In the Sistine Chapel, you have to tilt your head upward to see God creating Adam.
After navigating through a whole world of people, you can get a straight-on view of the frescoed ceiling. Then you crane your neck, interlacing your fingers over your top vertebrae, and you see God’s curved finger pointing at a fleshly Adam bearing the divine image, lounging in transient innocence.
The paintings silenced everything around me. The blue in The Last Judgement, covering the massive altar panel in front of me, was the color of a Florida sky in July after a week of rain.
As I strolled below God and Adam, I wondered, what would be my Sistine Chapel? What would I give back to God from the things that he has given me? To me, Michelangelo’s brushstrokes represented sacrifice, total devotion to excellence in his craft and to God himself.
However, as I stared at them, the paintings failed to kindle a spiritual experience for me, as I had hoped they would. Instead, they quizzed my Biblical knowledge, giving me an opportunity to show off to my travel companion. “This is the golden calf, of course, from Exodus, you know?”
Eventually, I eased from the crowd and sat by one of the walls. Why was I experiencing some sort of weird disappointment? How could I dare to be disenchanted with the glorious paintings in the Sistine Chapel? The art was beautiful…and that’s all I had to say.
Sorting it Out
Embarrassed by my dissatisfaction and wanting to sort it out, I began to write. Even if they weren’t a conduit for some great spiritual revelation, the paintings did seem to give me a taste of something that I couldn’t identify or get out of my head. Looking over my writings from that day again, I found these lines, which seem to articulate my thoughts:
How much greater is one moment in God’s presence, one moment in which my surroundings fade. Even if my surroundings are the frescos of the Sistine Chapel, my God is more interesting, greater, better, more relevant to my life at this moment.
The art was beautiful, but it didn’t change my life. No spiritual experience. Merely a box checked, something to say at swanky cocktail parties: “Ah, yes, I’ve seen the Sistine Chapel. Magnificent handiwork, sprezzatura at its finest. The color of blue on the altar panel reminded me of the Florida sun after a rainy week in July…”
I wanted the Sistine Chapel to change my world, to saturate everything with more brilliant colors, to make everything look different, the way that things do after I’ve been praying. I wanted the Sistine Chapel to do something to me that I couldn’t communicate in words, to make me feel the way that I feel when I rise from my knees and my toes are tingling because I’ve been down for a long time.
Indeed, it seems like experiencing the holiness and love of God happen to me in unassuming places. It happens on this little carpet I have in my tiny bedroom in Athens, Greece. The carpet always slides around because I haven’t found those rubber things that make it stop moving, and the little pieces of fabric on it always leave indentions on my forehead. It’s in those times that he comes and he reminds me of his love and fills me with peace, a satiated stillness in my soul. That’s what I wanted from Michelangelo’s paintings, as if something people create could compare to a moment with God.
I thought the Sistine Chapel would be better than anything I’d ever seen or experienced. But I left realizing that the distinguishing factor of the greatest moments in my life isn’t artistry or intellection or beauty or humor or any other quality. It’s holiness. The moments of silence, when you can finally listen to Jesus, when you can have peace and be unmoved when the whole world is quaking, when you know who you are because you know who Jesus is, when your worth as an individual isn’t based on money or appearances or self-esteem, but based on the love of an immutable God. In these moments, it doesn’t matter where you are or who you are.
I had to travel 5000 miles to realize that the greatest treasure I have was not even a hair’s breadth from my heart. Why did I have to go so far away to realize that God is closer to me than I ever imagined? There is an infinite source of joy within me — not out there, in Europe, my own personal “promised land,” the world I’d worked so hard to be a part of.
I’m realizing that I already had what I needed all along: a dependency on and confidence in the love of Jesus. I understand now what A. W. Tozer means when he writes in Born after Midnight,
“God may allow his His servant to succeed when he has disciplined him to a point where he does not need to succeed to be happy. The name who is elated by success and cast down by failure is still a carnal man. At best his fruit will have a worm in it.”
For so long, I’ve been living with fruit with a worm in it.
Surrounded by some of the most famous and beautiful artwork ever made, I found myself looking through the priceless ceiling to find God. I was experiencing the world’s best, from food to company to artwork to music, but I felt my soul burdened for the presence of God. I began to see my old desires as what they were: good things, but mere trifles compared to God, the God who knows me and loves me anyway.
Connecting the Dots
A week later, I was in Florence at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, which houses an important collection of sculptures. One of the sculptures was Michelangelo’s piece The Deposition. Jesus’ body rests in the arms of Nicodemus, Mary, and Mary Magdalene. It took Michelangelo eight years to finish the piece, and in a moment of rage, he destroyed parts of it.
Leaving the display room, I saw emblazoned on the wall in gold letters a sonnet that Michelangelo himself had written. It was titled “On the Brink of Death.” Like The Deposition, it had been created near the end of his life. I read Timothy Verdon’s translation:
The course of my life has brought me now
Through a stormy sea, in a frail ship,
To the common port where, landing
We account for every deed, wretched or holy. So that finally I see
We account for every deed, wretched or holy.
How wrong the fond illusion was
That made art my idol and my King,
Leading me to want what harmed me.
My amorous fancies, once foolish and happy
What sense have they now that I approach two deaths
The first of which I know is sure, the second threatening.
Michelangelo begins by saying that his life is nearing its end, and he is looking at how he has spent his days. He sees now that art was like his god, and he loved it so much that it began to harm him. Perhaps it took his attention away from God. He thinks that his previous interests seem silly now that he knows he will die a physical death. He wonders about a second death.
It was the final stanza that brought me to tears, which I tried, inexplicably, to hide from my traveling companion.
Let neither painting nor carving any longer calm
My soul turned to that divine Love
Who to embrace us opened His arms upon the cross.
Painting and carving no longer satisfy him. He turns to Jesus, who sacrificed himself for Michelangelo.
Reading this, my mind’s eye went back to the Sistine Chapel, remembering how I had felt. Michelangelo felt it too!
When I looked at his paintings, I couldn’t imagine someone like Michelangelo having to rely on God for much. If anyone could get into Heaven on artistic merit — even artistic merit displayed in a holy place like a chapel! — It would be Michelangelo. But even he, carving into marble Christ himself, felt the need for God.
And this is what I learned from my trip to the Sistine Chapel, where I gaped at the ceiling, looking at the curled anger of God and a newly formed Adam, and then found myself looking past man’s brushstrokes, looking upward.
May everything you read here — on Looking Upward — encourage you to do the same.
© Olivia Davis, 2018. All rights reserved.