Monday, April 04, 2005

Sistine Chapel Is Home of Papal Election

By NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press Writer

VATICAN CITY - When cardinals gather in Rome to elect the next pope, they will cast their ballots surrounded by some of the greatest works of art in the world: the fleshy frescoes by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.

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The Renaissance master painted the chapel's ceiling between 1508 and 1512, and more than 20 years later began the main fresco behind the altar, creating a chapel Pope John Paul II once called "the sanctuary of the theology of the body."

Indeed, the Sistine Chapel is full of nudes — naked angels and saints, prophets and sinners, Adams and Eves — quite a graphic backdrop for one of the most solemn exercises in the Roman Catholic Church: choosing a new leader.

If tradition holds during the conclave, or papal election, cardinals will gather in the chapel twice a day, casting two rounds of ballots in the morning and two in the afternoon. At least two-thirds must agree on the new pope — for about 30 rounds, after which only a simple majority is needed — a decision signaled to the world by a puff of white smoke from the chapel chimney.

When the cardinals look up as they ponder their vote, they'll see Michelangelo's "Creation" — a series of nine frescos running the length of the ceiling, the most famous of which is the "Creation of Adam," showing God and Adam, their fingers reaching out to one another.

When they place their ballots in an urn on the altar, they'll come face to face with Michelangelo's "The Last Judgment," the huge fresco depicting a muscular Jesus surrounded by naked masses ascending to heaven and falling to hell.

Both of those works, as well as the frescoes of the lives of Jesus and Moses that line the walls, were scrubbed in recent years to remove 500 years of candle smoke, varnish and grime.

While the frescos emerged brighter than perhaps ever before, some art historians have said the figures — without the varnish that gave them a certain depth and shadow — now have a cartoonish quality that Michelangelo never would have wanted.

Pope Sixtus IV had the Sistine Chapel built in 1475-83 to give the Vatican a place for solemn ceremonies. By church standards, it's tiny: 135 feet long by 44 feet wide — a basic rectangle ringed by 12 windows and divided into two unequal parts by a marble screen.

Michelangelo got involved in the decoration reluctantly and late. He had been sculpting the tombstone of Pope Julius II when he was commissioned to fresco the chapel ceiling, at that time just a blue expanse dotted by golden stars.

Michelangelo didn't consider himself a painter, and historians say he feared his frescoes would never hold up to those already on the chapel walls by the great painters of the day: Botticelli, Perugino, Signorelli, Pinturicchio, Rosselli and Girlandaio.

Nevertheless, Michelangelo put the tomb aside and began the job on May 10, 1508, erecting a scaffolding that allowed him to lie on his back right under the ceiling to apply small patches of wet plaster and paint — the stuff of frescos.

He started at the back of the chapel with "The Drunkenness of Noah," and with paint dripping into his eyes, worked chronologically out of order until he reached the panel nearest the altar, the biblical beginning of time, "The Separation of Light From Darkness."

In between, framing each of the nine panels, are Michelangelo's "ignudi" or nudes — supposedly modeled on the rippled abdomen of the Belvedere Torso, the 1st century B.C. Greek marble sculpture that is considered the perfect male form.

Nearly 25 years after the ceiling was finished, Pope Paul III commissioned Michelangelo, then 61, to fresco the main wall behind the altar. "The Last Judgment" was completed about five years later.

Michelangelo included some charming details: Angels hold two books with the names of those to be admitted to heaven and hell. The one for heaven is a fraction of the size of the one for hell. The message is clear.

Michelangelo also got in a dig at one of his detractors, the pope's master of ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena. He had voiced displeasure with all the nudity on the walls — criticism that led future popes to order "veils" be painted onto certain figures to cover them up.


Legend has it that Michelangelo modeled one of his figures in hell after da Cesena, painting him with the ears of an ass and with a snake head at his groin.

When da Cesena complained, Pope Paul III reportedly told him: "Perhaps from purgatory I would have been able to free you, but I have no power over hell."

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