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  • Writer's pictureGiacomino Nicolazzo


Updated: Jul 3, 2022


July 2019

For a few moments I was unable to speak…to be honest with you I’d almost forgotten to breathe. Awe. Amazement. Disbelief…these words do not do justice to the reaction I had to my first glimpse of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

I stood staring straight up...mouth agape, eyes darting from one figure to the next, from one scene to another. It was just too much to take in.

A tour guide was standing a few meters away from me and talking to a group of about ten people...

“Many people do not know this,” he was saying, “but when Michelangelo was approximately half way done with this masterpiece, the fresco plaster upon which he was painting became infected with a green mold. It literally bloomed and spread from one end of the ceiling to the other, destroying his work completely. He had no other choice but to chip most of the ceiling plaster away, and along with it, all of his painstakingly beautiful details.”

In the back of my mind, I could still hear the man talking to the tourists, but my attention had drifted back to the ceiling and I’d become lost in my own thoughts again. I was seeing for the very first time, The Creation of Adam. And I must confess, I was moved to tears…beyond tears as a matter of fact. My heart raced in my chest. Literally!

Seeing God’s outstretched arm, his finger offered out to touch Adam’s almost indifferently, caused for me an epiphany of sort. Suddenly something I’d learned years before made complete sense. I understood the significance of God’s finger…

“God writes on our hearts with His fingers,” I recalled Sister Jean teaching us when I was a young boy in Sunday School decades before. “It was with His fingers that He chose to engrave the stone tablets...the ones that he gave to Moses to bring back from the mountain top.”

Yes…it all made sense to me now. I could see God’s fingers for myself. They were the conduit through which His inspiration…His intelligence, was given to Man.

And as I stared at the incredible painting, I could not help but notice that God was not looking at Adam…he was instead looking at his own finger, as if concentrating on the knowledge he was imparting in his beautiful creation.

Before I was ready to walk a bit further into Saint Peters, I overheard that tour guide giving out another bit of information. I was actually quite stunned to hear what he was saying…

“There is a common misunderstanding about how exactly Michelangelo painted this incredible work of art,” he said. “Most people are under the impression that he painted it lying flat on his back. There was even a movie made in 1965 to that effect…The Agony and the Ecstasy it was called. In it, Michelangelo, portrayed by Charlton Heston, is shown to be lying down and painting the ceiling above him. But this is not true.”

Michelangelo had actually written in a comical poem to a friend of his...

“My beard toward heaven, I feel the back of my brain on my neck. My loins have penetrated my paunch. I am not in a good place, and I am no painter.”

This was the first time I’d heard that Michelangelo stood the entire time he painted the ceiling…for nearly four years! It caused him great physical discomfort too. He was racked with headaches, spasms and cramps.

I found the Sistine Chapel to be the most daunting and troubling work of art I’d ever seen. The more I studied it, the more I found myself feeling isolated from God. Expelled from his presence…cast aside as if I were nothing and no one.

There was a pamphlet on a table against a wall. It was a story about Michelangelo and the ceiling, printed in several languages. And so I picked out the parts written in English. I read that my intuition and sense of separation was correct…that it was indeed Michelangelo’s intention for me, and every one else who would gaze upon his work, to feel this way.

“Michelangelo presented the image of God as a dream,” the pamphlet read, “one to which man must aspire through years of prayer, sacrifice and hard toil.”

I thought to myself after reading it, “What kind of God must Michelangelo have imagined created him…created all of mankind?”

With my unanswered musings still rolling around in my head, I left the chapel with those troubling thoughts. Exiting the monstrously large wooden door, I walked slowly, trying to make sense of what I’d seen. I was dismayed, a feeling I found most disconcerting. But that was all soon to change.

Suddenly I found myself standing in front La Pietà. And once again my breath was taken away from me. My heart again pounded in my chest, this time more violently than the last.

That sculpture was the single most disturbing and sad, yet unbelievably beautiful thing I’d ever experienced. I call it a thing because nothing in God’s universe can be left out in its comparison.

Staring at her face, I could feel Mary’s pain. My heart ached in my chest as hers must have. Across her lap lay the child she brought into this world in that filthy manger…his body now beaten and broken, battered and bleeding...lifeless.

“He was only 24 years old when he sculpted this masterpiece!”

Someone behind me was speaking, but I could not see who it was nor did I know if they were speaking to me...

“It was in 1498…more than 500 years ago now,” the voice continued. “A French Cardinal by the name of Jean de Billeheres commissioned the young sculptor Michelangelo to create a statue that would mark his funeral monument. But once it was completed…once everyone understood its beauty and power and meaning…well, the Pope and the Vatican had other plans for it.”

I turned to see who was speaking and there stood a most distinguished looking white-haired man, looking right at me. Indeed he was speaking to no one but me…

“What do you think of it?” he asked, gesturing toward the statue with his head and shoulders...

“I do not know if even the word overwhelmed explains my condition at this moment,” I answered. I looked again and was taken by this man’s familiar face.

He was dressed in white linen slacks with white shoes. If I remember correctly, he was not wearing socks. On his upper body he wore a black silk T shirt. A pale blue sweater was tied around his neck and draped over his shoulders.

The way he carried himself...the finesse with which he spoke...a perfect Italian accent speaking English, truly impressed me. It took a few minutes for it to register that somehow, he knew to speak English to me.

His hair and beard were the very color of his brilliant slacks. And when he smiled...well, his teeth were just as white. He was a slight man, but not delicate if you know what I mean.

“I agree,” he answered. “Overwhelmed is perhaps as close a word as you will find. I think mesmerizing to be another good adjective, yes?”

“The detail is incredible,” I said, not knowing anything about the piece or Michelangelo for that matter. “What kind of stone is it made from? Is it granite or perhaps marble?”

“It is made exclusively of Carrara marble,” he answered. “Very smooth. But if you look closely it would appear to have a great deal of texture. Look at his beard...the veins in his forearms...the bones of his feet and toes. And my goodness! Look at Mary’s dress and her veil. Their skin...both of theirs, is so life-like. It is incredible.”

His words and the way he spoke them to me caused my eyes to see things I may very well have missed...

“Look at the hand,” he said. “Look at Jesus’ hand...the one hanging down below Mary’s knee. Look at the fine lines of his fingers and his knuckles!”

“It is beyond what any mortal man can do,” I said. “It is a truly divinely inspired work of art.”

“Aren’t we all,” he answered. “Aren’t we all.”

“Yes,” I said, turning to tell him how much I agreed with him and to thank him for provoking me to think past what I could see. But when I turned, he was gone. I searched the small crowd of people around me, but he was nowhere to be found. It was if I had imagined the entire conversation...

If it is our intention to create a masterpiece of a life for ourselves, we must take great pains to control our excesses and avoid the things that do not contribute to this goal. We cannot indulge in dishonesty, deceit, indifference or selfishness and expect to create a work of art. For these are the things that call attention to themselves and distract us from our work.

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