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Dear Refraction readers:

As the Cardinals gathered in the Sistine Chapel to (select who will be Pope Francis) consider a momentous decision for the future of the church, I pulled out an essay that I began to write two summers ago, after visiting the famed Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Until now, I held back from publishing it, thinking that my observations might be too radical. But a recent conversation with an artist I respect, Joel Sheesley, encouraged me to finish this essay. We were at the library in Wheaton College, where Joel teaches, looking together at an etching copy of Raphael’s masterpiece Transfiguration*, a painting that hangs in the Vatican only a few yards from the Sistine Chapel.*

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Raphael and a Yellow Polar Bear

When my son Ty was three years old, we took a trip to the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo. I explained to him that polar bears live in the Arctic Circle, and they are white to be camouflaged in the ice and the snow. (Call this early-childhood education in ecology and zoology.) Ty took one look at the allegedly white bear walking about, and gave me a quizzical look: “Daddy that polar bear is yellow, not white!”

Ah, the importance of actually looking at the object in question; the importance of checking in with reality. Sure enough, the Ueno Zoo polar bears are not really white; they are yellowish grey. Ty was right. I had assumed that polar bears are white, and taught my child the false assumption I held, without actually looking at the polar bears walking around in front of me. Children often will look and report what they actually see, perhaps for the first time. Adults have learned not to see.

As I’ve written in the past, the number one rule for engagement with culture is to look, see and listen. This statement by C. S. Lewis is worth quoting again, reminding us of this critical posture:

The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.

-C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, pp. 18, 19 (Cambridge University Press)

How often we speak of the arts - whether paintings, sculptures or movies - based on hearsay, rather than actual personal experience. In the ideological age we live in, we often project what we think we are seeing (the polar bear is white), rather than the reality of experiencing. We do not take seriously Lewis’ commendation to “Look, Listen, Receive.” We are not, as a culture, ready to step outside of our “comfort zones” to experience what others are sensing-to “step into someone else’s shoes.” So our cultural foundation is built more on projected ideological assumptions than on actual experiences. As my friend Bruce Herman tells me, using these principles of Lewis’, “if you want to understand something, you need to be willing to ‘stand under’ it.”

I had a “polar bear” experience two summers ago in Rome. We were “standing under” the famed Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, a masterpiece of human expression by Michelangelo.

What we know of the Sistine Chapel has been reduced in our minds; we automatically picture God the Father reaching out toward Adam with his finger, or the central figure of Christ in “The Last Judgment” wall, a magnificently contorted figure of triumph. Here’s how William E. Wallace, in his comprehensive and definitive book on Michelangelo, describes the Sistine Chapel:

In many ways the ceiling is a compendium, of Michelangelo’s art, of the Renaissance, of Christian theology. Like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the ceiling is a transcendent work of genius that can never be exhausted through looking or describing. In the words of Goethe: “Until you have seen the Sistine Chapel, you can have no adequate conception of what man is capable of accomplishing.

-William E. Wallace, Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture, Painting, Architecture, p. 185 (Universe)

If any hype, any united adoration for an artwork, is appropriate, it is for this masterpiece. What I would tell my children if I were to take them to the Sistine Chapel is that this masterpiece of Renaissance expression is also a masterpiece of Christian patronage. It is a visual work of Christian theology; as Wallace notes, before the Enlightenment, the church was the greatest patron of art. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is, after all, the centerpiece of the Vatican. It is a work of Michelangelo’s genius and of his piety, a six-year commitment to serve the cause of the church. It is where the Cardinals are gathering to pray and take votes to select the next leader of the largest church in the world. Any writings about the fresco would echo Wallace’s sentiment about how we see Genesis accounts now, after the Sistine Chapel:

In the total of nine scenes-four large and five smaller rectangular fields-Michelangelo related the book of Genesis. This was certainly not the first time the subject had been depicted, yet, like Leonardo’s Last Supper it has become virtually the canonical representation; we visualize the first book of the Bible according to Michelangelo. (140)

The assumption I had going into the Vatican was that encountering this work would be a transcendent, spiritual experience. Wallace states further:

…the ceiling causes us to pause awestruck at the creative imagination and accomplishment of one human being. No one quite forgets the experience of stepping through the small doorway into the vast expanse of the Sistine Chapel and having one’s eyes drawn inexorably to the heavens. (140)

After about an hour of standing under Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the assumptions began to disappear, and the real Sistine Chapel appeared. When I began to ponder was what I was surprised to observe, and reminded me of what Ty had said to me.

“Daddy, that polar bear is not white, it’s yellow!”

As I observed, and took note of what I was seeing as an artist, I came to the conclusion that I needed to correct my prior assumptions quite a bit. Here’s a quick summary of what I noted:

The Sistine Chapel is one of the most awkward worship spaces one will ever enter. While I have no problems calling the fresco a grand masterpiece of humanity, it is not the most transcendental worship space. The Sistine Chapel overwhelms, but not as a mysterious gaze into the heart of God. By all accounts, Michelangelo was a devout man, but the space does the opposite of what Wallace claims; it does not bring one to a transcendent experience of “one’s eyes drawn inexorably to the heavens.” On the other hand, the work is a masterwork of confession. Though our eyes lift up to the ceiling at first, they will eventually focus on the grand Last Judgment wall. But our gaze does not end up on the figure of Christ at the center-our eyes are drawn to a man crouched in terror at the bottom of that wall. This figure is caught between heaven and hell, and it is central to understanding the Sistine Chapel.

Rather being the epitome of transcendental worship before the Enlightenment fragmentation, Michelangelo’s chapel ceiling is the first salvo of self-expression born of the schism that we call the Enlightenment, a logical path taken during and after the Renaissance, a man-centered world in which the heavens collapse into the anguished face of a man. The images of the Sistine Chapel reveal the heart of a man of enormous genius struggling to find his way in the world, struggling to “own” his commission, struggling to paint (he was primarily a sculptor up to this point), and struggling to know his God.

If I were a priest or a pastor invited to choose a special place to celebrate worship or to pray, I would not chose the Sistine Chapel. St Francis’ Basilica in Assisi with Giotto’s and Cimabue: Yes. St. Maria delle Grazie with da Vinci’s The Last Supper: Yes. Even the Rothko Chapel would be a better choice. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel actually fights against worship. The images he spread across the ceiling visually compete with the crucifix on the altarpiece below; they, not the altarpiece, are the center.

Martin Luther visited Rome around the time that Michelangelo was at work in the Sistine Chapel. There is no indication that Luther got a sneak peak. But we do know that he recoiled at what he saw in Rome during that visit. When he arrived, he idolized Rome, kissing the steps of Pilate’s stairs in adoration, but he left with many questions on his mind. In many respects, the Sistine Chapel represents the world Luther questioned. But in other ways, Michelangelo’s genius transcends the politics of the church, and that is the Sistine Chapel’s greatest triumph.

Michelangelo was most capable of turning his devout soul into art not in fresco form, but with a chisel. His lyrical, worshipful marble sculptures attest to this. He was far more suited to carve marble, and that was his first language of worship. Yet Michelangelo truly desired to glorify God, so he dutifully, though reluctantly, fulfilled Pope Julian II’s expectations and patronage.

What I observed as the first clue of a disconnect with the act of painting is what is at the heart of the Last Judgment wall; it is a central piece, and yet, as my eyes examined this central piece, I realized it was not central at all.

The figure of Christ is visually at the center, but it is not visually designed to do what it seems.

“Daddy, that polar bear is yellow!”

Before I go into my particular observations and “reading” of the paintings, let me quote Wallace again speaking of this figure of Christ:

The Lord looks with gentle countenance, as if hoping to save one more soul before the damned disappear into hell’s maw…The subtle gesture of Christ’s left hand first calls attention to the wound in his side and then, framed by the flesh of his body, initiates the resurrection of the dead. (185)

The assumption here is that Christ is triumphant over the grave (visually, he is above hell, rising), powerfully about to execute his judgment.

I tried to look at this image as though I did not know the Bible at all. I imagined looking at the figure of Christ not knowing anything about Christ. What would I see?

I would see a Greco-Roman figure, the ideal of a human form, an Apollonian god-but under oppression. The halo behind him, like a dying ember, is diminishing, sucked out by the enormous pressure coming from the powers of the compressed figures that surround the halo. The pillars above stand visually in the way of the figure rising; there is an end coming, and the figure is in anguish, having lost direction. This Christ does not seem triumphant.

The path that the Sistine Chapel depicts may not be the path to heaven at all. Instead, one can see in this image a repression of humanity, repression of the sort that haunts modernity. David P. Goldman writes of another genius arising from the legacy of the Renaissance. In “Wagner’s Incestuous Narcissism,” he writes:

Narcissistic love knows neither the trials of courtship nor the fruitfulness of family life but only the climactic moment. In keeping with this idea of love, Wagner’s music stakes everything on the musical climax. In contrast to classical composition, whose teleology and formal coherence conveys a sense of the journey toward redemption, Wagner’s music offers us the overpowering moment of ecstasy.

-First Things, August/September 2001, p. 26

Judging from Michelangelo’s letters, it seems highly unlikely that he intended this type of narcissism in his art or in his life. But the trajectory of art often reveals what one intuits, more than what is on the surface of one’s mind.

What Michelangelo’s paintings reveal, most unintentionally, is the birth of an ideological, narcissistic age.

The word ideology, sociologist Tony Carnes has noted, has its root in the word idol. Any ideology, whether it be religious, sexual or political, can quickly become the sole means by which individuals judge others, and in those people’s minds the ideology replaces God as the ultimate judge of all things. One might argue that Michelangelo lived in a pre-ideological age, before the fragmentation of Enlightenment began to create distinct categories. Even Christian denominations did not exist then-but as Luther left Rome to head north, that schism was already present in Luther’s mind. No one back then would have been categorized as a Protestant, and atheism or agnosticism did not exist as distinct categories. There was no need to make a defensive stance against the question “what denomination do you belong to?” In other words, the category of atheism may not exist, as a public reality, apart from denominationalism.

Thus, Michelangelo had little interest in creating a category of post-Enlightenment art, “homo-erotic art” or ideation of any kind. Did he intentionally put into his work hints of a personal agenda toward the Pope, or any other power structures? Yes, most definitely. Was this an effort to create an ideological “code” of some kind? No.


The chapel is packed now, with other tourists. Commanding voices of guards tell them to be hushed: “Silenzio!” The clamor dies down only for a moment, and then rises. If the figures surrounding the Christ/Apollo figure could speak, and we could hear them, they would be loud, anxious and incapable of silence, too, as they twisted awkwardly into the frescoed walls. I then look up to see the fingers of Adam.

In the famed “reach” of God to Adam, the conventional understanding is that it is God the Father reaching Adam. But visually, in actual reading, it does not read as such: it is depicting Adam as having an independent, autonomous status with God. They are two figures equal in visual significance. God is unable, in the equal weight, in the “yin and yang” of two forces, to reach Adam. Adam pulls his finger back; the choice is Adam’s, and not God’s.

Theologically, one may also probe deeper. Would not representation of God diminish God’s invisible omnipotence? Michelangelo’s efforts to depict God in itself is not a violation of the Second Commandment; the Second Commandment forbids creating and worshiping idols in the shape of what is visible, and therefore we are free, especially after Christ’s appearance as a man, to create symbols or even a portrait of God. But the problem of depicting God the Father as a “figure in the sky” does present a theological conundrum. How do you communicate an invisible Reality in a Person of the Creator while fixed entirely in the means of the visible reality? And if we are to create a “portrait” of God, does that enhance or inhibit true worship?

The post-Reformation answers to these questions have led some to create a minimalist, austere box, with restrictions against having any images inside church walls. The iconoclastic movement of banishing and destroying images could be, in part, a reaction against the Sistine Chapel’s grandeur, and against Michelangelo’s audacity in depicting God as aloof and Christ as an Apollonian figure.

My eyes then gazed at the Eden scene. The prelapsarian Adam and Eve are at center stage, and an image tells of the power of Satan; of course, that is how, Biblically, we should read the scene. But in the entire chapel, there is no vision for the City of God, no vision for how the Tree of Life is to be sought through Christ’s sacrifice. So the depiction of expulsion, in contrast to the Eden temptation, is awkwardly stiff and visually static. The dualism is what misses the point; evil is literally at the heart of this painting. The “expulsion” is not about the Fall; rather it is depicted as a development of a post-Edenic identity. There’s no up or down, heaven or earth; all figures are characters on the same stage. Thus our gaze does not transcend the painting, but ends up admiring Michelangelo’s powers and genius. We end up asking questions about the technique-“How did he manage to do this!” We do not bend our knees.

I used to assume that the Sistine Chapel represented the height of the Renaissance in worship of God. Now I consider it to have paved the way to Oscar Wilde and Friedrich Nietzsche. This should not cause any of us, including Christians, to avoid these artworks and books. Instead, we should be driven to them as they express the angst, and the reality, of our times. Truth-seekers should assume that the faith reality is generative and can help us digest even atheistic art with great precision. If we once assumed the bear is white, but then discover it is not, we need to start to see the bear in its true condition, and consider why the bear is yellow.


I walked down, looking up and back occasionally to take a last glimpse of the magnificent dome of the Sistine Chapel; having exhausted the last hour staring, I entered into the last room of the Vatican intending to take just a quick look. What I saw there exhilarated me, filled me with joy and worship.

In the dimly lit hall is a painting by Raphael, the rival of Michelangelo, of the Transfiguration. Now, this is ALL about worship. The triumphant figure of Christ is surrounded by Moses and Elijah. The disciples and others are stumbling about below, trying to do the work of Christ in the dark world beneath the transcendent figures. The contorted figures underneath of the battles upon the land depict, actually, the spiritual battle behind liberating a demon-possessed boy who the disciples are trying to help. The boy seems to be having an epileptic fit; he is unable to focus, blind to himself and the world. But then I noticed something peculiar. In the entire painting, there are only a few figures whose gazes seem to truly be upon Christ. The figure of one of the saints (most likely, St. Justus and Pastor, to whom the Feast Day of Transfiguration is dedicated), Moses and Elijah…and the boy. Of all the figures in the dark underworld of spiritual battles, the demon-possessed boy is the only one who is looking directly at Christ; he is the only one who sees Christ.

The boy who cannot see, bounded by physical and spiritual bondage, still by faith sees the triumphant Christ. Raphael depicted the moment of liberation, and identified the peculiarity of worship that Luther would have appreciated: doxology begins with liberation from our possessions to see Christ.

Raphael lay ill during the completion of the painting (he was 37); according to one account, he lay down beside it and continued to work. He died only a few hours later. It is likely, then, that for Raphael, his own painting of the Transfiguration literally became his dying hours of worship.

If you travel to Rome and want to spend hours in the Vatican reflecting on the future of worship and the church, don’t stand beneath the chapel dome. Stand under Raphael’s Transfiguration. There, in Raphael’s masterpiece, the blinded, the helpless, refracting in the darkness of the last hours, can truly see. This painting is the true white polar bear I presumed I would see in the Sistine Chapel.