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The lesson of Sistine Chapel

· What the Cardinals electors will see when they enter the Conclave ·

When Cardinal electors enter the Sistine Chapel from the Sala Regia the first thing they see is Pietro Perugino's fresco The Handing of the Keys . Two monumental figures facing one another: Christ entrusts the keys of the Kingdom to his Vicar, and Peter on his knees receives them. All is harmony, solemnity, deep silence: the Primate of Peter and consequently of Roman Pontiffs is represented with majestic simplicity and striking naturalness.

However, when the Cardinal electors raise their eyes what they see is the Final Judgment by Michelangelo: the depiction of a scene that is the negation of what is described above. They see a sullen muscular Peter returning the keys to Christ the Judge. Because time has ended, history is no more. The Church has completed her mission. Anyone who sees the Final Judgement has the impression that they are looking not at a wall but into an infinite space made up of cold blue air. Anyone who enters the Sistine Chapel actually enters an extraordinary theological-scriptural riddle. And they enter a forest of the most fascinating images to have ever appeared under the heavens. If they turn their gaze to these 15th century frescos, the Cardinal electors see this correspondence, the mirroring of the Old and New Testaments.

But for the Cardinal electors, as for the other million people who every year linger in the Sistine Chapel, the main attraction being the frescos of Michelangelo. The Eternal Father who divides the light from darkness is an acrobat who pervades over the primordial nothingness. He is the turbine of creation, he is the sudden flash from which it all began. Thus Michelangelo gave an image to his idea of the Big Bang.

Yet, it is the Final Judgement that most attracts the attention of the Cardinal electors. There are so many things in the Final Judgement. There is the Church triumphant set in a semicircle around the heavenly Judge. There are angels and demons who fight for the souls of the resurrected, there is the fire of hell, that seethes and flares from the cracks in the earth. There is the anamorphic caricature of the artist himself, given to the flayed skin, that St Bartholomew displays, the symbol of his martyrdom.

The true theological fire of the composition, the terrifying warning to the Cardinal electors and for every Christian, is at the highest point of the fresco, there where the whirlwind of angels in flight carry the instruments of the Passion: the pillar of the Scourging, the Cross, the Crown of Thorns, the Holy Sponge. For each and every person they are the testimonial proof in the court of the Last Judgement. Because Christ died for us, we will be judged. By our fidelity to the Cross we shall be saved or we shall be damned.




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 23, 2020