Imagine the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in High Definition . . .

Imagine the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in High Definition . . .

By Scott Mason
November 1999

The little man in the big chair leaned over his desk, shook his head and muttered in Italian. He didn’t have to speak English; his face said it all. How in the world did you guys do it? the wide eyes seemed to ask. How did we do it? How did we manage to shake up the little man behind the desk, the head of the Vatican Museum? And now he muttered something else; this time, the meaning was clear. “Wow!” We had been allowed inside the museum, allowed in with a camera, after hours, without crowds, to take as much time as we wanted to videotape the enormous art collection, including Michelangelo’s masterpieces.

Imagine the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in High Definition,” David Crabtree had said dreamily back in the newsroom before the trip. Now it was all coming true. Four of us had traveled to Rome with the hope of bringing back a one-hour documentary on the Vatican.

But it was largely a crapshoot; we didn’t know what kind of access we would have, if any. Now we knew. The little man behind the desk had answered our prayers, answered them in broken English. “Extremely rare,” he mumbled. Few people had ever been allowed in the Sistine Chapel with a television camera. We would possibly be the first with an HD camera. So how had we done it?

It could have been the connections of Tim O’Connor. Father Tim is a Catholic priest from Raleigh who was with us in Rome; his great uncle is one of the canons of St. Peter’s Basilica. Or it could’ve been the Vatican’s public relations officer, an older woman with a prickly temperament – some called her the Barracuda. But the Barracuda seemed to like us. She saw we were serious about our documentary. She liked the fact that we were clean cut and well dressed. And it didn’t hurt either that we had a priest with us, helping us lug our gear. Father Tim heaved the tripod off his shoulder, and he and the Barracuda began chatting away. Turns out, they knew many of the same people.

And now we were inside the Vatican Museum. It was just closing for the day when we met Mario at the back door. The little man had assigned him to us. Mario didn’t speak a word of English. He simply snatched one of our camera bags, threw it over his shoulder, and nodded his head. Follow me, he was saying, and he started off, down one long hallway after another, galloping past some of the greatest works of art the world has ever known.

It took our breath away – both the art and the gallop. The Rafael Rooms, The Gallery of Maps, the Hall of Constantine – room after room of riches, paintings and statues and tapestries hundreds of years old. And then Mario at last came to a stop. He’d arrived at the finish line, the finale, the Sistine Chapel.

You see the art in pictures and postcards, but to stand there in the midst of it, to stare up at the spectacular ceiling, to experience the Creation of Adam, to gaze upon the finger of man brushing the finger of God…it is breathtaking. And then to look at the tremendous wall that rises from behind the altar, the masterpiece Michelangelo painted as an old man… He called it The Last Judgment, an entangled mass of figures, some gruesome, some glorious, those on the left ascending to heaven and on the right, descending to hell . .

You could gaze upon that wall for an hour and feel you’ve glimpsed only a fraction of what is there. The art is intense and overwhelming. And it is vibrant. A priest we had interviewed earlier called it the color of lollipops – bright reds and oranges and dazzling blues. It didn’t used to be like that. Until the works were restored, the walls of the Sistine Chapel had been dark and gray. Now the paint pounces from the ceiling; Michelangelo’s tortured and twisted figures cry out, shouting his message. As one writer puts it, the subject is “the story of humanity…A profoundly depressing and personal view of the human state…Michelangelo pulls no punches in making clear that punishment by a vengeful God is the keynote.”

We drank it in, stood there absorbed, realizing soon we would have to leave, knowing that we may never again stand here and see this, maybe never again in our lifetime. But we did have the camera; at least we could attempt to capture it – the Sistine Chapel in High Definition! We signaled to Mario that we were ready to leave, even though we weren’t; is anyone ever really ready to leave the Sistine Chapel? Without a word, he grabbed the camera bag and was off, back through the magnificent maze of the Vatican Museum. We followed in a kind of stupor, lost in thought, awed by the inspiration we had left behind.

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