She saw it before, during and after its restoration. But what really changed Juliet Reynolds’ engagement with the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling was her immersion in rasa.
Image credit: Getty Images
I must have been a little dizzy—certainly overwhelmed to a great degree—as I fixed my gaze upwards onto the section of the Sistine Chapel ceiling then under restoration. Here I was, a foot or two distant from one of the great icons of world art: the figures of the creator and the created, their forefingers arched towards one another in a gesture of high drama. Then I heard words that could have been construed as divine, but of course they were spoken by Maestro X. “Toccarla !” he directed me. “Touch it!”
I was all atremble, and my tongue was tied. “Toccarla !” he repeated. “It’s like sculpture. You need to feel it.” Observing the apparent paralysis of my hand, he gently clasped my wrist and coaxed my arm into a near right angle, placing it on the ceiling centimetres from the hands of God and man. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, sensing my alarm. “Nothing can happen to it. It’s as firm as rock.” Calmed by these reassurances, I ran my hand slowly across Michelangelo’s fresco, stopping at God’s hand. Sure enough, the surface felt rock-like, as smooth as a piece of polished stone. It was one of those mesmerising moments, filled with surprise, an instant when one experiences the magic of art, its power to transform material from one medium to another.
My gaze transfixed, my hand now steady, I remained as I was for as long as I could, wanting to stretch the moment to the full. Throughout I remained conscious of the immensity of my privilege, of being one of a tiny handful singled out for this revelation. Dozens of art specialists and media people must have set foot on this bridge, but very few could have been there when the restorers were at work on “The Creation of Adam”. And how many could have been urged to touch it, I wondered. I remember recognising a feeling of euphoria, the kind of drunkenness one experiences in the presence of the beloved. This was surely intense rapture, or ecstasy, a feeling not entirely unknown to me. I’d already experienced it, on rare occasions, at sacred Indian sites.
It was in the summer of 1986 that I landed in Rome after a long hiatus. Then living in New Delhi, I had begun to write in earnest about Indian art, a subject that had come to absorb me so completely that I’d almost lost interest in the art of my own culture. I’d lived and studied in Rome in the early 1970s and had first visited the Sistine Chapel when hardly more than 20. Though I didn’t dare admit it at the time, the experience was wholly anticlimactic. After the build-up and anticipation, all I came away with was the memory of a claustrophobic space, packed with tourists shouting and waving guidebooks, their gaze directed heavenwards, squinting at images that were so sombre and subdued as to be lacklustre.
Arriving from India more than a decade later, it had initially not been my intention to revisit the Sistine Chapel. But no sooner had I settled in than my curiosity was aroused by a fascinating brouhaha focused on the frescoes.
About six years earlier, the Vatican had initiated the restoration of Michelangelo’s magnum opus. The project was now close to halfway through. But what intrigued me the most was not the project, per se; it was the fierce polemical debate it had ignited. The Italian press was going to town, carrying quotes or articles by scholars and artists of all political hues. In the main, those on the right opposed the project, accusing the restorers of “butchery” and “wholesale destruction”, while leftists vociferously defended the Vatican and its team. Among the latter was Giulio Carlo Argan, the communist former mayor of Rome and a leading art historian. Even then, the communist daily l’Unità had published a damning piece titled “Michelangelo in Auschwitz”.
According to some, the controversy was whipped up by mere publicity-seekers. Others attributed it to “spaghetti-football” nationalism due to the Japanese sponsorship of the project. But a more general consensus was that the restoration was undermining the authority of many experts as it was revealing Michelangelo as a brilliant colourist, the very antithesis of the artist they had projected throughout their careers. As one TV journalist put it: “Now they’re being forced to eat their words. The new Michelangelo has quite simply dethroned them.”
In the midst of all this, I visited the Vatican Museums twice to assess the renovated Michelangelo for myself. What I saw convinced me that that the Vatican’s rocklike faith in the infallibility of its project was well-founded. Wherever the restorer’s hand had completed its task, my eye was struck and my senses awakened by vivid colours which caused the powerful, muscular figures to stand out in bold relief, declaring the sculptor’s hand. Every detail had become clear to the naked eye so far beneath. The unrestored frescoes, which could only be observed in detail through binoculars, appeared in comparison as if covered by a black veil—the “sunglasses effect”, as one observer had described it.
Travelling from Rome to London, my head was full of this story. Serendipitously, I was able to tell it. Invited by a friend to a literary lunch, I happened to be introduced to Charles Moore, then editor of The Spectator. Upon learning of the storm raging over the Sistine Chapel, not yet known to the British public, he invited me to write about it. “Talking of Michelangelo” was duly published and was received with interest, even eliciting a letter or two from art historians.
Two years later, in 1988, on another trip to London via Rome, The Spectator commissioned a second piece on the restoration for their special Christmas issue. A letter from the Arts Editor, Jenny Naipaul, and my favourable earlier piece, secured me a privileged invitation from the Musei Vaticani.
Thus it was, on a glorious September morning in 1988, that the doors of the Sistine Chapel were opened early just for me. The only other person present was the security official assigned as my escort. We communicated sotto voce in Italian. Apart from the uncustomary quietude, the first thing I noted as we entered the Chapel was the natural light. The frescoes were illuminated solely by the subdued sunlight that drifted through the windows just below them. “You’re fortunate,” said my escort. “This is the way they should be seen… The way he saw them every morning before he climbed the scaffolding onto his bridge. See how beautiful they are, how lucid.” It was towards the cleaned images that he was directing my gaze. I studied these in detail and then compared them to the unrestored sections. In artificial light the contrast had been compelling. In this light it was unequivocal and dramatic. Where the restorers had not worked, mysterious figures floated in the shadows. On the other side, more than 60 feet above me, I could discern every detail. I was particularly struck by the visibility of the chiaroscuro; this added volume and muscularity to the figures and gave greater animation to their gestures and expressions.
Feeling rather pleased that I alone was privy to this majestic vision, I began to imagine the article I would write. It was then that Maestro X stepped into the picture. At first neither of us had an idea of the identity of the other. A man had entered the Chapel and made inquiries about me. Upon learning that I was an Italian-speaking English journalist, he said to my escort: “That’s fine, she can me accompany up.” The man was, I now learned, the Deputy Chief Restorer, and the import of his words had begun to sink in.
Having spent the previous day in the Vatican Museums archive and press office, I knew that the protracted controversy surrounding the restoration had tested to the limit the patience of the Vatican. The Museums’ director had denied journalists access to the restorers’ bridge. Now I was being invited up to that sacred spot. Moreover, the bridge just happened to be at the centre of the ceiling, right below “The Creation of Adam”.
Approaching me with a smile and an extended hand, Maestro X said he knew he could trust me not to reveal what was about to happen. For that, he stipulated, I would have to wait for the completion of the restoration, several years hence. Overjoyed by my imminent encounter with the Florentine master’s most celebrated oeuvre , I agreed to this condition without demur.
The restorers’ bridge was a replica of Michelangelo’s own. Maestro X, palpably in love with what he did, animatedly expanded on the intricacies of the work in progress. My Italian is proficient but I strained at moments to follow his discourse, delivered at breakneck speed, on details such as chemical agents, solvents and fixatives, and on the rigorous methods employed by his team to analyse, clean and conserve the original work. Yet, despite my struggle to keep up with him, I was already captivated. Moments later, Maestro X placed my hand on Michelangelo’s grand creation.
Yakshi (rear view) Eastern Gateway, Sanchi, c. 1st century BC || Image Courtesy: The American Institute of India Studies (Varanasi)
Descending from the bridge, Maestro X courteously dismissed my expressions of gratitude for his offering me the opportunity of a lifetime. When I reiterated my pledge not to reveal this in my article he just smiled warmly, knowing I would not betray his trust. When I came to write my piece, back at my desk in India, I did feel regret about my vow of silence. But the piece was duly published and was well liked, as it was full of appropriate Christmassy thoughts dwelling on “the restoration of the light”.
A quarter century would pass before I revisited the Sistine Chapel. It was 2012 and the restoration was long since over, though it had continued to court controversy till the very last. I could have penned my story in the meantime, but whenever I considered it a feeling of apathy overcame me. At times this feeling bordered on aversion. I had perversely developed a reluctance to reveal that I had touched the hand of a Christian God and that this had sent me into raptures.
Brought up a strict follower of the Church of Rome, I had ceased to practise Catholicism while a rebellious adolescent. Later, in India, I lost my faith entirely, and with this my enjoyment of Christian art. By the time I wrote my second piece for The Spectator , and for some years thereafter, I was insufficiently mature to separate religious and aesthetic experience. The two were conflated in my mind. For Michelangelo, a staunch believer, the line between them seemed to have been indistinct; the wellspring of his experience—the ecstasy, the agony—was both the subject he represented and his creative passion. But my rapture, I would come to understand, was entirely independent of the figure of the all-powerful, biblical patriarch whom I had rejected outright. It was aesthetic in origin, a response to my astounding private encounter with the genius of the great artist.
A further symptom of my callowness at that time was my inability not to mind what others believed I believed. Some of my readers, including a nun—my former headmistress—already thought I had undergone an epiphany without my even mentioning my handshake with the Almighty. I was appalled by the thought. Though about to enter middle-age, I still needed to declare my dissidence like a teenager.
When I did finally see Michelangelo’s frescoes again, in 2012, I was in a very different, more evolved, frame of mind. Thanks to my love of Indian art—especially that of the earliest periods, from the Stone Age to the Classical—I had been liberated in my approach to aesthetic experience. Of course, from my very first years here, when viewing sacred art—whether Buddhist, Hindu or Jain—I was unencumbered by the baggage I carried when faced with Christian imagery, so the experience had been automatically liberating. But then, I tended to feel rapture where little or none was merited, as I was not always able to distinguish the good or great from the mediocre. This was because I had not then studied the subject well, had not yet become a seasoned rasika, a person with the expertise and sensitivity to taste rasa to the full.
What excited me the most about my discovery of the theory of rasa was that this opened up a timeless and universal approach to art—all the arts, including film. I found this running contrary to the view projected by influential Indian contemporary art practitioners and critics—mainly those subscribing to avant-garde, post-modernist theories—that rasa is a narrow, fuddy-duddy concept, referring to eight or nine sentiments and not much more. Of course, these “sentiments”—the aesthetic flavours, as I prefer to call them—are central to the rasa construct, for without them there would no feeling or emotion in art. But central too is the place accorded to the spectator. The term connoisseur does not convey the scope of the term rasika. While the former is one who knows, who judges quality, the rasika partakes of the artist’s fare.
There is no equivalent in western art theory for the tasting of rasa, a mode of art appreciation variously defined by experts. In The Essence of Indian Art, BN Goswamy characterised the experience as “a state of heightened delight”, while Richard Lannoy wrote of “emotional resonance… aesthetic rapture” in The Speaking Tree.
With this understanding in my mind and heart I was able to appreciate Michelangelo’s frescoes as never before, free of all the early religious and cultural conditioning that had caused me so much angst. Mingling once again with the public on the Sistine Chapel floor, I could look at the frescoes and discern the heroic, the furious, the terrible, the odious, the pathetic and the marvellous; indeed everything but the comic, the erotic and the peaceful.
Seeing once more “The Creation of Adam” and the hand of God, I did taste rasa, did experience an emotional resonance. But it was the section of the Sistine Chapel cleaned by the restorers at the end of the project that propelled me into the highest realms of delight. This was the great altar piece, “The Last Judgement”, that had earlier been so blackened by centuries of smoke that its content was obscured, its impact lost. Now revealed was Christ in his fury and wicked popes being damned to hell. It was worth becoming a rasika for this tasting alone.