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Sistine Chapel ceiling frescos turn 500-years-old


VATICAN CITY (CNS): “With a unique expressive intensity,” is how Pope Benedict XVI described Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican depicting the power and majesty of God the creator.

The pope described it as proclaiming that “the world is not the product of darkness, chaos or absurdity, but derives from intelligence, freedom, a supreme act of love.” 

Standing in the Sistine Chapel under Michelangelo’s famous ceiling frescoes on October 31, the pope said that people are reminded that the world was created by God in a supreme act of love.

An evening prayer service was held to mark the 500th anniversary of the prayer service led by Pope Julius II in 1512 to celebrate the last brush stroke Michelangelo put on the ceiling he made famous. 

Up to 20,000 people visit the Sistine Chapel each day as part of Vatican Museums tours, but, “The chapel contemplated in prayer is even more beautiful, more authentic; it reveals all its richness,” Pope Benedict said. 

Joined by a small group of cardinals, Vatican employees and guests, the pope asked them to try to imagine what it must have been like 500 years ago to look up and see those famous paintings for the first time. 

The ceiling, measuring 40.84 metres by 13.1 metres, has nine principal illustrations of events recounted in the book of Genesis, including the various stages of creation and the great flood.

The most famous of all the scenes is God creating Adam and transmitting life to him through an outstretched finger. 

The pope said that all of the chapel’s paintings recount stages in the history of salvation, but “in that encounter of the finger of God and the finger of man, we perceive a contact between heaven and earth. In Adam, God entered into a new relationship with his creation,” a relationship in which a creature is created in God’s image and called into a direct relationship with God. 

Pope Benedict noted that 20 years after Michelangelo finished the ceiling, he concluded work on the massive wall fresco, The Last Judgment. 

Illustrating humanity’s origin on the ceiling and its ultimate destiny in The Last Judgment, Michelangelo painted “the great parable of the journey of humanity,” which leads to “the definitive encounter with Christ, the judge of the living and the dead,” the pope explained. 

“Praying this evening in the Sistine Chapel—surrounded by the story of God’s journey with humanity, marvellously represented in the frescoes above us and around us—is an invitation to praise,” he concluded.


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