I will come right out and say it: I don’t much care for Michelangelo. That puts me in a distinct minority, I know, but there it is. Particularly in the field of painting, I find much of his work rather awkward.
Having said that, I noted with interest that the Pauline Chapel in the Apostolic Palace will be re-opened after a long restoration, on the Feast of Sts. Peter & Paul on June 29th. For those among my readers who are liturgically-minded, you will be interested to read that some, though not all, of the post-Vatican II changes made to the furnishings in this chapel by Pope Paul VI have been removed. Apparently Pope John Paul II had previously removed the – gasp – carpet that was installed over the marble floors.
This chapel, named for Pope Paul III, contains the last two frescoes painted by Michelangelo: the “Crucifixion of St. Peter”, and the “Conversion of Saul”. The article mentions that Michelangelo acquired large quantities of ground lapis lazuli – then the most expensive pigment there was – to produce the works. Anyone who has studied Medieval or Renaissance painting knows that patrons in their contracts with artists often specified the amount and the quality grade of the lapis to be used in a commissioned work. Usually the best grade of lapis was to be reserved for particularly important figures, such as the blue mantle usually worn by the Virgin Mary, and a secondary grade of lapis might be used on attendant angels. This variation in materials is why the blue hues in a single 15th century altarpiece may vary greatly in shade or even in preservation.
However, as we say in Spain, “mona en seda, mona se queda”. Michelangelo may have used all of the pricey materials available, but the resulting images look a bit like comic book action sequences. Perhaps this is the reason why neither of these two subjects were particularly popular with most Gothic or High Renaissance painters. They were scenes treated very seldom by the Great Masters.
Here we can examine two different versions of the Crucifixion of St. Peter and the Conversion of Saul. The first pair are Michelangelo’s from the Pauline Chapel, obviously pre-restoration (note the visible dirt and soot). You can decide for yourself, dear reader, what you think of these jumbled images:
By comparison, examine these paintings by Caravaggio, painted around 60 years later, for a chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. In Caravaggio’s version we see the elderly, suffering, St. Peter, about to die for Christ, not the angry “St. Peter as played by Sean Connery” of Michelangelo’s version. In the Conversion of Saul by Caravaggio, the figure is the young, vigorous Saul, persecutor of Christians as described in The Acts of the Apostles, not a stumbling old Pharisee as portrayed by Michelangelo.
The reader of course, may decide for himself which images he prefers. We will have a better look at the Michelangelo images as we grow closer to June 29th, I am certain, and they will be greeted with the same outcries as was the Sistine Chapel ceiling and “Last Judgement” when they were cleaned. No doubt someone will even denounce the Vatican to UNESCO for trying to get rid of the centuries of accumulated dirt, as if St. Peter’s is meant to deteriorate into some sort of Angkor Wat or Knossos. In this particular case, it might have been better just to whitewash them altogether and simply start over.