by the Rev. Barbara Threet
Not too long ago, a grandson came across mention of a very famous artwork, and decided to ask me about it. “What’s the Sis-tine Chapel?” he asked. So we got out books and looked online and explored many pictures and comments. We imagined what it must have been like to paint such a fresco – the inconvenience for the artist, the knowledge of Biblical scenes, the challenge of working inside a dome shaped-space, the planning involved in such a massive painting. We speculated on what it must have meant for Michelangelo to have been asked to paint it, and on how dedicated he must have felt – how close to his faith, in fact, to have made such a work. And I’ll admit, we held him in quite a pious and perfect light. We imagined him communing with the Sacred as he planned and painted, having a religious experience simply in its creation.
So it was an unexpected delight when just a few days later, someone gave me a book of the translated ‘Complete Poems of Michelangelo’. I did not know much about his poetry. His sculptures, his paintings, his buildings – but not his poems. There are over 300 of them: love poems, sonnets and madrigals, a series of funeral epigrams, and more. They’ve been interesting reading. But one especially struck me, in light of my grandson’s and my recent discussion and speculation. It’s the only one that specifically refers to the process of painting of the Sistine Chapel – and it’s not at all what I expected! Here it is:
A goiter it seems I got from this backward craningMichelangelo
like the cats got there in Lombardy, or wherever
– bad water, they say, from lapping their fetid river.
My belly, tugged under my chin, ‘s all out of whack.
Beard points like a finger at heaven. Near the back
of my neck, skull scrapes where a humpback’s hump would be.
I’m pigeon-breasted, a harpy! Face dribbled – see? –
like a Byzantine floor, mosaic. From all this straining
my guts and my hambones tangle, pretty near. Thank God
I can swivel my butt about for ballast. Feet are out of sight,
just scuffle round, erratic.
Up front my hide’s tight elastic; in the rear it’s slack
and droopy, except where the cramps have callused. I’m
bent like a bow, half-round.
Not odd that what’s on my mind, when expressed,
comes out weird, jumbled. Don’t berate:
no gun with its barrel screwy can shoot straight.
Giovanni, come agitate for my pride, my poor dead art!
I don’t belong! Who’s a painter? Me? No way! They’ve got me wrong.
Apparently, we all struggle, even great artists. Not even the Sistine Chapel could be born without some discomfort and complaining! What a relief! I’ve been chuckling at the physical reality he presents in that poem, and at its contrast to our delusions of his piety, for days. And yet – from those tangled guts and hambones, and the callused cramps, and the obvious uncertainty as to whether anything at all can arise from all of this, came astonishing artistry.
It gives me hope.
Shalom and Salaam,