The webpage pauses before a snap into clarity. I hold onto an arrow, angled upwards, and click. The perspective tilts, climbs paint and stone and glass, rotates on an axis I can’t identify. Already, I am dizzy with velocity.
Poised before the back wall, Jesus looks more malnourished than I anticipate. I consider the many images of a buff Jesus the average person is likely to see in their lifetime; remind myself that here, the physical is always referring to the unearthly. This specific Jesus is just a concentration of materials designed for people to kneel beneath.
Behind him, the figures and their flesh make a narrative out of rising and falling, clinging to each other’s skin. I think: Jesus, this is all for you. These boats and skulls and silent trumpets. Technically, this webpage must be for you, too—its code and pixels and blur, blur, blur.
In Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, the protagonist routinely spends his mornings staring at a Roger Van Der Weyden painting, questioning whether he’s capable of having a ‘profound’ experience of art. Lerner’s narrator sees a disconnect between the reverence given to artworks and his own, less-than-significant experience of them. What does it take to look at something and be moved? Are you moved by what’s there, what isn’t, or what a combination of these things produces in you?
—Maybe the longer you look at an artwork, the more it reveals itself to you.
—Or, maybe you begin to root yourself in a single way of looking.
Following Lerner, I set a reminder to float in the top-left corner of my screen every morning at 9:30. Return to Sistine Chapel. The next day, I go back to the ceiling to inspect its various curves and panels. I realise I can hardly look at the images individually: every figure appears so rapid with movement, the feeling etched into their muscles, that I can only take in the structure as a breathing (heaving) whole.
It took Michelangelo four years to paint the chapel’s frescoed ceiling, between 1508 and 1512. How long, on average, do impressive things take to make? How long to shade a hand, to get the folds in a robe just right? Everywhere I look, it is plaster stained with labour. Michelangelo’s body labouring to depict bodies labouring to create the heavens / the earth / humanity. I try to focus on Adam, perched on top of the world, his finger separated from God’s finger by one small cherub’s breath.
—When Lionel Richie sang about dancing on the ceiling, do you think the ceiling in question was frescoed?
—Don’t answer that.
In high school, I tended to find ‘profound’ readings of art amusing. On one school excursion from Melbourne’s west into the city, I spent a bus ride pointing at sculptures on roadsides, inventing fake-deep analyses with my friend about what it could all mean—a meandering comment on ‘society’ and ‘the human condition’, we laughed. In the virtual Sistine, there is no one to whom I can make these grand remarks, which makes it harder to take the same pride in not ‘getting’ it. The entire conceit, I guess, is that there’s no one here at all. My proximity to the art is one of impossible intimacy and severe alienation.
On my third visit, I discover that if you move towards the far end of the virtual chapel and turn back, the doorway from which you’re implied to have emerged is completely dark. When I stay by the walkway of the chapel’s room divider, facing through one doorway into the second, it’s easy to imagine an endless procession of doorways. Openings to more art-filled rooms for my virtual body to enter, if only I have the right link or code.
Above the dark doorway, I observe figures in the process of fleeing. Ducking, crouching, holding their head between their hands. I try to google the significance of this particular panel but fail to find an explanation. My lack of context is only a small deterrent: I am more concerned with the seamless appearance of the naked body, the curves and bumps perfectly placed.
In a life drawing class I took at eighteen, I found that a person’s limbs are most difficult to depict when they extend either toward or away from the artist on a horizontal axis. Thighs appear shorter, forearms recede, and the length of the body becomes a matter of vantage point. Eventually, I learned how to proportion a sketch by holding a pencil up to the referent.
—Extend your dominant arm to its full length, pencil in hand.
—Close one eye, lining the pencil up with the object.
—Choose one aspect of the object (an arm; the neck) by which you can measure the rest, marking this length on the pencil with your thumb.
—Use this length as your scale of measurement, applying it to different areas of the object to determine the size of one element in relation to another.
The first time I tried it, the model’s torso ended up significantly longer than their legs. I covered my paper with a shameful arm and searched the work of surrounding classmates for a failure to comfort me. With time, my attempts became more successful, yet continued to feel ‘off’ in a way I was unable to articulate.
That semester, whenever my class finished a drawing exercise, we’d circle the room to observe what everyone else had come up with. If you completed a semi-circle, you’d be faced with the perspective directly opposite your own, highlighting every aspect of the model you’d been unable to see. Each week I would hope, in the process of comparison, that no one could remember who had been standing where. That way, my sketch could never be assigned to me. It would exist as one uncanny shape in a sea of more refined ones.
Standing before the virtual organ, I wonder if I should view the chapel as a unique experience. An opportunity to go to Vatican City without actually buying a plane ticket, or booking accommodation, or changing out of my track pants. Last year, it felt like I kept going on dates with people who had just returned from Europe. I’d swipe through profiles littered with the same Amsterdam bridge and French monuments. Photos populated by sunglasses, shorts and backpacks.
—Sorry, haha. I promise I’ll try not to be that whole ‘guy who just had a spiritual experience in Europe’ stereotype.
On one date, a non-Italian man who’d just been to Italy took me to an empty pizza restaurant and spoke broken Italian to the waiters while I looked on. He told me that when he was overseas, he’d had the opportunity to see the pope, but decided not to. Fuck the pope, he offered as clarification, slightly louder than intended. Despite the inherent privilege of travel, I couldn’t help but feel I was disappointing people whenever I mentioned I hadn’t visited Europe, or gone ‘travelling’ in any real sense. If I had, would I be curating my own false image of ‘worldliness’? Would I finally know how to look at and feel about art?
I zoom in on the organ and drag my perspective from left to right. I search for ‘organ music’ on Spotify and put on something called ‘Cristo Trionfante’, by Pietro Yon. I go back to the organ, continue zooming and dragging as I listen. I follow the gold lining on the walls, angle downwards to inspect the complex tile. The virtual organ begins a string of soft notes, and for a moment it is possible for me to picture somebody, somewhere, having a soul-stirring experience. Mostly though, I imagine myself expanding: filling the real chapel with my real body the way a song can overwhelm a room.
—To what extent can I be acted upon through a screen?
—And does art require a body as witness?
—And are you even allowed to wear shorts in the Vatican?
The next time I return, I am lying in bed on my side. While I wait for the structure to load onto my phone, I think about an image posted to Twitter the day prior: an A.I. generated portrait by photographer Bas Uterwikj, presenting a realistic rendering of Jesus’s face. I think about the ten weeks Netflix spent building a studio replica of the Sistine Chapel for use in The Two Popes. When the screen stabilises, I am caught up in these approximations of the so-called ‘real’. How they’re just attempts to get closer to a thing that means something for somebody, even if it isn’t me.
Using my index finger, I drag myself toward areas of the chapel previously glossed over. I linger by the choir loft, where for three-and-a-half centuries, only singers were granted entry. I try to inspect the portraits lining the very tops of the walls, but can’t figure out which combination of arrows and zooms will get me there. I find a way to position myself in the nook of a window, looking out over the rest of the chapel like a bat.
I learn quickly that it’s far easier to manoeuvre the chapel with a touch-screen. I figure out how to flip the perspective entirely upside-down, so that my virtual body stands on the frescoed ceiling, hunched beneath a tiled roof. If I drag my finger down on a particular angle and hold it, the display spins rapidly before halting to a stop. On a smaller screen, the limits of the virtual rendering become more apparent: the walls warp and weft as you move, trying to keep up with wherever your eyes might be. It’s as though by trying to maintain the illusion of a cuboid structure, it gives itself away: flattening where the building shouldn’t, stretching out surfaces to maintain the aspect ratio.
As I travel through the chapel during my last encounter, I try to imagine the sound of footfalls as proof of my own tactility. I imagine holding a mug of hot coffee, accidentally dropping it at Jesus’s feet. The loud clink of china. The whoosh of heads whipping toward me.
I’ve been trying to decide if my distance from Catholicism is the reason I struggle to be ‘moved’ by the Sistine in the way I’d like. I’d been willing to see whether the sheer impressiveness of a thing could affect me, regardless of what it represented. I struggle to differentiate a ‘religious’ experience from Lerner’s idea of a ‘profound’ one. Francesca Gavin once said that increasingly secular attitudes have led art to replace religion’s spiritual function. The idea that a great painting on its own could supplement our desire for something grand.
—What’s more religious? A chapel or its art?
—What kind of guidance are you after today?
In my final scan of the chapel, I’m struck by a portrait I’ll later come to know as ‘Delphic Sibyl’: a depiction of the youngest sybil believed to have predicted the coming of Christ. Her cloak is a deep orange, twisted by some imperceptible wind. With one arm stretched leftwards across her body, she resists looking at the unfurled scroll in her hand, her eyes instead directed into an absent distance. I see a woman undone by the fact of what awaits her, laden with knowing something surely and yet turning away, able only to wait.
Clicking away from the chapel, I ask myself Delphica’s question: where do we look while we wait for the inevitable? Afterwards, when I read about the painting on michelangelo.org, the description tells me the woman’s flesh shows a wholly new understanding of the use of colour. I do not know whether it’s referring to the artist’s understanding, or to mine.
Tiia Kelly is a writer and editor from Naarm (Melbourne). Her work can be found in Kill Your Darlings, Voiceworks, Baby Teeth Journal, Kissing Dynamite and elsewhere. She tweets bad jokes @tiiakel.