A hidden surprise in the heart of the Sistine Chapel

The breathtaking paintings in the Sistine Chapel are both a history lesson and a reflection of our place in the human drama.

The Creation of Adam is a fresco painting by Michelangelo, which forms part of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling in the Vatican city, painted circa 1511

How much do you know about the Sistine Chapel? Did you know, for example, that it began as a private chapel for Church elites—the “ultimate ecclesiastical man cave”? The Chapel, which attracts 5 million visitors per year, isn’t just an obligatory stop on an art history tour of Italy, it is a living history of the Church and its influences—influences that range from global, geopolitical change to petty personal feuds. This TED talk, by art historian Elizabeth Lev, outlines the evolution of the Chapel in three stages.

The full talk, which Lev delivered in Geneva last December, is well worth the full 17 minutes—it’s a short but comprehensive art history lesson, complete with breathtaking, detailed photos of the Chapel. But if you’re pressed for time, skip ahead to 8:50 to Lev’s discussion of the placement of Eve, which Lev says was the detail that made her realize that “this representation of the human drama was always about men and women—so much so, that the dead center, the heart of the ceiling, is the creation of woman, not Adam.” This depiction of Eve, her hand curled around God’s arm, is a detail the casual observer might miss without Lev’s narration.

The historical alliance of Pope Julius II and Michelangelo, and their shared artistic vision, explains why the Sistine Chapel is still such a draw and likely will be eternally relevant: as we gaze on the intricate stories that Michelangelo painted, we question our little role in the long human drama. We ask how we see ourselves in the ongoing march of history, and in the evolution of the Church. We ask ourselves, “how do we want to live our lives?”

As Lev concludes: “The Sistine Chapel forces us to look around as if it were a mirror. Who am I in this picture? Am I one of the crowd? Am I the drunk guy? Am I the athlete? And as we leave this haven of uplifting beauty, we are inspired to ask ourselves life’s biggest questions: Who am I, and what role do I play in this great theater of life?”

Leigh Anderson
Leigh Anderson

Leigh Anderson is the author of “The Games Bible: The Rules, The Gear, The Strategies” (Workman, 2010) and has written for Vox, Newsweek.com, and Popular Science, among others.

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