This blogpost, as opposed to contemporary, modern or street art, is about classic art. It is a bit frightening to sit down to write about masterpieces that have been studied and re-studied and deciphered to the very last particle by generations of art experts. For what can I say about Van Gogh that hasn’t already been said? What words could I possibly come up with to describe Tintoretto that haven’t already been used? To make matters worse, or more challenging at least, what I am about to write about, is arguably the most famous artwork in the world: The Sistine Chapel.
One of the gifts I gave my partner for Christmas was an early morning visit to the Vatican Museums. The idea is simple; you pay more (quite a bit more) for a horrible breakfast and a magnificent possibility to enjoy the famous chapel and the rest of the Church’s treasures without having to worry about overcrowding. That’s not to say you are completely alone but at least you are alone enough to avoid other people disturbing your appreciation, or adoration, of Michelangelo’s masterpiece. I thought it was worth it and I think my partner did too.
The Vatican Museums are a bit of a labyrinth and hand-out map you receive in the beginning are less than helpful. Tired of trying to decipher the Da Vinci-code type instructions, we eventually reverted to asking for direction every five minutes to find our way. I couldn’t help feeling that the it’d been done on purpose; that visitors are purposely led to be misled and confused in order to underline the grandeur of the host. Because the Vatican is grandiose. It is a different world. The chaotic streets of Rome seem far away from the lush gardens surrounding the palaces and the endless hallways decorated with by centuries, if not millennia, of accumulated wealth. A bit like how Moscow was built to make everything else in the Russian and later Soviet empires seem small, walking around the Vatican museums make you feel like an insignificant intruder in a superior world.
If much of the other art on display is an exhibition of wealth and perhaps also of greed, although that is almost certainly not the intention, the Sistine Chapel is a jewel. Although it is every single bit as overwhelming as the rest of the Vatican, if not more, both the content of the art and the quality of the work raises the chapel above everything else the museum puts on display. It simply takes your breath away. A 30-year old, at the time unknown Michelangelo, painted sculptures that appear to be sitting outside of the ceiling, carrying the arches on their shoulders. He did that without having ever studied perspective. The same man, some 30 years later, by then the world’s most famous and acclaimed artist, claimed an entire wall for himself, erased what was there from before, including his own work, and chanted the gospel onto it with his pencils in vivid, energetic images, splashing Christianity onto the faces of visitors ever since.
Your interpretation of art always depends on what you bring with you to a painting, a movie, or a book. On this particular occasion, I’d just come back from a long work trip to Nepal. One of the issues I’d been confronted with while there, was the caste system, and the challenges of the so-called untouchables. Although modern laws extend human rights also to the Dalit, members of this lowest caste still face serious discrimination. In many places, it is useless for them to open a bar or a café, because members of other castes will not eat what they’ve prepared. It is also difficult for the Dalit community to get jobs in public administration and it is telling that political candidates in their strife to win votes, make campaign vows to the Dalit community, promising them the same rights as the other castes.
This practice is not limited to India and Nepal but is quite extended. In Japan, the discrimination of the untouchables, known as Burakumin, was banned by law in 1871 but in reality, continued into our time and was even incorporated into the civil registries.
Such popular perceptions of impurity have a religious base. The untouchables were people that used to perform what were considered impure professions, which included shoe repair, prostitution and acting, among other things. Even now, generations later, their descendants are considered unclean. What has been spoiled, what is impure, can never be impure, cannot be cleansed. There is no chance, at least that I’m aware of, of rebirth, of being granted new chances, of waking up clean and start a different life. What you are born into, you can never be released from.
This is what I thought about when I was sitting in the Sistine Chapel, marvelling at Michelangelo’s work. I thought about it because, at the end of the day, rebirth, pardon, the unique possibility to lay the past to rest and start a new life, is what the gospel is all about. At that moment, not only the artwork but also the message it conveys, appeared so beautiful to me.
But the visit to the Vatican museum also brought to the fore an inconvenient truth: outcasts exist everywhere. The last piece of artwork we visited, made that abundantly clear. After visiting Rafael’s rooms, and after much asking and fumbling with maps and directions, we finally made it to a very different, and much more controversial artist: Caravaggio.
There is only one Caravaggio on display in the Vatican. Not so surprising, perhaps, since Caravaggio was not exactly a favourite of the Pope’s. On the contrary, he challenged the Church’s authority over and over again, he rebelled as much in his own life as in his paintings. For Caravaggio’s art depicted not an imagined gospel, but the reality he saw around him. In doing so, he brought to spectator’s attention a group of people that it was easier to pretend didn’t exist, namely the outcasts of Medieval Rome: The poor, the beggars, the prostitutes, the gamblers. Caravaggio lived amongst them, fought with them, drank with them and made love to them. Not least, he painted them. He used them as models, even when depicting Mother Mary, and, perhaps worse still, he painted them caring for Christ himself, as they do in the Entombment of Christ.
The painting portrays a small group of humble people in poor clothing, including Mother Mary and mary Magdalene, deposing the body of Christ, all in utter darkness, far away from sparkling palaces and rejoiceful gatherings, only illuminated by the magnificent light of Caravaggio, that one ray of sunlight that would enter the small dark studio in the centre or Rome where he worked, that small but intense streak that he managed to incorporate into his paintings like no other painter before or after him.
While Michelangelo was praised as a genius even in his own lifetime, Caravaggio died long before he was recognised as such. And in the Vatican, it seems they still haven’t understood what he was all about; they have lit his work with strong artificial spotlights directed straight onto the painting, largely depriving the artist of his most powerful tool, the light. Or maybe they understood but they still don’t want to accept Caravaggio’s critique, for in essence it was, of the Church’s inability to live up to their own promise, to pardon and to provide everyone with the same possibility of salvation.
The contrast between the splendour of the Sistine Chapel and the dismal treatment of Caravaggio, is a good reminder that ideas and ideals don’t always match reality. Yet even if the Church hasn’t always managed to live as they preach, I still think the idea of forgiveness and rebirth is a precious gift, not least when contrasted with realities where not even the concept exists. It also gives me something to strive for at the onset of a new year.
It’s not necessary to visit the Sistine Chapel in the early morning to reach that conclusion, and if you do, you may come to very different conclusions than what I did. But being able to enjoy Michelangelo – and Caravaggio – with a limited number of people around, I think makes everyone more receptible to the message in the art, however you want to interpret it. In any case, it certainly makes it less of a ‘been there, done that’ and more of what it should be, a simply wonderful experience.