“I have finished that chapel I was painting.  The Pope is quite satisfied.”  – Michelangelo

The Vatican

My friend Paula and I had set out to Italy to fulfill a nearly lifelong desire to see the great works of art in St. Peter’s Basilica and The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

The first day, we failed to reach our destination in time to make the last tour.  So the following day we arrived early and anxiously snaked through the beautiful Raphaels and Caravaggios until we reached the doors leading in the chapel where Michelangelo had painted this greatest of works.

I considered telling Paula that I might cry.  I felt as though I had been called to this moment since we were in high school and I had learned all about Michelangelo and how he painted over the dark blue ceiling with little yellow stars with his spectacular vision of Biblical interpretation.

As it turns out, she was thinking the same thing.

We knew we were close and would join the next group allowed in.  Moments away from seeing what I had been waiting to experience for nearly thirty years, my heart pounded.  Then it happened.

“I told Your Holiness that painting was not my art; what I have done is spoiled.” – Michelangelo

sistine chapel ceiling2

The doors opened and we were herded inside.  What?

Was this it?  Why was it lower than I expected?  Why didn’t it glow?  Where was the Ceiling of my imagination?

The crowd began to murmur and we were ordered to remain silent while an American was escorted away because he tried to sneak a picture, and then our time was up and I was crushed.

This was not the experience I expected.  Nor was it for Paula.  We stood outside of the Chapel and looked at each other with blank expressions.

It was a let down of enormous proportion.  We moved on, still looking for something that would strike the chord of ‘AWE’ in us.

One day as we traipsed around seeking the Pantheon, we saw an open door into a rather plain-looking structure of a Church.  Quietly, we slipped inside.

It was Basilica of Saint Mary Above Minerva or Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Italian.  Inside of its non-assuming door, I was immediately aware of a change in atmosphere.  It felt Holy and Divine.

The tombs of St. Catherine of Siena and Fra Angelico – a friar and artist whose artistic works include frescoes now part of The Niccoline Chapel in the Vatican including: Scenes from the life of St. Laurence where the vault in the painting is blue and is decorated with stars –  were encased near the altar.

I looked up, and amazingly, I found the right ceiling.  It was dark blue covered in little yellow stars.  Oh Michelangelo, what did you do to the little Chapel in Vatican City?

But he was here too.  Also near the Altar was a statue of Christ that he created.  Of course, sculpture was his true love, much more so than painting. 

“It is well with me only when I have a chisel in my hand.” -Michelangelo

Fra Angelico and Michelangelo both seemed to have pulled us to Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.  If you visit, I suggest you heed their calling and take time for this quaint, Holy space.

I recant this story to you because the new Pope, Pope Francis I, is known for his parsimony and simplicity.  I think he would like the chapel with the blue ceiling and yellow stars and find the beauty in how it might speak to souls in its presence.

He has a long journey ahead of him as the Head of the Catholic Church and I hope it is one that is successful and honorable – one not for show, but for substance; blue with yellow stars.

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