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Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling
by ross king
walker and company, 373 pages, $28

According to Giorgio Vasari, author of the monumental Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Michelangelo was so secretive about his work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that Pope Julius II, the patron of the project, took to donning disguises and sneaking in at night to catch glimpses of the artist’s progress. Michelangelo, ever on the alert, caught wind of these visits, and one night lay in wait atop the immense scaffolding for the arrival of the intruder. When Julius entered, Michelangelo—like Zeus with his thunderbolts—hurled planks from the scaffolding down at the Holy Father, routing him from the chapel. Grasping the full implications of what he had done, the artist fled to Florence.

Vasari’s story is almost certainly apocryphal, but it captured something of the clash between these two titans—the tortured, solitary artistic genius and the overweening autocrat destined to be remembered as the “Warrior Pope.” It served as the hook for Irving Stone’s novel The Agony and The Ecstasy. And it also serves as the framework for Ross King’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling.

That this territory has been fairly well-trodden raises the question of what King hoped to contribute to the record with this book. His previous nonfiction work, the bestselling Brunelleschi’s Dome, had the distinct advantage of recounting a more obscure feat of Renaissance art and engineering, the building of the dome of Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiori. To his credit, in the new book King goes beyond the mere contest of wills between prelate and artist to create something of a historical-cultural snapshot of the era, including the Pope’s military and political campaigns, the saga of Michelangelo’s ever-dysfunctional family, and the tale of the artist’s chief rival, Raphael, who was painting his own epic masterpieces a short distance away, in the Stanza della Signatura. Across King’s stage come a parade of Renaissance figures, from Lodovico Ariosto and Niccolo Machiavelli to Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther.

Colorful and vivid as King’s pageant may be, his treatment of the book’s raison d’etre, Michelangelo’s frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, remains oddly bland and inert. He is at his best when explaining the process of painting on wet plaster, providing thumbnail sketches of Michelangelo’s team of assistants, or recounting the artist’s own demand that the Pope allow him to go beyond the painting of twelve apostles to a pictorial scheme of epic proportions and complexity. King also briskly dispatches some of the hoariest myths attendant upon this story, including the idea that Michelangelo had no assistants, or that he lay flat on his back while painting. Also revealing is the consistency of Michelangelo’s gruff skepticism toward nearly all the fads and fantasies of the period; if the Pope wanted to become an emperor, the artist remained something of a republican. But when it comes to the meaning of the great work itself, King falls back upon commonplaces and conventions.

Of course, trying to write about Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is like trying to sum up the achievement of Shakespeare’s tragedies. As Romain Rolland once wrote: “It is dangerous trying to describe this work. Analyses and commentaries proliferate; they have killed the work by tearing it into pieces.” Yet the peculiar frustration I felt in King’s approach was caused by its utter lack of interest in the ways Michelangelo’s straining, monumental human figures incarnate the theological and psychic mysteries of faith. It is one thing to say that the artist was given a theological program by one of the pontiff’s chief advisors, but it is another to fail to grapple with the way in which Michelangelo gave flesh to the Word.

As critics such as Frederick Hartt have shown, the depictions of the life of Moses and of Christ on the walls of the Sistine Chapel depict Law and Grace, respectively. For the ceiling, scenes from Genesis demonstrate that Law and Grace were the unfolding of a divine plan—a plan grounded in the mystery of the lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Though Christ is not depicted in any of the primary panels, his presence is ubiquitous, particularly through analogies to the Cross and the Eucharist. To a modern viewer, the fresco immediately above the entrance to the chapel seems almost laughable: the Drunkenness of Noah. But to the Renaissance mind, still steeped in the medieval love of the Old Testament as typological prefiguration of the New, this scene is reminiscent of the Last Supper and Crucifixion. Noah planted the grape vine and became drunk on its wine; Christ hallowed the fruit of the vine by pouring out his blood, uniting it with wine in the sacrament. As Noah sinfully “dies” to the world in his stupor, so Christ too dies, but with redemptive effect.

King’s discussion of the Drunkenness of Noah begins by noting an oddity: in Michelangelo’s version of the story, Noah’s sons, who in the Genesis account were scandalized by their father’s nakedness, are also depicted as naked. This leads King into an extended digression on Michelangelo’s use of nudity, including the evidence that the artist had studied dissected corpses in great detail.

Yet even King’s exploration of the topic of nudity in Michelangelo’s art seems one-dimensional. He rightly delves into the rapidly developing Renaissance interest in anatomy and medicine, and points out the rediscovery of classical sculpture amid the ruins of Rome. (Michelangelo actually witnessed the unearthing of the magnificent Laocoön, whose heroic, writhing figures both reinforced and further influenced his own penchant for expressive form.) But it is typical of King’s narrow focus that he never connects Michelangelo’s bold use of nudity to Neoplatonic theories of beauty and the emergence of Renaissance humanism with its emphasis on the dignity of man.

Of the three painters who are generally considered the apex of the High Renaissance—Leonardo, Ra-phael, and Michelangelo—it is, in fact, the last who is the most philosophical of artists. To be sure, he was not a scholar and had no Latin, but he had been sent to the Garden of San Marco as a young man, an academy staffed by some of the leading humanists of the time, including Marcilio Ficino, Politian, and Pico della Mirandola. The young artist wholeheartedly embraced the huma-nist vision of classical culture as a vast storehouse of wisdom and a preparatio evangelium—a preparation for the gospel.

At the same time, Michelangelo was rapt by the hellfire preaching of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, who had famously created the “bonfire of the vanities” to shame Florence into repenting of its materialistic ways. An intensely pious man, Michelangelo would pore over collections of Savonarola’s sermons decades after the preacher had been burned for proclaiming himself an oracle of the Holy Spirit. Late in his life, the artist even crafted an elaborate retraction, lamenting the worldliness of his artistic career.

Michelangelo’s inner dialectic, the tension between humanism and moralism, has traditionally been portrayed in Freudian terms, as a war between passion and repression. But a more comprehensive view would see this tension as a quintessentially Christian paradox—an example of “both/and,” rather than “either/or.” Human dignity and fallenness come together in glorious human figures whose bodies twist and writhe with desire. For the wisest humanists of the Renaissance era, the ultimate vision of human destiny might be called “tragic Christianity.” Here Michelangelo must be paired with Erasmus and Shakespeare.

With this paradox in view, it is possible to understand the complex polyphony of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The dignity of man, so evident in Adam’s just-created body and the superb series of classical nudes linking the central paintings (known as the ignudi), is played against the often bedraggled and burdened human figures depicted in the family groups of the ancestors of Christ. Looking on are the prophets and sibyls, the mysterious seers of man’s tragedy. And in the scenes from Genesis, the creation, fall, and redemption become one in buried allusions to Cross and Eucharist. Here, at the place where the polyphony resolves itself in plangent harmony, one can glimpse the heart of Michelangelo’s legendary terribilitá—the terrible beauty that is his hallmark.

Ross King, alas, isn’t interested in this sort of thing. That being said, it is only fair to acknowledge that he does recount the tangled lives of Michelangelo and Julius II in such a way that the narrative provides an experiential “objective correlative” to the drama played out on the Sistine ceiling. The drama makes one more deeply aware of how, like the prophets and sibyls he portrayed with such monumental presence, Michelangelo was a lonely, isolated figure.

In the end this book has the annoying habit of making you want to put it down in medias res and look elsewhere for answers. This is true even for the illustrations. For some reason the publisher has chosen to use up several of the book’s precious color plates with full-length portraits of its principal characters, so that not one of the ceiling’s central paintings is reproduced. Ross King’s book leaves one wanting more, but perhaps not quite in the way he intended.

Gregory Wolfe is editor of Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion. His latest book is Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery (Square Halo).