The Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s: The Wal-Mart of Religion

I was prepared to be disappointed, but one just cannot say anything bad about the Sistine Chapel. The visit to Vatican City began with hesitation on the last day of a grueling walk across four major European cities in some heavy, hot weather. I will admit that if Manning had stayed asleep through the alarm I would have certainly done my part to feign ignorance. Out the door and around the block and ta-dah we were in line. I had booked the Hotel Sant’Anna which was right next door to the Vatican, and it turned out to be a quite nice place for the cost. It was one hour in line, from 8am until the doors opened to the Vatican Museum at 9am. This was the one place where we could not find a backdoor. Certainly, we could have paid the extra money to go with a skip the line tour, but, as we found out, we would have missed the best art.

Once in the doors it is a mad rush to the Chapel. Since I clearly remembered nothing from Reg Porter’s three art courses on the Italian Renaissance, I did not share the same American tourist fascination with the mediocre tapestries lining the walls – 42,120 flashes later and we had made it past the sheep looking for their saviour. This experience did make me reaffirm the value of education: if you do not understand what you are seeing in the context of an education, then the value of the experience can only reflect the value of your understanding. In other words, no learning means a rather random run through a museum taking random pictures of everything so that you do not miss whatever the guidebook says is important. No one stood an looked at anything; it was like going to a music concert where people do not listen, but rather take photos with their phones for Twitter updates.

Rafello is Raphael, people!

Manning and I chose to take the “Long Circuit”. Two roads diverged and we took the one no one else took, if only because we are like that, in general. Let me explain that all of the tours take a “Short Circuit”, so that they can enter the Sistine Chapel quickly and spend time there. What this means is that I stood in front of Rafello’s School of Athens alone – apparently, most people do not understand that Rafello=Raphael. I saw two Dali masterpieces, a Van Gogh representation of the pieta, and many other modern master’s works. It was some of the best art I have experienced. At the end…there is the Sistine Chapel.

I could not help but be impressed with the vivid qualities of the entire work. It had an intense dimensionality to it that made you believe that what you were witnessing was indeed heaven. Had there been frankincense in the air and altar candles in lieu of 200 idiot tourists trying to sit on benches and sneak pictures, then I might have indeed found God that morning. We spent about thirty minutes moving down the chapel to examine the various scenes. The guard kept yelling a timely , but incredulous, “no photo!” or “silence” as each new herd of buffons rushed in seeking bench seats. Many tried to sneak photos, and we watched one old woman try to beg her way into having a guard let her take but uno pictura. For my own part, I left the camera in the hotel. I knew better than to try to capture anything of use within the Vatican, and really I own some wonderful fine art history texts with much better photos than I could take without lights and a giant tripod – hence, the photos used for this blog entry.

In the end, I found that the Vatican Museums were worth the lines, the insane tourists and the sifting through masters for the great masters. St. Peter’s Basilica was another matter. This had to be the least holy and most gaudy religious arena that I have ever entered. It only served to explain why Catholicism has lost ground due to its excessive greed and lust for power which seems to be exemplified by this particular pontiff [does the Vatican need corporate sponsorship signs to improve its main square?]. Inside the church it was an empty hulk with hundreds of blinking flashes going off. It was a Wal-Mart for religion: lots of crap with no redeeming qualities. I will admit that I was enamoured with Bernini’s tomb with the excessive drapery unfolding over Death, but it was not enough. In my mind I chuckled as I imagined why Michelangelo argued so much with: “Dear God you want me to paint what? You must be kidding me…on the ceiling? What kind of a lunatic are you, Julius? Look at that awful church next door; I am not going to do anything remotely like that disaster.”

If I came to an epiphany about anything, then it would be of the meaning of T.S.Eliot’s “The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock” when he writes:

In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo.

The negatives are in for development, so I expect to have some photos scanned for tomorrow’s entry based on what turn out to be my favourite images of the journey. I can only hope that x-rays, slipped dark slides and miscalculated exposures still leave me with a decent portfolio to post on the website and keep as part of my material for a possible exhibition.


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