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The Sistine Chapel

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Michelangelo. From 1509-1541, with a 30-year break between paintings, he toiled endlessly on his art on this ceiling, and above the arc. His arms, hands, and mind created the images imprinted into the history of mankind. By himself, with the aid of others only to mix paint and bring it to him, he created over 300 figures, and countless more in the Last Judgment. The idea of a single man spending so much of his life devoted to one room never ceases to amaze me. The room where such art is located is no mystery. Everyone knows it. Everyone knows the paintings. Everyone knows the Sistine Chapel. The creation of Adam by the outstretched hand of God; the Last Judgment delivered by Jesus. Whether people journey to the chapel to have the “cultural experience”, or for something spiritually significant, the impact of the different images are known to each person. These images are imprinted on every mind from generations past, and will be on those to come. For those who have the chance to visit the chapel over six hundred eyes await them; in the mean time they stare down into the room, silently watching.
It was my first time to Europe. The weather was manageable, despite the ravaging heat every afternoon. Having already passed through the sideways streets of Paris, the endless gardens of Versailles, my family turned to our next country: Italy. All I could imagine and more: pasta, pizza, and gelato everyday. After strolling down the bridges of Florence, walking beside the canals of Venice, stepping down the ancient well of Perugia, we finally came to Rome. Here the heat was almost unbearable. Perspiration slid down my forehead despite me wearing the lightest cotton shirt I own. The Coliseum’s dark corners saved me from the murderous sunlight that burned every inch of uncovered skin. Who would imagine that a place with history filled with countless deaths would be my savior? As I looked down into the Coliseums maze underneath, images from the past duels sprang into my imagination, and the dangerous rays were out of mind. Instead of the treacherous outdoors activities we were having each day, a day trip to Vatican City seemed like a good escape from the heat. The interior paintings, high ceilings, and cover from the sun made me weak with anticipation. Not only did the environment invite my mind to wander, but also the legendary works of art present in the room made my knees weak. I expected that stepping into the Apostolic Palace would knock my breath out the moment I entered the room and ignite the spark of true awe.
Entering the State of the Vatican City, population under 800, is like stepping into an entirely new world. As thousands of tourists stepped inside the walls enclosing 110 acres of land the transition from Rome to the sovereign city-state is complete. The heat was hardly even noticeable for the few hours where I wasn’t inside. We passed through the wall, and headed straight for the Church with the Apostolic Palace. One painting that I had been so well acquainted with was Raphael’s The School of Athens. It depicts legendary thinkers such as Galileo, Aristotle, Plato, Michelangelo, Euclid, Pythagoras, Socrates and so many others. One would assume that this painting would be the main focus of any room it is in, but in reality when entering the small room of the Apostolic Palace, the painting melts into the wall. The floors have mesmerizing tile patterns, the frieze’s along the edges of the walls are beautifully crafted, and when stepping back you feel as if you are in the painting, accompanying many of the greatest thinkers of all time. If one room could make me feel as if I was with Aristotle, then how would I feel once I got to the Sistine Chapel?
As I passed through doorway the first image I saw was the sea of people in front of me. With a shawl draped around me to cover my exposed shoulders, I waited to see what I had anticipated for so long. My heart pounded, my knees were shaking, and I waited for my opportunity to look up, and around. Hundreds of people were on the ceilings and walls, but even more were standing on the ground. If only those people would try and emulate the people in the painting; silent, respectful, still. In reality the noise, and tightly packed room made it impossible to look at any one painting for too long. The paintings on the ceilings seemed light-years away while I craned my neck up in hopes of finding the spark I wanted from the room. The wonder and awe expected to punch me in the face when entering the most well known room in the world failed to come. No emotions evoked from images; no tingly feeling from God; only the crowded, smelly, loud bodies bumping into each other. If only there were five hundred fewer people in the room, maybe, just maybe, that breath from above would come down on me; I could bathe in the mesmerizing warmth of inspiration. Alas, instead of this, I was only able to bathe in the revolting scent that rose from the hundreds of sweating tourists. Such aggravation is impossible to endure. I wanted to stay so that I could get one silent, still moment to look at all that surrounded me, and at the same time I needed to escape from the walls of bodies that suffocated me.
The moment of life, of creation, with the strong arm of God to Adam’s limp finger, stood just out of my grasp. Michelangelo’s outstretched hand thrusts these paintings into the weak, unworthy arms of those below. The loud, disorganized crowd of people did not deserve to comprehend the genius present in front of them. Chaos was thrust upon me, and hope evaporated into the heavy air. My faith in the room was wiped away as fast as the sweat off of my forehead.
The only satisfaction I can get from my trip to the Sistine Chapel comes from re-imagining the experience inside my disappointed head. Once again I can step through the threshold, only this time the only sound echoing on the walls are my footsteps, alone on the marble floor. No tourists’ voices, tour guides “intelligent” critiques; only me, my thoughts, and Michelangelo. Although I don’t know what he was like when he was alive, I can still picture him as a man with his own stories, ideas, and beliefs. He points out the subtle details in his paintings that no one else sees, and explains his self-portrait in The Last Judgment. He tells me how by the end of the painting he had lost his faith in religion, and therefore painted his flayed skin held in the hands of Saint Bartholomew. He can’t stay for too long, seeing that he is one of the most sought after artists in the world, so then I lie down on the floor, stretch out, and gaze onto the images for as long as they truly deserve.



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