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from issue no. 08 - 2009

The Cappella Paolina by Michelangelo

A reading of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Cappella Paolina in the Vatican. After the recent restoration Benedict XVI said: “The two faces are opposite each other. One might therefore imagine that Peter’s face is actually turned towards the face of Paul, who, in turn, does not see, but bears within him the light of the Risen Christ. It is as though Peter, in the hour of supreme trial, were seeking that light which gave true faith to Paul”

by Giuseppe Frangi

<I>The Crucifixion of St Peter</I>, Michelangelo, Cappella Paolina, Vatican City [© Osservatore Romano/Associated Press/LaPresse]

The Crucifixion of St Peter, Michelangelo, Cappella Paolina, Vatican City [© Osservatore Romano/Associated Press/LaPresse]

On 25 January 1540, the Feastday of the Conversion of St Paul, until then celebrated in the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls, Pope Paul III Farnese consecrated to the saint whose name he had taken, the new parva (small) chapel, commissioned from Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and built in just three years in the heart of the Papal Palace. The chapel – parva as opposed to the chapel magna, the functions of which had been taken over by the Sistine – was the chapel intended for the conclave. And above all it was the place where the Blessed Sacrament was kept, for which purpose it had been fitted with both an altar and a tabernacle. When Paul III consecrated it, the chapel had no decorations, but it was clear who would climb the scaffolding: it was again up to Michelangelo, just down from the scaffolding of the Sistine Chapel, where he completed the great toil of the Last Judgment. Michelangelo was over sixty-five and was tormented by an old commission: the tomb of Julius II, the Della Rovere pope, dead for thirty years. He had already been paid, the heirs were breathing down his neck, but the project had suffered a thousand variations over time and his advanced age made it terribly burdensome. For him – his own words – it had become “the tragedy of the tomb”. When Paul III told him of the new commission for two frescoes for the Cappella Paolina, Michelangelo made a shrewd move. And on 20 July 1542 wrote to the Pope, by the hand of the faithful Luigi Del Riccio, the following letter: “... And the said Messer Michelagnolo sought and urged by the said Holiness of our lord Pope Paul third to work and furnish his chapel... which work is great and requires the whole person and unhampered by other tasks, the said Messer Michelagnolo being old and desiring to serve His holiness with all his power, for being forced and constrained otherwise, nor being able to do it if he first does not free himself altogether from this work of Pope Julius, which keeps him perplexed in mind and body, begs His Holiness, then that being resolved that he work for you, to use his influence with the most illustrious lord duke of Urbino to free him in everything from the said tomb, breaking and annulling every obligation for him, as the underwritten honest agreements”. Essentially Michelangelo was asking Pope Paul to cover his back from pressure from the Duke of Urbino. In fact, that was not his real state of mind, as one can deduce from another private letter, written to the same Del Riccio, the following October, “I cannot live without painting, one paints with the brain, and not with the hands and he who cannot have his brain with him, shames himself. But to return to painting, I cannot deny anything to Pope Paul: I shall paint ill-content, and shall make ill-content things”.
“I cannot deny anything to Pope Paul”: thus before the year was out Michelangelo started work on the two walls, thirty-six square-meters, that had been reserved for him. He was still full of energy, however, despite his age and although he felt that he didn’t have his “brain with him”. The reconstruction of the work done day by day, made possible by modern restoration techniques, shows he was capable of getting through a large amount of work in a day. Eventually there were 172 working days (85 for the Conversion of St Paul and 87 for the Crucifixion of St Peter), spread over seven years, with the break in 1544, when he was halted by health problems.
The work started on the left wall, with the scene of the Conversion of St Paul. Michelangelo had under his hand the first vernacular translation of the Acts of the Apostles, edited by Antonio Brucioli, the friend with whom he had taken refuge during his flight from Florence in 1529: “And all of us having fallen to the ground, we heard a voice that spoke to me ... And I said, Who are you Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom you persecute”. Michelangelo reimagined the episode hingeing it on those two elements: “spoke to me” and “Who are you Lord”. So direct speech and a physical presence. It is a stunning reinterpretation compared to the somewhat awkward renderings of the many painters who had preceded him. Michelangelo makes Christ break in from the top of the scene, as a real physical presence. It is not a dream nor is it a beautiful and solemn apparition like that of Raphael’s for the Vatican tapestries. The figure of Christ seems to topple towards Paul, with a solution that Caravaggio also paid clear heed to for the first version of the paintings for the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. Not everyone liked and understood the representation of Paul’s conversion proposed by Michelangelo. In Curia circles there was no shortage of criticism from such as Giovanni Andrea Gilio, the ecclesiastical censor of the Last Judgment, who in 1564, when the artist was barely dead, wrote: “But I think that Michelagnolo missed much in the Christ appearing to St Paul in his conversion, which without any seriousness, and any decorum, seems to plummet from the sky in a scarsely honorable act…”.

<I>The Conversion of St Paul</I>, detail, Michelangelo, Cappella Paolina, Vatican City  [© Osservatore Romano/Reuters/Contrasto]

The Conversion of St Paul, detail, Michelangelo, Cappella Paolina, Vatican City [© Osservatore Romano/Reuters/Contrasto]

The second element is the straight line, the real pivot around which the fresco revolves, which unites Christ, above, to Paul, below. A flood of invasive light, which represents a direct channel of relation and that is highlighted by the simplification that Michelangelo worked into the landscape. The ground is bare, the city of Damascus is almost blurred in the background, the scene is dominated by the sky, of a deep and dramatic blue, made from lapis lazuli specially brought from Persia via Ferrara. There is another particular unusual in terms of the iconography of the conversion of Paul which Pope Benedict XVI rightly picked out during the reopening of the chapel on 4 July last year after the restorations: the oddity of the apostle represented as an old man “while”, said the Pope, “we know – and Michelangelo also knew it well – that the calling of Saul on the road to Damascus occurred when he was about thirty years old”. Why did Michelangelo make a similar distortion? Here’s the explanation the Pope gave: “The face of Saul-Paul, which is that of the artist himself who by then was old, troubled and in search of the light of truth represents the human being in need of a greater light. It is the light of divine grace, indispensable in order to gain a new perspective from which to perceive reality, oriented towards the ‘hope laid up for you in heaven’, as the Apostle writes in the initial greeting of the Letter to the Colossians”.
On the facing wall Michelangelo was asked to paint the crucifixion of Peter. The working days became more numerous, the areas painted progressively smaller. There were many previous and famous representations of the subject, from the Sancta Sanctorum, to the fresco by Cimabue in Assisi, to Giotto’s altarpiece in the Stefaneschi polyptych, now in the Vatican Museums. In terms of compositional simplicity the subject had always given trouble to artists, because the inverted cross of St Peter left a large blank space at the top. Cimabue had resolved it by setting the cross unnaturally high, Giotto by having two angels flying at the height of the saint’s feet. Michelangelo, as was in his nature, made a dramatic innovation in the iconography. Rather than represent the accomplished event, he chose to portray the moment before, that is the action of raising the cross. The scene is thus kindled by a stunning dynamism centering on the cross, not yet vertical but at a slope. The bystanders are marked by pain, fear, or, on the other hand, cruelty. And there is even one who, at the center of the scene, betraying himself as a friend of Peter, means to approach the executioners, but is held back by the arm and reminded of caution by another man evidently of his group (the episode is recounted in the Golden Legend, where, however, it is the Apostle himself who calms his friend). But the epicenter of Michelangelo’s invention is undoubtedly the face of Peter, who with a sudden gesture full of strength rises up on his bust and gazes backwards. Michelangelo worked a great deal on this point of the fresco, correcting it when dry, to strengthen the movement of Peter, the only character in the scene who gazes out of the scene. Why does he do so? At whom is he gazing? Traditionally it has always been claimed that the gaze was directed at the cardinals gathered in conclave, since the Cappella Paolina, as I have said, was originally intended to host conclaves. Benedict XVI, however, has put forward a much deeper and more persuasive hypothesis. “There is a bewilderment, a sharp projected gaze, that seems almost to search for something or someone, in the final hour”, the Pope remarked. Then he continued: “The two faces [of Peter and Paul, ed.] on which our gaze rests are opposite each other. One might therefore imagine that Peter’s face is actually turned towards the face of Paul, who in turn does not see, but bears within him the light of the Risen Christ. It is as though Peter, in the hour of supreme trial, were seeking that light which gave true faith to Paul”.

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