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  • Imagine you're in Rome,

  • and you've made your way to the Vatican Museums.

  • And you've been shuffling down long corridors,

  • past statues, frescoes, lots and lots of stuff.

  • You're heading towards the Sistine Chapel.

  • At last -- a long corridor, a stair and a door.

  • You're at the threshold of the Sistine Chapel.

  • So what are you expecting?

  • Soaring domes? Choirs of angels?

  • We don't really have any of that there.

  • Instead, you may ask yourself, what do we have?

  • Well, curtains up on the Sistine Chapel.

  • And I mean literally, you're surrounded by painted curtains,

  • the original decoration of this chapel.

  • Churches used tapestries not just to keep out cold during long masses,

  • but as a way to represent the great theater of life.

  • The human drama in which each one of us plays a part is a great story,

  • a story that encompasses the whole world

  • and that came to unfold in the three stages

  • of the painting in the Sistine Chapel.

  • Now, this building started out as a space for a small group

  • of wealthy, educated Christian priests.

  • They prayed there. They elected their pope there.

  • Five hundred years ago,

  • it was the ultimate ecclesiastical man cave.

  • So, you may ask, how can it be that today it attracts and delights

  • five million people a year,

  • from all different backgrounds?

  • Because in that compressed space, there was a creative explosion,

  • ignited by the electric excitement of new geopolitical frontiers,

  • which set on fire the ancient missionary tradition of the Church

  • and produced one of the greatest works of art in history.

  • Now, this development took place as a great evolution,

  • moving from the beginning of a few elite,

  • and eventually able to speak to audiences of people

  • that come from all over the world.

  • This evolution took place in three stages,

  • each one linked to a historical circumstance.

  • The first one was rather limited in scope.

  • It reflected the rather parochial perspective.

  • The second one took place after worldviews were dramatically altered

  • after Columbus's historical voyage;

  • and the third,

  • when the Age of Discovery was well under way

  • and the Church rose to the challenge

  • of going global.

  • The original decoration of this church reflected a smaller world.

  • There were busy scenes

  • that told the stories of the lives of Jesus and Moses,

  • reflecting the development of the Jewish and Christian people.

  • The man who commissioned this, Pope Sixtus IV,

  • assembled a dream team of Florentine art,

  • including men like Sandro Botticelli

  • and the man who would become Michelangelo's future painting teacher,

  • Ghirlandaio.

  • These men, they blanketed the walls with a frieze of pure color,

  • and in these stories you'll notice familiar landscapes,

  • the artists using Roman monuments or a Tuscan landscape

  • to render a faraway story, something much more familiar.

  • With the addition of images of the Pope's friends and family,

  • this was a perfect decoration for a small court

  • limited to the European continent.

  • But in 1492, the New World was discovered,

  • horizons were expanding,

  • and this little 133 by 46-foot microcosm had to expand as well.

  • And it did,

  • thanks to a creative genius,

  • a visionary and an awesome story.

  • Now, the creative genius was Michelangelo Buonarroti,

  • 33 years old when he was tapped to decorate 12,000 square feet of ceiling,

  • and the deck was stacked against him --

  • he had trained in painting but had left to pursue sculpture.

  • There were angry patrons in Florence because he had left a stack

  • of incomplete commissions,

  • lured to Rome by the prospect of a great sculptural project,

  • and that project had fallen through.

  • And he had been left with a commission to paint 12 apostles

  • against a decorative background in the Sistine Chapel ceiling,

  • which would look like every other ceiling in Italy.

  • But genius rose to the challenge.

  • In an age when a man dared to sail across the Atlantic Ocean,

  • Michelangelo dared to chart new artistic waters.

  • He, too, would tell a story --

  • no Apostles -- but a story of great beginnings,

  • the story of Genesis.

  • Not really an easy sell, stories on a ceiling.

  • How would you be able to read a busy scene from 62 feet below?

  • The painting technique that had been handed on for 200 years

  • in Florentine studios was not equipped for this kind of a narrative.

  • But Michelangelo wasn't really a painter,

  • and so he played to his strengths.

  • Instead of being accustomed to filling space with busyness,

  • he took a hammer and chisel and hacked away at a piece of marble

  • to reveal the figure within.

  • Michelangelo was an essentialist;

  • he would tell his story in massive, dynamic bodies.

  • This plan was embraced by the larger-than-life Pope Julius II,

  • a man who was unafraid of Michelangelo's brazen genius.

  • He was nephew to Pope Sixtus IV,

  • and he had been steeped in art for 30 years and he knew its power.

  • And history has handed down the moniker of the Warrior Pope,

  • but this man's legacy to the Vatican -- it wasn't fortresses and artillery,

  • it was art.

  • He left us the Raphael Rooms, the Sistine Chapel.

  • He left St. Peter's Basilica

  • as well as an extraordinary collection of Greco-Roman sculptures --

  • decidedly un-Christian works that would become the seedbed

  • of the world's first modern museum, the Vatican Museums.

  • Julius was a man

  • who envisioned a Vatican that would be eternally relevant

  • through grandeur and through beauty,

  • and he was right.

  • The encounter between these two giants, Michelangelo and Julius II,

  • that's what gave us the Sistine Chapel.

  • Michelangelo was so committed to this project,

  • that he succeeded in getting the job done in three and a half years,

  • using a skeleton crew and spending most of the time, hours on end,

  • reaching up above his head to paint the stories on the ceiling.

  • So let's look at this ceiling

  • and see storytelling gone global.

  • No more familiar artistic references to the world around you.

  • There's just space and structure and energy;

  • a monumental painted framework which opens onto nine panels,

  • more driven by sculptural form than painterly color.

  • And we stand in the far end by the entrance,

  • far from the altar and from the gated enclosure intended for the clergy

  • and we peer into the distance, looking for a beginning.

  • And whether in scientific inquiry or in biblical tradition,

  • we think in terms of a primal spark.

  • Michelangelo gave us an initial energy

  • when he gave us the separation of light and dark,

  • a churning figure blurry in the distance,

  • compressed into a tight space.

  • The next figure looms larger,

  • and you see a figure hurtling from one side to the next.

  • He leaves in his wake the sun, the moon, vegetation.

  • Michelangelo didn't focus on the stuff that was being created,

  • unlike all the other artists.

  • He focused on the act of creation.

  • And then the movement stops, like a caesura in poetry

  • and the creator hovers.

  • So what's he doing?

  • Is he creating land? Is he creating sea?

  • Or is he looking back over his handiwork, the universe and his treasures,

  • just like Michelangelo must have,

  • looking back over his work in the ceiling

  • and proclaiming, "It is good."

  • So now the scene is set,

  • and you get to the culmination of creation, which is man.

  • Adam leaps to the eye, a light figure against a dark background.

  • But looking closer,

  • that leg is pretty languid on the ground,

  • the arm is heavy on the knee.

  • Adam lacks that interior spark

  • that will impel him to greatness.

  • That spark is about to be conferred by the creator in that finger,

  • which is one millimeter from the hand of Adam.

  • It puts us at the edge of our seats,

  • because we're one moment from that contact,

  • through which that man will discover his purpose,

  • leap up and take his place at the pinnacle of creation.

  • And then Michelangelo threw a curveball.

  • Who is in that other arm?

  • Eve, first woman.

  • No, she's not an afterthought. She's part of the plan.

  • She's always been in his mind.

  • Look at her, so intimate with God that her hand curls around his arm.

  • And for me, an American art historian from the 21st century,

  • this was the moment that the painting spoke to me.

  • Because I realized that this representation of the human drama

  • was always about men and women --

  • so much so, that the dead center, the heart of the ceiling,

  • is the creation of woman, not Adam.

  • And the fact is, that when you see them together in the Garden of Eden,

  • they fall together

  • and together their proud posture turns into folded shame.

  • You are at critical juncture now in the ceiling.

  • You are exactly at the point where you and I can go

  • no further into the church.

  • The gated enclosure keeps us out of the inner sanctum,

  • and we are cast out much like Adam and Eve.

  • The remaining scenes in the ceiling,

  • they mirror the crowded chaos of the world around us.

  • You have Noah and his Ark and the flood.

  • You have Noah. He's making a sacrifice and a covenant with God.

  • Maybe he's the savior.

  • Oh, but no, Noah is the one who grew grapes, invented wine,

  • got drunk and passed out naked in his barn.

  • It is a curious way to design the ceiling,

  • now starting out with God creating life,

  • ending up with some guy blind drunk in a barn.

  • And so, compared with Adam,

  • you might think Michelangelo is making fun of us.

  • But he's about to dispel the gloom

  • by using those bright colors right underneath Noah:

  • emerald, topaz, scarlet on the prophet Zechariah.

  • Zechariah foresees a light coming from the east,

  • and we are turned at this juncture to a new destination,

  • with sibyls and prophets who will lead us on a parade.

  • You have the heroes and heroines who make safe the way,

  • and we follow the mothers and fathers.

  • They are the motors of this great human engine, driving it forward.

  • And now we're at the keystone of the ceiling,

  • the culmination of the whole thing,

  • with a figure that looks like he's about to fall out of his space

  • into our space,

  • encroaching our space.

  • This is the most important juncture.

  • Past meets present.

  • This figure, Jonah, who spent three days in the belly of the whale,

  • for the Christians, is the symbol of the renewal of humanity

  • through Jesus' sacrifice,

  • but for the multitudes of visitors to that museum

  • from all faiths who visit there every day,

  • he is the moment the distant past encounters and meets immediate reality.

  • All of this brings us to the yawning archway of the altar wall,

  • where we see Michelangelo's Last Judgment,

  • painted in 1534 after the world had changed again.

  • The Reformation had splintered the Church,

  • the Ottoman Empire had made Islam a household word

  • and Magellan had found a route into the Pacific Ocean.

  • How is a 59-year-old artist who has never been any further than Venice

  • going to speak to this new world?

  • Michelangelo chose to paint destiny,

  • that universal desire,

  • common to all of us,

  • to leave a legacy of excellence.

  • Told in terms of the Christian vision of the Last Judgment,

  • the end of the world,

  • Michelangelo gave you a series of figures

  • who are wearing these strikingly beautiful bodies.

  • They have no more covers, no more portraits

  • except for a couple.

  • It's a composition only out of bodies,

  • 391, no two alike,

  • unique like each and every one of us.

  • They start in the lower corner, breaking away from the ground,

  • struggling and trying to rise.

  • Those who have risen reach back to help others,

  • and in one amazing vignette,

  • you have a black man and a white man pulled up together

  • in an incredible vision of human unity

  • in this new world.

  • The lion's share of the space goes to the winner's circle.

  • There you find men and women completely nude like athletes.

  • They are the ones who have overcome adversity,

  • and Michelangelo's vision of people who combat adversity,

  • overcome obstacles --