A wise and dear friend once said to me that in life one can surely have many plans, aims, longings, but what gives a direction to a life is having a sense of purpose. Those words have always made me think. The question of a life’s purpose came back to me when watching a video on the Vatican’s Instagram page, an interview with Gianluigi Colalucci, the art historian and restorer of the Sistine Chapel. He embarked on this project in 1980, a project that was to last 14 years (he originally predicted that the cleaning of the whole ceiling + the Last Judgment would take 12 in total). He narrates the anxieties, as well as the gratifications, of being tasked with the frightening responsibility of re-discovering, of un-veiling – of literally removing the veil of dirt, of smoke, of human sweat to show the “real” Michelangelo that had been cemented underneath the tick layers of almost 500 centuries of history. What impressed me the most about this colosal enterprise was not so much the technical aspects surrounding it (dealt by a Japanese team hired for the job), but the fact that one single man, his two hands, his will and his vision, gave Michelangelo back to posterity. Imagine standing next to him in one of the scaffoldings. Imagine what Colalucci must have felt when standing in front of Adam’s face, and being able to slowly see those delicate strokes come back to life. Until this renovation was pursued, we had a completely different understanding of Michelangelo as a painter. A new (or was it the real?) Michelangelo was shown again.
The darkness of the Sistine Chapel and the bad condition of the Last Judgment made generations of art historians and of mortal spectators like us think of Michelangelo as a dark, gloomy painter. Imagine again standing next to Professor Colalucci; as he tells us in the video, he remembers clearly the moment a dark prophet Ezequiel suddenly revealed a vastness of colours, an array of green, pinks and whites all weaved together in his Herculean like body. He is wearing a delicate white robe at the top, and Colalucci was able to see the skin tone underneath the white.
Michelangelo was there in every detail, and the evidence of this lies in the constancy of the strokes. Michelangelo might have been running out of time, or of patience, but the fact is that he changes his stroke when it came to the Final Judgment. According to Colalucci, the Judgment was done much faster, with quick and confident strokes. But not all of it was done at this speed. When it came to Jesus, the artist returned to his original mode, focusing on every detail. For Colalucci, this was the moment of truth (his own last judgment?): how to clean Jesus’s gaze, the eyes that judge over the eternal future of each soul? Jesus’s right eye was made our of two single strokes, yet they hold the whole judgment together. What if he got it wrong? What if he lost his nerve and erased the judging eye of the mythical, almost godly Michelangelo? What would have been lost? I think that we all face moments like this in our normal lives, when the question of purpose is right before our eyes, and we just need to seize our inner strength…and go for it.