It is the 1st of November 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1512.
Let's start today by framing the particular timelines around this critical year. Apologies if this is rudimentary, but when we talk about this era, we use terms like "Renaissance" or "Reformation" or perhaps "Early Modern." "Renaissance" refers to a rebirth of the arts in European culture, specifically in Italy and in Northwest Europe. We might date the Renaissance, very roughly, as from about 1450 to about 1600. After that, the Baroque and the Roccoco begin to develop, and the arts begin to take a new direction.
The Reformation begins with Luther in 1517 and can be seen as lasting from then for many years. I prefer either 1618 or 1648, that is, when the 30 Years War became the story rather than religious reform. Of course, we could refer to this whole period as the "Early Modern" era, which makes perfect sense to historians and tends to confuse everyone else.
And so, we move to 1512 when the church was less concerned with religious controversy and more with religious consolidation. That is, the church was united, nominally, but fractured. Without doctrines or ideology to bind the church together, we often see instead moving towards architectural and artistic grandeur. As a modern "sophisticated" person, you might think that an appeal to beauty would be ineffective. However, history tells us that not only has it been effective, but it has also been the driver behind some of the most significant art since the Middle Ages. The Renaissance certainly has the church to thank.
And it was on this, the 1st of November in 1512, that perhaps the piece de resistance of this ecclesiastical and artistic movement was finally revealed. Michelangelo's 4-year labor on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was finished. The Sistine chapel dates to the late 15th century. Named after Pope Sixtus, it was meant to be both the private chapel for the Pope as well as the conclave where the Cardinals would elect new Popes.
By the time Pope Julius II (the Warrior Pope) came to the office, he looked to make a mark on the art scene. He had already hired Michelangelo to design his marble tomb but decided to take him off that job to attend to the Sistine ceiling. The problem was, Michelangelo had no experience painting frescoes. Nevertheless, he would learn on the job. It would be unheard of to turn down a request from the Pope.
The whole piece covers over 12,000 square feet. This is the size of 1 1/2 basketball courts. Michelangelo had to repaint much of his early work on the ceiling as it began to run and crack. The sculptor-turned-fresco-artist despaired of his work so much, he famously wrote a poem to a friend over his hatred of the work. He complained that he had "grown a goiter from this torture."
Besides the elaborate ornamentation and Greek pantheon present, the most striking features were depicting God the Father creating Adam and the nudes that peppered the ceiling. At the council of Trent later in the century, the decision was made to cover the nudes (they were re-uncovered during a later restoration). As far as the depiction of God the Father, it was the very last thing Michelangelo painted as he wanted to make sure he got it right. You can find five smaller "practice" versions of an anthropomorphic Yahweh at different places on the ceiling. Despite being perhaps the most famous piece of art in the most significant of all papal buildings, Michelangelo despaired of it and later went back to cover the sidewall with a melancholy picture of the Last Judgement.
Religion and art, the Renaissance, and Papal grandeur came together to produce one of the most incredible pieces of art in the Western tradition, the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo's magnum opus debuted for the first time on this, the 1st of November, in 1512.
The reading today is a poem from Richard Crashaw, "Christ's Victory."
CHRIST when He died
Deceived the cross,
And on Death's side
Threw all the loss.
The captive world awaked and found
The prisoners loose, the jailer bound.
O dear and sweet dispute
Twixt Death's and Love's far different fruit,
Different as far
As antidotes and poisons are:
By the first fatal tree
Both Life and Liberty
Were sold and slain;
By this they both look up and live again.
O strange mysterious strife
Of open death and hidden life!
When on the cross my King did bleed,
Life seem'd to die, Death died indeed.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 1st of November 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by our very own Renaissance Man, coffee roaster, pastor, podcaster, and sound engineer, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. Remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true… Everything is going to be ok.