Michelangelo, The Deluge, in the Sistine Chapel, c. 1509 (Wikimedia Commons)

There are two difficulties with writing about Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. One is saying anything fresh about them. The other is seeing them at all. I don’t mean the task of hauling yourself all the way to the Vatican, getting tickets, standing in line, jostling with tourists, and straining your neck to squint at the paintings sixty-odd feet above you. That would be, to employ a common distinction, the task of looking at them, difficult enough in itself. Seeing them is a different, more interior thing. Seeing requires attending to the image as it discloses itself to you, not to what you assume you are seeing. This kind of seeing takes intentionality, discipline, self-reflection, contemplation, and, of course, lots of looking. The ubiquity of the chapel’s central panel, The Creation of Adam, in the Western cultural imagination renders it all but invisible to the twenty-first-century viewer. No other work of art, perhaps, is weighed down so heavily by pop-cultural pastiche, from E.T. to Arrested Development. If what a painting like this one means is inseparable from what Gadamer calls the “history of effect,” then seeing it involves self-consciously investigating that history along with the image itself.

It is this series of negotiations that Jeannie Marshall sets for herself in her book All Things Move: Learning to Look in the Sistine Chapel. Not that she burdens herself with much phenomenological speculation. And that’s a welcome thing. A journalist based in Rome, Marshall took up the task of going to the Sistine Chapel again and again, looking at Michelangelo’s paintings until she could finally see them, and then writing about them in such a way that her readers might also come to see them anew. In this she mostly succeeds.

Marshall’s narrative of her attempts to see the Sistine Chapel is structured as a series of chapters corresponding to sections of Michelangelo’s grand series of paintings. She works outward from the central panels to the surrounding images, as one would tend to look if one were visiting the chapel. She ends, fittingly, with The Last Judgment, which Michelangelo painted on the altar wall in 1536, more than twenty years after he finished the ceiling. She works patiently and slowly, wrestling with each painting until it yields a blessing. And that means attending to the Sistine Chapel’s whole history of effect: not only theological, political, and historical, but also, more poignantly, personal and familial.


The strongest tension in Marshall’s book lies in the fact that Michelangelo’s paintings are Christian and she is not. She confronts the tension head on and, to her credit, with disarming honesty and self-awareness. “We don’t encounter art from a blank slate,” she says, and her own slate is typically modern and secular. “As a non-Christian,” she writes:

I felt that my interest in Christian art was irreverent, but now I see that believing the story of Christianity doesn’t really matter. A good piece of art touches the same spiritual need in me that it does in a devout Catholic. The intensity of religious art communicates itself even to the non-religious among us because it is about our shared urge to reach up and beyond the knowable world.

I found myself arguing with passages such as this one. Religious art certainly is about our shared urge to reach up and beyond the knowable world, but it is not just that. Michelangelo actually seems to have believed the things he painted—creation ex nihilo, the fall from grace, a universal flood, a final judgment, and all the other weird particulars of a very dogmatic Christianity—and he painted them at the behest of people who also believed those things. To transpose the particularities of the Church’s dogma into a key in which “the story of Christianity doesn’t matter” strikes me not as a natural expansion of Michelangelo’s vision but rather as a too-casual appropriation of his art by an alien ideology.

I dwell on this because it is a point of real disagreement: Marshall tends to think religious art is meaningful because it’s human, whereas Michelangelo believed (and Christians still believe) that we’re human because these things are meaningful. In the second half of the book, Marshall often expresses regret at the intolerant, moralistic direction the Church has taken, contrasting it with the more humane, expansive spirit of the Renaissance. Lord knows we could use a more humane, expansive spirit in this world. But the evacuation of real Christian dogma in favor of a vague aspirational notion of neo-Renaissance ideals seems like a poor trade.

Still, to insist on the fundamental incompatibility of these two perspectives and dismiss Marshall as a sort of apologist for secular modernity would be small-minded and churlish; it would also miss the point. Whether religious art is meaningful because it’s human or we’re human because it’s meaningful, there is plenty of meaning and plenty of humanity to go around. Marshall does not set up her unbelief as a barrier to encounter. Rather, she allows herself to be addressed by the paintings. She opens herself to them. Still finding belief unavailable to her, she attempts to assimilate the art into a perspective that makes sense to her but still welcomes the possibility of an always fuller disclosure of meaning. This is an attitude she brings to all things religious. “Every time I enter a church,” she says, “I feel the sense of mystery there, and I know that having faith is a more complex, even artful way of existing than I have wanted to believe.” Marshall is as much seeker as skeptic. It is this sense of humility and honesty before religious commitment that keeps things interesting.

Marshall tends to think religious art is meaningful because it’s human, whereas Michelangelo believed (and Christians still believe) that we’re human because these things are meaningful.

Marshall’s spirit of receptivity turns out to be an opening into a deeper, more complex engagement with the vectors of belief and unbelief in modernity. It also provides some welcome thematic continuity to her sometimes meandering narrative. The book initially appears to be an account of a purely “secular” encounter with religious art, but it isn’t. Marshall’s family, we soon learn, is deeply entangled with the Catholic Church—though “in flight” from it—and the book’s origins lie in her investigation of her own past during a time of profound loss. Marshall tells us that during this time she found herself compelled to probe her deep-seated ambivalence toward the Sistine Chapel and the Catholicism it represents. Something about it both repelled and pulled at her, and she was not sure why. The name Michelangelo, she says, “vibrates for me like a string plucked long ago” and “has the ring of cultural memory blended with family history.” This sense of resonance, she eventually realized, goes back to memories of a thick cultural and religious heritage woven throughout her childhood: most notably, a grandmother who dreamed of seeing the chapel and Michelangelo’s brilliant works of art but never left her native Canada. But these memories come shot through with a sense of resistance: Marshall’s experience of Catholicism as a child was of a religion “obsessed with small rules of behaviour, of policing our lives for moral transgression.” This attitude was imparted to her by her mother, a lapsed Catholic who harbored deep resentment toward the Church. When her mother visits her in Rome later in life, Marshall learns that her mother’s resentment, which stemmed from an “unsanctioned” marital arrangement that alienated her from the Church, also left her with a terrible burden of guilt. Wishing her mother spiritual peace late in life, Marshall urges her to seek out a priest and make a confession. Marshall’s own spiritual journey is not, it turns out, the only one she is chronicling. Meanwhile, her teenage son, after looking at Signorelli’s The Preaching of the Antichrist in the Orvieto Cathedral’s Cappella Nuova, is unbothered by the threats and perils of traditional religion. He is, she writes, “incredulous that their fear of damnation was so great.”

On the one hand, then, is Marshall’s mother, wracked with guilt and unable to find peace outside a Church that shapes not only her loves but her hatreds as well. On the other hand is her son, “a true inheritor of the Enlightenment,” who finds all this religious art “familiar and meaningless.” In between is Marshall herself, pushed and pulled by what her fellow Canadian Charles Taylor calls the cross-pressures of our secular age. Her own confession, understandably, is more complicated: “I don’t know what to believe, or even if faith and belief are possible for me. I only know what I feel when looking at art, when thinking about a piece of art.”


The success of a book like this, one about the experience of art, the way it shapes and works on you, hinges partly on your visual experience of the book itself. And it is a lovely artifact: a crisp hardcover with Smyth-sewn binding, printed on glossy, full-color pages. On the cover, sloppy graffiti-like text overlays one of Michelangelo’s Sibyls, signaling that though this is a book about supposedly staid Renaissance art, it’s best if we don’t take ourselves too seriously. The text is liberally interspersed with reproductions of Michelangelo’s art, which helpfully complement Marshall’s descriptions. But there are also many uncaptioned photos of modern-day Rome, taken by the photographer and novelist Douglas Cooper. The photos are not simple illustrations of what’s in the text, but they provide an eloquent visual commentary on the narrative. The unidealized Rome they show us is ugly and commonplace, vulgar even. This is a side of the Eternal City that those who have never visited it in person will rarely see. The inclusion of these photos poses a pointed, if unspoken, question to the reader as we follow Marshall in her peregrinations: Where is the sacred in all this? What does Michelangelo’s art mean when it is not ensconced in abstracted Renaissance glory, but rather amid the trash and the poverty and the sprawl and, yes, the beauty of the modern world? If the invisible God is on brazen display in the Sistine Chapel, he quietly haunts the graffitied walls and broken glass of the modern city.

Perhaps that is as it should be. In the first chapter, focusing on the central panels of the Sistine Chapel, Marshall confesses that she finds it very difficult to see the images afresh, particularly The Creation of Adam, which has been overexposed and trivialized into a cliché. Speaking of this painting, she writes, “I once ate a plate of spaghetti atop this image on a disposable placemat.” In keeping with this observation, the most interesting passages in the chapter are not on the central panel but on The Deluge, Michelangelo’s depiction of the flood, where Marshall observes that “Michelangelo blends the sea and the sky at the horizon into a void, an unbearable emptiness.” This leads her into an insightful discussion of the sublime in art. Somehow nothingness is more compelling than God the Father. It’s possible the problem is not overexposure but the fact that the Father is exposed at all, and thus diminished. Even at the dazzling heights of Renaissance virtuosity, the stark, visible fact of a God circumscribed within the bounds of the frame somehow disappoints. “Some of the first people to see the Sistine Chapel didn’t recognize the figure of the old man as God,” she says, which is a telling little fact. God is all too visually present, a being among other beings, more Zeus than the I Am That I Am. Maybe that is something the evacuation of God from the modern world can teach us—that if God is present in the terrorizing immanence of contemporary reality, he is present not as one of us, not as something we can reach out and grasp or see with our eyes, but as a hint or a gesture, a negative presence that presses in against the edges of our experience. 

All Things Move
Learning to Look in the Sistine Chapel
Jeannie Marshall
$34.95 | 239 pp.

Jeff Reimer is an editor at Comment magazine.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the March 2024 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.