June 20, 2014: Where the Saints Go Marching In

We decided to swing by the Vatican since we were in Rome anyway and because who in their right mind would skip seeing Michelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel? You know, the iconic image of god reaching down to man?

It's called "The Creation of Adam." This is the image that comes to mind when I think of the Vatican. (Well, maybe the Pope, too. But we couldn't get tickets for a day when he was around).

Adam bought our tickets online for a scheduled time, so we could skip the massive entrance line that ran down the street. What I didn’t realize is that the Vatican Museum, is just that, a huge museum. and in order to see the Sistine Chapel, you must go through the vast majority of the exhibits. No less than three floors worth of exhibits, actually. And that’s not a bad thing. It was just unexpected.

So we strolled through row upon row of Roman and Egyptian relics. There are so many that there are sometimes room so full that you cannot enter them, you can only look as you walk by the roped off area.

And it’s all so brilliantly done. Each sculpture seems better than that last. After 100 statues, the beauty was overwhelming, and I found myself numbed to their splendor.

After two floors and hundreds of statues, I was getting a little impatient and my feet began to hurt. But there was always a some incentive to continue. Each sign we passed made it look like there was just one more exhibit before we reached the chapel.

So we pressed on. And on. Relics turned into walls of frescos. Beautifully done frescoes with rich undulant colours that made them look three dimensional at first glance.(Our photos can't even begin to do them justice).

But again, I eventually numbed to their beauty. And so we continued through more exhibits, and looped back down three floors. We watched tourists like us shamble by, eyes glazed over as their guides droned about these brilliant works.

And then we arrived. Signs indicated there was to be silence in the chapel, knees and shoulders were to be covered, and no photography what-so-ever. I put my camera away, adjusted the shawl covering my bare shoulders and walked through the doors.

The first thing I was struck by was the number of people in there. It was packed, wall to wall, with standing bodies staring straight up at the ceiling. Every five minutes or so the silence runs into a low murmer and increases in volume until a booming voice comes over the PA “Silencio!” It falls quiet again. I shuffled in and looked up, expecting to see a huge mural, "The Creation of Adam," one of Michelangelo's most famous works. But there were dozens of murals. I had trouble even picking it out from the kaleidoscope of murals. And here I’d thought that it must be the entire ceiling. Or at least the better part of it, for how frequently the image is used and how it’s presented. But it was tiny. Standing in the middle of the Sistine Chapel, looking at the iconic image that, for me, represented the Catholic church, the Vatican, and everything I knew about the surrounding culture, and it was hard to see. hard to even notice compared with everything around it. It was beautiful, but so was everything else. I expect this is what it’s like to go to the Louvre if you’re only interested in seeing the Mona Lisa. You just fail to realize how much beautiful work there is on the way and after, that by the time you get to the thing you wanted to see, it’s barely remarkable from it’s neighbors.

(Since photography was verboten, I hope you'll forgive me for linking you to the virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel.)

It felt like we poured over the ceiling and walls for hours, but it must have only been minutes by the time we were forced out of the room by the incoming crowd.

And after that, I was done. Exhausted. Used up. The halls leading to the exit had beautiful works, but I was too far gone to care.

I must go again someday, and give the rest of the museum a chance. Perhaps when I'm a little better rested.