This brisk early morning was already beginning to warm, as the hopeful Italian sun began to pour through the windows. Slowly, deliberately, I passed the thousands of iconic sculptures and paintings which caught my eye. So much so, that the beauty of each artwork was overshadowed by its context. This was, after all, Papal bling-bling, the center of the Roman Catholic universe: The Vatican.
We quietly shuffled along the corridors, murmurs of hushed conversations coming from the tourists, the pilgrims, the curious. I had one goal this morning—to see Capella Sistina, the Sistine Chapel. This was the one luxury I really wanted out of this missions trip, and I was not to be deterred. Following unobtrusive signage, we entered a non-descript hallway and climbed the short staircase.
A quick caveat. Initially, I thought about simply bypassing the Vatican tour during my time in Italy, to avoid the Catholic-ness of the culture and those going on that pilgrimage. I remember my relatives going to the Vatican when I was a kid, and bringing back silly souvenirs of the Pope. But then I realized that I was, in a sense, on a pilgrimage of my own, to come face-to-face with what is arguably the most iconic symbol of Christian art. And so I went.
Suddenly I was there. I felt like I had walked into a painting. And in a very real way, I had. From floor to ceiling, 500 year old frescoes fill the room with motion and color and history. Of course, the highlight is the celiing, painted by Michelangelo in 1508-1511 and commissioned by Pope Julius II. I had always pictured the main painting to be the Creation of Adam, the famous image of Adam reaching out to God in the clouds. But this was only one of nine magnificent paintings on the ceiling depicting God’s creation (including the creation of Eve), God’s relationship with man, and man’s fall from grace.
The small room (apparently given the same dimensions as the Temple of Solomon) was thankfully not very full that morning, and I had a chance to sit at each of the benches located at the periphery, rest my head back, and take in the beauty of the ceiling for an extended time.
I imagined myself to be one of the illiterate laity, listening to the mass in Latin, not able to own a Bible much less read it. But here was the Bible illustrated, the story of God and man—glorious, passionate, vibrant—here for me to see. These walls was the Word of God for many, I surmised.
I know that the paintings are highly stylized, romanticized, Catholicized. I know that the artists of that day depicted their subjects in the culture of that day, with contemporary dress, mannerisms, and even furniture and architecture. But there was still this overwhelming power I felt in those moments, as if the story of God was bigger than I had imagined, that the story of God’s love for us, His pursuit of us, His relationship with us, was much too much to take in at once. I felt a bit overwhelmed by the experience of the art, as well as what it said to me. And I felt a bit small afterwards.
And I think, appropriately so.