CNS STORY Sistine Scriptures New book underlines Bible stories behind the art

CNS STORY Sistine Scriptures New book underlines Bible stories behind the art

SISTINE-BIBLE Nov-18-2009 (640 words) With photos. xxxi

Sistine Scriptures: New book underlines Bible stories behind the art

Michelangelo’s «Libyan Sibyl,» a pagan prophetess, is one of the figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The presence of the Sibyls, although not biblical, testify to the fact that even the pagans were awaiting the Savior. (CNS/courtesy the Vatican Museums)

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — To really see the Sistine Chapel, it’s more important to have a Bible in your hands than mini-binoculars, said Msgr. Roberto Zagnoli, an official of the Vatican Museums.

The Italian monsignor is the principal author of «The Painted Word,» a new series of books published by the Vatican Museums and the Italian financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore.

In the four-part series, the Italian monsignor quotes and explains the biblical passages that inspired the famous frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. The first volume focuses on Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine ceiling.

«Fascinating the eyes and the spirit,» visiting the Sistine Chapel with a Bible helps visitors appreciate Michelangelo’s work and come to a more vivid understanding of the Scriptures, said Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, president of the commission governing Vatican City State.

The cardinal presented the first volume of the new series Nov. 17 in the Vatican Museums, which plans to issue the series in English in December.

The ceiling frescoes Michelangelo painted from 1508-1512 focus on nine events from the Book of Genesis; the artist’s depiction of the creation of Adam — with God’s outstretched hand filling him with life — is one of his most widely recognized works.

Msgr. Zagnoli said that rather than showing God shaping Adam out of the clay of the earth, Michelangelo «presents Adam as coming forth from the earth, called to life by the powerful hand of God.»

The artist’s choice, he said, underlines the mysterious and forceful creative power of God.

In the scene of the creation of Eve, she is shown with her hands clasped in prayer or thanksgiving with her mouth partially open, «underlining the awe and marvel of that first instant of life,» the monsignor wrote.

Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, said everyone knows of Michelangelo’s solitary and even misanthropic character, but too many fail to recognize the religious passion he brought to the work.

«The entire Sistine Chapel, taken as a whole, tells the history of salvation,» he said. But in order to understand that people need to read the Bible, Paolucci said.

The themes treated in Genesis — the origin of the universe, the uniqueness of each human person, the presence of good and evil in the world — «are matters of faith for us Catholics, but they also are issues of common concern for all human beings,» which is why each of the millions of people who visit the chapel every year can be touched by the experience, he said.

«The hope is that those who read the book will feel led to approach the word of God and discover unexpected riches there and that they will allow themselves to be excited by the language of beauty,» which is a reflection of the beauty of God, Paolucci said.

Pier Luigi Vercesi, director of Il Sole 24 Ore’s publishing group, said that as an executive in a company primarily concerned with business and finance, he felt an obligation to figure out how much it cost the popes to build and decorate the Sistine Chapel.

He said the chapel cost «3,000 ducat,» a monetary unit that no longer exists. But a rough calculation of the purchasing power of 3,000 ducat today would be between 1.5 million and 2 million euros ($2.2 million-$3 million), he said, «which means that the Sistine cost 1,200 euros a square meter ($167 a square foot).»

The newspaper is releasing the Sistine Chapel volumes every Friday Nov. 20-Dec. 11. The second and third volumes look at the work of the 15th-century painters, including Sandro Botticelli and Perugino, who depicted events from the life of Moses on the chapel’s south wall and events in the life of Christ on the north wall. The final volume returns to Michelangelo, examining the Scriptural basis of his massive fresco of the Last Judgment.

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