Pope's Homily at 500th Anniversary of the Sistine Chapel's Inauguration

«Contemplated in Prayer, the Sistine Chapel is Even More Beautiful»

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VATICAN CITY, Nov. 2, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the homily that Pope Benedict XVI gave during the  celebration of the First Vespers of the solemnity of All Saints in the Sistine Chapel, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Chapel’s inauguration. 

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Venerable Brothers,

Dear Brothers and Sisters!

In this liturgy of the First Vespers of the solemnity of All Saints, we commemorate the act in which 500 years ago Pope Julius inaugurated the fresco of the ceiling of this Sistine Chapel. I thank Cardinal Bertello for the words he addressed to me and I cordially greet all those present.

Why should we recall such an historical, artistic event in a liturgical celebration? First of all because the Sistine is, by its nature, the liturgical hall, it is the great Chapel of the Apostolic Vatican Palace. In addition, because the artistic works that decorate it, in particular the series of frescoes, find in the liturgy, so to speak, their vital environment, the context in which they express best all their beauty, all the richness and the gestation of their meaning. It is as if, during the liturgical action, this whole symphony of figures comes to life, certainly in a spiritual sense, but inseparably also aesthetic, because the perception of the artistic form is a typically human act and, as such, involves the senses and the spirit. In short, contemplated in prayer, the Sistine Chapel is even more beautiful, more authentic; it reveals itself in all its richness.

<p>Here everything lives; everything resonates, from contact with the Word of God. We heard the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews: «you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering …» (12:22-23). The author addresses the Christians and explains that the promises of the Old Covenant have been realized for them: a celebration of communion which has God as its center, and Jesus, the immolated and risen Lamb (cf. 23-24). This whole dynamic of promise and fulfillment we have here represented in the frescoes of these long walls, work of great Umbrian and Tuscan painters of the second half of the 15th century. And when the biblical text continues saying that we have come close «to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect” (verse 23), our gaze rises to Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, where the blue background of the sky, recalled in the mantle of the Virgin Mary, gives a ray of hope to the entire vision, which is quite dramatic. “Christe, redemptor omnium, / conserva tuos famulos, / beatae semper Virginis / placates sanctis precibus” – says the first verse of the Latin hymn of these Vespers. And it is in fact what we see: Christ the Redeemer at the center, crowned by his Saints, beside him Mary in an act of suppliant intercession , as though wishing to mitigate the tremendous judgment.

However, this evening, our attention goes mainly to the great fresco of the ceiling, which Michelangelo, by request of Julius II, executed in about four years, from 1508 to 1512. The great artist, already famous for masterpieces of sculpture, undertook the enterprise of painting more than one thousand square meters of plaster, and we can imagine that the effect produced on those who saw it for the first time must have really been impressive. Precipitated from this immense fresco on Italian and European art – said Wolfflin in 1899 with a beautiful and now famous metaphor – was something like a «violent storm that is the bearer of happiness and at the same time of devastation»: nothing remained as it was before. Giorgio Vasari, in a famous passage of the Lives, wrote very effectively: «This work was and is truly the lamp of our art that gave so much benefit and light to the art of painting, which has been sufficient to illuminate the world.»

Lamp, light, illuminate: three words of Vasari which were not far from the heart of those present at the celebration of Vespers of that October 31, 1512. However, it is not a question of light that comes from the wise use of color rich in contrasts, or the movement that animates Michelangelo’s masterpiece, but of the idea that runs through the great ceiling: it is the light of God that illuminates these frescos and the whole Papal Chapel. That light that with its power conquers chaos and darkness to give life: in creation and in redemption. And the Sistine Chapel tells this story of light, of deliverance, of salvation; it speaks of God’s relationship with humanity. With the brilliant ceiling of Michelangelo, our gaze is driven to go over the message of the prophets, to which are added the pagan Sibyls in expectation of Christ, to the beginning of everything: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth” (Genesis 1:1). With unique expressive intensity, the great artist designed the Creator God, his action, his power, to say with evidence that the world is not produced from darkness, by chance, by the absurd, but derives from intelligence, from a liberty, from a supreme act of Love. In that meeting between the finger of God and that of man, we perceive the contact between heaven and earth; in Adam God enters into a new relationship with his creation, man is in direct relationship with Him, is called by Him, is in the image and likeness of God.

Twenty years later, in the Universal Judgment, Michelangelo concluded the great parable of humanity’s journey, driving one’s gaze to the fulfillment of this reality of the world and of man, to the definitive meeting with Christ Judge of the living and the dead.

To pray this evening in this Sistine Chapel, enveloped in the history of God’s journey with man, wonderfully represented in the frescos which are above us and surround us, is an invitation to praise, an invitation to raise to God the Creator, Redeemer and Judge of the living and of the dead, with all the Saints of Heaven, the words of the canticle of Revelation: “Amen, alleluia. […] Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great! […] Alleluia. […] Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory” (19:4a.5.7a). Amen

[Original text: Italian] [Translation by ZENIT]
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