Under the Gaze of the Sistine

Chapel's Art May Speak Volumes to Cardinals

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, APRIL 18, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Cardinals have met in the most unlikely places for conclaves. Under the protection of kings, they gathered in the grand halls of Avignon or on the island of San Giorgio in Venice. Tormented by the populace, they were confined in underground ruins on the Palatine Hill or walled into the papal palace of Viterbo.

As of 1878 and the fall of the Papal States, the conclave has taken place in the Sistine Chapel, and in 1996, John Paul II made the Sistine Chapel the permanent home of the conclave. He declared that the conclave would take place, "exclusively in the Sistine Chapel, which will remain a completely private area until the completed election, so as to ensure total secrecy."

The chapel takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere, who commissioned a military architect, Giovannino de' Dolci, in 1477 to build the structure. With its high, forbidding brick walls crowned by defensive bastions, the building appears the ideal site for the "cum clave," or closing "with a key."

Yet in the poems of his "Roman Triptych," Pope John Paul II mentions another reason for the conclave to be held in the Sistine Chapel. He writes of the next election,

"when the need arises after my death.
Michelangelo's vision must then speak to them."

John Paul II's poetry about the chapel does not envision keys as tools for closing but as instruments of opening. "Cum clave" in the poetic imagination of John Paul II refers to the keys of the kingdom of heaven:

"Those to whom the care of the legacy of the keys has been entrusted gather here, allowing themselves to be enfolded by the Sistine colors."

This duality of the Pope's vision of the conclave -- part temporal in the physical seclusion of the cardinals and part spiritual in the enormous responsibility to confer the keys to heaven -- may well have been inspired by from the chapel itself with its dark, closed exterior shell concealing a luminous colorful interior. Here the cardinals will seal themselves off from the world in order to open themselves to the Holy Spirit.

As the cardinals cross the threshold to begin their deliberations, spread above them is Michelangelo's Genesis cycle unveiling the origins of creation. Their destination, the Last Judgment, lies before them, as depicted by Michelangelo's fresco on the altar wall.

The chapel space is divided by a gilt marble screen which once separated the papal court from the everyday faithful during liturgies. The area between the screen and the entrance door is the site of the simple cylindrical stove where the ballots will be burned to produce smoke from the chimney announcing the outcome of vote -- black if still undecided; white heralding the election of a new pope. During their meditations, the cardinals will sit in the area between the screen and the altar.

Along the side walls of the chapel the electors will be surrounded by panels painted by the finest artists of the 15th century. On the left, the stories of Moses unfold as depicted by Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Perugino, while on the right, the same artists illustrate stories from the life of Christ.

The duality expressed in John Paul II's poetry is pervasive. Beginning and End, Old Testament and New Testament. To the left, Botticelli's "Punishment of Korah" narrates Korah's challenge to Moses' and Aaron's right to the priesthood and the terrible punishment dealt by God to the usurpers. On the right, Perugino's fresco shows Christ giving the keys to Peter as the other apostles stand by in acceptance of the passing of authority.

Botticelli's portrayal s of confusion and violent motion is a stern reminder of the disorder attendant upon challenging God's will, while Perugino's painting is clear and organized -- a metaphor for the peace brought by accepting authority.

The grandest expression of blending of the spiritual and temporal begins in the ceiling, however. Far removed from the papal politics, the vault expresses the worthiness of God's greatest creation, man. Michelangelo drew on his vocation as a sculptor to create the dynamic, beautiful beings that populate the ceiling, proudly declaring the splendor of humanity in God's image and extolling God's love for man in the promise of salvation.

In the famed creation of man, the artist drew Adam as the ultimate expression of human duality. The powerful physique of Adam charged with physical potential to do anything, is countered by the arm that weighs heavily on the knee, the lolling head and the fixed yearning gaze on the apparition of God. It is God's touch that will animate Adam, God's infusion of His own Divine spark, the immortal soul, which will raise man above all the other creations.

This image, with its celebration of the worthiness of man, will hover over the cardinals as they seek for a pastor who will lead the beloved flock to its creator. The hope and trust of Michelangelo's imagery resounds in the words of John Paul II's "Roman Triptych":

"Why on only that day was it said: 'God saw every thing that He had made, and, behold, it was very good?' Why, then does it seem that history contradicts all this? Even our twentieth century! And not only the twentieth! No century however, will be able to cloud the truth about image and likeness."

The cardinals will sit before a looming reminder of their awesome responsibility: In "The Last Judgment," Jesus as judge, more powerful and awe-inspiring than ever seen in the history of art, sits in a golden light. He draws the saved to him with a subtle, gentle gesture while the raised hand above his head condemns the damned. The Church, represented by Mary nestled by Christ's side, points the way to salvation.

In the "Roman Triptych," John Paul II repeats again and again that, as the cardinals choose the keeper of the keys --

"Omnes nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos Eius." Their thoughts, their hopes, their prayers, while invisible to the world, are transparent to God.

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Elizabeth Lev, a ZENIT contributor to the weekly Rome Notes, teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Rome campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.