Melbourne's Emporium recently opened its doors to a new exhibition: projections of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings. On display until 20 March 2022, the exhibition has already delighted audiences around the world, with its photographic reproduction of Michelangelo's incredible frescoes across 34 panels, giving viewers the opportunity to see them up close in a way totally unique in history.

The frescoes are, in the fullest sense of the word, awesome. Michelangelo Buonarroti was one of the most talented artists in the Western tradition, recognised to be so from an early age. He was so talented that he managed, briefly, to defraud a Cardinal by the name of Raffaele Riario by making a statue look like it had been buried for hundreds of years.

Once the cardinal heard about it, he got his money back. However, he was so impressed by Michelangelo’s talent that the artist was invited to Rome, thus beginning his long and profitable career under the patronage of several popes.

Michelangelo also gives us a good example of sacred art and its significance in the life of the Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has quite a profound reflection on this topic, one that is worth turning to.

Michelangelo Buonarroti1
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Wikimedia Commons

The truth of art, the art of truth

Interestingly, the Catechism’s discussion of sacred art comes under its analysis of the eighth commandment, which is this: ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour’ (Deut. 5:20).

This should not be as surprising as we think. The eighth commandment is concerned with the nature of truth and how we speak about the world around us. Truth is deeply related to the other transcendentals of goodness and beauty. In the same way the practice of goodness displays moral beauty, the Catechism tells us, ‘truth is beautiful in itself.’ Art is the craft of tapping into that beauty and giving expression to realities, or truths, that are beyond words:

the depths of the human heart, the exaltations of the soul, the mystery of God’ (§2500).

Art is also something that cannot be understood in a Darwinian analysis. It has the character of something completely free of humanity’s struggle to survive:

Beyond the search for the necessities of life which is common to all living creatures, art is a freely given superabundance of the human being’s inner riches’ (§2501).

There is something about art that is impossible to understand unless you are willing to countenance the idea of an inner life, of a soul, of a spiritual reality inside of us that defies any other explanation.

The point of it all

Art also has a purpose. It is not a pointless craft. Nor is it ‘an absolute end in itself,’ the Catechism goes on. Rather, it ‘is ordered to and ennobled by the ultimate end of man.’

This is where sacred art comes in. The vocation of sacred art has a particular purpose:

evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God – the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ’ (§2502).

This is why the Church has always taken art so seriously. It does something nothing else can. It expresses something nothing else can. It slows us down, captures us, makes us wonder. It leads us into contact with a realm that is beyond the material – a transcendent realm. It shows us dimensions of the human person, and God, in perspectives that elevate the mind and move the heart into closer communion with Him. As Pope Benedict XVI once said:

the experience of beauty does not remove us from reality, on the contrary, it leads to a direct encounter with the daily reality of our lives, liberating it from darkness, transfiguring it, making it radiant and beautiful.

The stories around us

But art also tells us stories. In Michelangelo’s frescoes, the whole story of salvation history is on display, from The Creation of Adam . . .

Creation of Adam Sistine Chapel 1
'The Creation of Adam' Wikimedia Commons

To The Fall . . .

Michelangelo Fall and Expulsion from Garden of Eden 00
'The Fall and Expulsion from Eden' Wikimedia Commons

To The Last Judgment . . .

Last Judgement Michelangelo
'The Last Judgment' Wikimedia Commons

Art tells us stories, and situates us within those stories. As Pope Francis wrote in his message for World Communications Day in 2020: ‘Amid the cacophony of voices and messages that surround us, we need a human story that can speak of ourselves and of the beauty all around us. A narrative that can regard our world and its happenings with a tender gaze.

A narrative that can tell us that we are part of a living and interconnected tapestry. A narrative that can reveal the interweaving of the threads which connect us to one another.

Melbourne's Emporium may not evoke the same wonder and awe as stepping into the centuries-old Sistine Chapel, but it does a mighty job serving as an entry point into one of the world's most revered masterpieces and introducing sacred art to a whole new audience.

While it’s in town, check out the Sistine Chapel exhibition. Spend some time in the presence of beautiful art.

A final thought

Finally, spend some time with the local art that populates our parishes. See what stories are being told. See what dimensions of reality are being revealed to us through them. (As the Season of Lent approaches, you might consider doing a "pilgrimage" through some of Melbourne's beautiful depictions of the Stations of the Cross.)

If recent history has been wearing us down, maybe it’s time to put ourselves back in contact with the Beauty that transcends history, and the Beauty that redeems it.

Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Exhibition is located at Emporium Melbourne (Level 4, 287 Lonsdale Street) and will run from 22 January - 20 March 2022.

Feature image: Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Wikimedia Commons/Jean-Christophe Benoist)