When I was attending Colgate University for my undergrad, my friend Kate and I took an art history class that surveyed from Gothic (somewhere in there) to Modern art. I hated the earlier history of art. I was so bored by sculptures and religious images that inundated the hundreds of slides we had to memorize (no joke, hundreds). Once modern art began, which is often cited around Impressionism, the tables slowly turned and by contemporary and later modern art, Kate was groaning about slides and I was poring through the information steadily, with interest.
After standing in the Sistine Chapel less than one week ago, I feel changed. I get what Kate saw in that class and why it excited and interested her (or, at least I can now relate!). I want to re-read and learn everything about Renaissance artists. How did the institutions in which artists lived and practiced in influence and affect their artwork? Is it not interesting that we can ask the same question today? The institutions have changed and instead of the Papacy running the show we have Saatchi and Saatchi, the Tate Modern, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
How many people today spend years on one project? I can think of a few artists, like Christo and Jean Claude. Did you know Michelangelo spent four years working ALONE on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel [painting it himself, he did have helpers]? I just made 52 works, one per week this past year. While it was an engaging, sometimes challenging task, I have no concept of the dedication and perseverance it took for Michelangelo to complete this work. What was it like to build complicated scaffolding that held him painting, day-in and day-out? What was it like to be in an awkward position, with his arms exhausted and painful from the effort of painting and plastering the wall all day long? What was it like to spend that long on a project he did not want to do?!
To see the Sistine Chapel is to be closer to that time period. Michelangelo was actually quite rebellious for his time. He did not place halos around sainted individuals and gave no wings to angels. While this may seem like nothing in a world today where artists have used dung and porn images to create images of Christ or other religious figures, remember he was working FOR the Papacy, a ruling governing body tied to faith and social policy. Truly, Michelangelo may have had little say in whether or not he executed the work: what the Pope wanted, the Pope got. But even so, he was able to showcase amazing depth of understanding of the bible and yet still have his own “modern” interpretation while undertaking the work. And this from a man who considered himself a sculptor!
This visit to Rome made me realize some of what artists went through in the Renaissance. In fact, artists like Michelangelo went through many of the same problems we face today as artists. It was humbling to have such a connection to the man behind a brilliant artwork like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. If I could meet him but only for a day…
BE COURAGEOUSLY CREATIVE: Want to learn more about Renaissance art? Check out this thorough and interesting website called Web Gallery of Art.