The Vatican Museums are brilliant, but deceptive. I don’t mean ‘deceptive’ in the sense that they are out to deceive you, of course. What I mean is that you get inside the building at the back of the Vatican City and a sign points to the Sistine Chapel (which was what I wanted to see). What it doesn’t really tell you is that you have to walk about ten miles through endless other galleries before you get to it. And once you are there, you are suffering from sensory overload – having had your eyes assaulted by classical riches on every surface of every room. It is wonderful, but overwhelming.
What struck me particularly on this journey (with aching feet) was the syncretism of so much of the religious art. I am sorry if this confirms my ignorance in the minds of the intelligentsia, but this stuff is not my forte. Biblical, Christian and classical mythological themes and characters are mixed up to such an extent that anyone coming to it cold could be forgiven for being somewhat confused.
The second striking thing (for me, at least) was the masculinity of the women in the Sistine Chapel frescoes. Everybody says Michelangelo ‘couldn’t do women’, but I hadn’t realised how true this is. It is as if he painted muscular blokes and then stuck odd-shaped breasts on their front. It is weird. Now, when I mentioned this to someone who knows more about such things than I do (which is not very hard…), he shrugged and suggested it was just one of those things – every genius has his weak spots. Well, I am not so sure. That is like suggesting that Mozart was a great musician, but that he could only read or write music in a few specific keys. It doesn’t add up.
I don’t go in for all the ‘da Vinci Code’ nonsense, but I am a bit perturbed by some aspects of what I saw in the Sistine Chapel.
- Michelangelo could have painted women if he had wanted to: but he chose not to. Why?
- Why is Satan showing us his bare bottom as he is being cast out of heaven?
- And why does Adam have a belly-button?
I don’t want to push this too far, but the heart of the Vatican is full of naked flesh in very odd circumstances. And I wonder how that is dealt with theologically and ethically.
Perhaps the most shocking image for me was in the Constantine gallery – before getting to the Sistine Chapel. The ceiling has a powerful image of the shattered statue of the emperor lying in pieces on the floor while his place on the pedestal is taken by a crucified Christ. I understand this refers to the vision Constantine had prior to going into battle under the sign of the cross, but it left me disturbed for two reasons:
1. The power of God seen in Jesus Christ was not a simple substitute for political power as exercised by emperors and generals. The power of God in Christ is a scandal to the world of the military powermongers because it is apparently so weak: a man hanging on the gallows with his arms outstretched in welcome to whatever the world throws at him. This is an affront to power, not a substitute for it.
2. Yet it could also be seen as the ‘scandal of the cross’ standing in judgement over the broken transience of hubristic rulers.
It might be that I am confusing this crucified ‘Christ’ with the ‘Church’ here and not reading the ceiling properly. Whatever the case, there is something weird about the syncretism of the art overall and what some of it seems to be saying about God, the world and people.