every one from every part ran to see it, and gazed in silent astonishment.”

I was jealous when I heard that my friend got to celebrate the anniversary at a party thrown by the brilliant art historian Liz Lev, who was by far the best tour guide I’ve ever had when I visited the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel in 2010.

I’m embarrassed to admit that when I first entered the chapel, after a lifetime of hearing how magnificent it was, I was a little … underwhelmed. It was dim, and crowded, and smaller than I’d expected. It took a while for my eyes and brain (and neck) to adjust, to be able to take in the magnitude, the beauty, and the power of Michelangelo’s accomplishment.

One detail that has stuck with me is his painting of the prophet Jonah. It’s nowhere near as famous as The Creation of Adam or several other scenes from the ceiling, but it’s notable for a few reasons.

First, Jonah is the largest character in the whole chapel. He’s literally bigger than God. He towers over Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, which was painted about three decades later.

Second, as Liz Lev pointed out during the tour of the Vatican Museum, early Christian art was teeming with images of Jonah, whose three days in the belly of the great fish (see it next to him?) were seen as a prefigurement of Christ’s three days in the tomb.

Third, the painting itself is a technical marvel of perspective. Jonah is depicted leaning back, but he’s painted on a surface that is actually sloping sharply forward. According to Liz Lev, there were very few artists in the world at the time who could have pulled off that effect.

So happy birthday, Sistine Chapel ceiling! If you ever get the chance to visit, don’t miss it. As Goethe wrote, “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”

P.S. The Vatican provides a (gorgeous but rather tricky to navigate) virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel here.

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