A fragment of the Sistine Chapel

Sistine chapel

Materials: printed image, aggregate plaque, MDF board
Dimensions: 19 cm x 14 cm
Place acquired: charity shop, north London
Original place of sale: Vatican museum shop, Rome
Place of manufacture: not known

This image shows a detail of the famous fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. The pointing hand on the right belongs to God, who is about to touch life into the limp hand of Adam. It visualises the very birth of humanity, according to the Judeo/Christian creation myth.

The image is a printed photograph of the original fresco stuck onto a piece of rough-edged plaster-like material about 5mm thick, that is mounted onto a gold-painted panel. The effect is as if the actual fragment has been cut from the fresco and presented for sale. I found it in a charity shop in London but a stamp on the back shows it was bought in the museum shop of the Vatican. It’s an ‘official’ souvenir.

By including the fake plaster layer the souvenir is drawing attention not so much to the picture’s narrative message, but more to the fact that this is a famous fresco, by a famous artist. Its appeal is its attempt to mimic the actual artwork, with its sweeps of paint onto the very layer of plaster that the artist himself would have touched. It is playfully trying to recreate the ‘aura’ of the artwork. Not a sacred aura, but a human one.

This says something interesting about the role of religious art in the West. All three of the major monotheistic religions have struggled with the idea of image making. Should God or any of his creations be depicted in art? And if depictions are made, should they follow careful theocratic conventions, as with Eastern Orthodox icons, so that they become sacred items in themselves? The Roman church took a different path. In 600AD Pope Gregory ruled on the issue of idolatry:

‘... It is one thing to worship a painting, and quite another to learn from a scene represented in a painting what ought to be worshiped. ...  paintings are books for those who do not know their letters.’

So Catholicism rejected both iconoclasm and the holy icon tradition and instead recruited art as a teaching aid. It made sense then, to unleash an artist’s individual imagination for this task. The new, the original, the particular vision of an artist came to have a value. The rest, as they say, is history: the renaissance, the rise of the celebrity artist, the beginnings of humanism, the growth of secular art, commerce, capitalism etc. It all makes possible this little souvenir of a creation. It's not God’s creation of course, but Michelangelo’s.