Saturday, August 29, 2009

Mini-Review: “Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling” by Ross King

As a young person, I began to learn about Michelangelo’s painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel through watching the film, “The Agony and the Ecstasy.” Later, I read the Irving Stone novel that had been the basis for the Hollywood treatment of the story. In 1996, in a visit to Rome, I was able to behold the legendary ceiling with my own eyes.

When I learned that the writer and researcher, Ross King, had written a book about the painting of the ceiling, based on his assiduous and painstaking assessment of thousands of documents and interviews, I knew I had to read the book. I had already been delighted and informed by King when I read his account of the building of the Duomo in Florence, “Brunelleschi’s Dome.” This account of the struggle between Michelangelo and Pope Julius II also includes a cast of characters from rival artist Raphael to Martin Luther. Although carefully annotated to lead serious students to primary sources, the narrative is written in a very readable and enjoyable way. King debunks much of the Hollywood hype and the misconceptions that have surrounded the legend of the painting of the Sistine Chapel. The true story is no less intriguing than the myth that had been built up over the centuries, brush stroke by brush stroke.

I was struck by the juxtaposition of the personal styles of Michelangelo and Raphael, who worked and lived in close proximity to each other at the Vatican. Raphael was almost always surrounded by an entourage of young artists and assistants whom he was mentoring and teaching. Michelangelo, in contradistinction, used assistants only grudgingly and never took them under his wing as protégés. It seems to me that God often singles out the least likely vessels to contain and to serve as conduits for his most glorious treasures and works of genius. I think of Mozart, as well as Michelangelo, and am reminded of the word of the Apostle Paul: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show us that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

However flawed Michelangelo may have been in his humanity, his artistry and the works of his hands remain to inspire and to induce awe in those of us fortunate to behold them.

King’s treatment of the artist and his work in the Sistine Chapel frames beautifully the man and the magic of his work.



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