Friday, September 23, 2011

Vatican Frescoes

Brain anatomy.
Being able to tour the Sistene Chapel before the crowds arrived was a pleasure.  Gazing at the walls and ceiling without being elbowed and jostled, and being able to hear the guide without the babble of the crowds meant there was little to disturb the connection.

Standing in the midst of a room that has spoken to generations of Cardinals as they voted in the next Pope,  I couldn't help but wonder what these figures spoke to their consciences.

Michaelangelo didn't even have a specialty in fresco before the Pope summoned him to Rome. He went unwillingly.  He struggled with technique, perspective and ego as he worked to complete the masterpieces.  Between 33 and 37 when he painted the ceiling; and between 59 and 64 when he painted the Last Judgement.  Almost ten years of this genius' life, poured into wet plaster.

Michaelangelo dissected corpses to gain deep insight into the muscles and body, and likely dissected a few brains.  Neurosurgeons have confirmed that in the creation panel, the depiction of God and angels is an accurate representation of the cross-section of a brain. The green scarf is modeled after a brain stem.

Michaelangelo in the foreground of Raphael's painting.
As Michaelangelo was hard at work in the Chapel, young Raphael was busy in adjoining rooms, painting the Pope's personal quarters. R. snuck in behind M.'s scaffold and was amazed to see the human figure revealed with such raw power and intensity; it was groundbreaking. R. went back and painted M. into the foreground, copying his technique. In the same painting, higher up on the steps, you can see another master, Leonardo da'Vinci, depicted as Socrates with a long grey beard.  Raphael's own self-portrait is to the far right in the black hat.

Michaelangelo's self-portrait in the flayed flesh of St. Bartholemew
Michaelangelo's self-portrait is presented in the flayed skin of St. Bartholemew in the Last Judgement.  The genius was brilliant, but not particularly happy.  He spent much time alone and not a lot is known about his personal habits, loves or personal tastes.  One of the guides was heard to say he was a depressive and wore boots to bed... but maybe that is just idle gossip.

If M. was depressed, maybe it was because he knew that not long after his death, his students would be called in, to paint strategically placed scarves and garments over the naked flesh that many found so unsettling.  Imagine the religious debate that preceded; repeated in recent history when the 20th century saw restoration work carried out to the ceiling.  Figures could have been returned to their original, yet only a few were fully restored to their original splendour.

photo credit Sistene Chapel
photo credit Last Judgement
photo credit Raphael Room

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