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It's 'Judgment' Day for Unveiled Sistine Chapel : Vatican: The Pope praises the restored Michelangelo masterpiece. Gone is centuries of grime--and modesty.

April 09, 1994|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VATICAN CITY — "The Last Judgment" is at hand. Good news, unless you are a fan of the 16th-Century prude Biagio da Cesena.

The Vatican unveiled Michelangelo's restored masterpiece Friday, revealing the Sistine Chapel unfettered by scaffolds for the first time in 14 years.

The impact of the world's most famous room was, in a word, breathtaking.

Behind the altar, the huge fresco of the risen Christ dispensing eternal justice vibrates with recovered color and life. Above, the vaulted ceiling, another Michelangelo treasure, completes the restored glory of the Renaissance chapel where Popes are elected.

"The ranges of colors are similar to ones Pope Paul III saw (in 1541) when he saw the finished 'Last Judgment' for the first time," said Fabrizio Mancinelli, who headed the four-year restoration that followed a decade's work on the ceiling. "The colors Michelangelo used don't fade; they have remained in good condition."

Pope John Paul II celebrated the completion of the $11-million restoration financed by Japan's Nippon Television with a thanksgiving Mass before the fresco Michelangelo undertook at papal instruction "to show in the story everything that the art of drawing could achieve."

"The Sistine Chapel is the place which, for every Pope, embodies memory of a singular day in his life. For me, it was Oct. 16, 1978," John Paul reminisced. He was Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow. Just before the last ballot that would elevate him to the papacy, a fellow Polish cardinal startled him with a whispered, "If they elect you, I beg you, do not refuse," John Paul recalled.

Dressed in flowing gold robes of joy at Mass on Friday morning, John Paul hailed the chapel as "the sanctuary of the theology of the human body. In rendering homage to the beauty of mankind created by God as man and woman, it also expresses . . . the hope of a transfigured world."

The restoration of the 66-by-33-foot fresco has stripped away centuries of dust, candle soot and bad glue from previous attempts to preserve the painting.

Reborn, the painting explodes with swirling movement: Against a backdrop of heavenly blue, there are saints and devils, angels and sinners, agony and ecstasy. On the left, figures rise toward paradise. On the right, they plunge miserably toward the anguish of hell.

Mancinelli called "The Last Judgment" a more mature painting than the ceiling. Its colors are warmer, thanks principally to blues derived from expensive lapis lazuli that Michelangelo couldn't afford when he painted the biblical story of the creation on the ceiling 25 years before beginning "The Last Judgment."

"In the ceiling, we see the colors of his native Florence. The altar wall, however, is more influenced by the colors he had later admired in Venetian painting," Mancinelli said.

As he worked on "The Last Judgment" high on the chapel scaffold between 1536 and 1541, Michelangelo dressed Christ and his mother, her eyes averted from the anguish and exaltation of judgment.

But he left many figures, including a pair of saints, one he, one she, as nature created them. That sent future papal censors scurrying for paint-on fig leafs, girdles and other modesty garments. Renaissance Pope Paul III, who paid hefty painting bills to Michelangelo, loved the painting. Not Biagio da Cesena, his master of ceremonies, the head of the papal household.

Cesena objected--too strenuously, as it turns out. As historian Giorgio Vasari recalls, Cesena complained that "it was a very improper thing to paint so many nude forms, all showing their nakedness in that shameless fashion . . . such pictures were better-suited to a bathhouse or a roadside wine shop than to the Pope's chapel."

Some later Popes would defend the masterpiece, but others shared Cesena's view that its display of saintly pulchritude was offensive to the religion it portrayed. Neither did they welcome the commanding figure of a justice-dispensing Christ as a beardless young man, although none dared change it.

Inquisition Pope Paul IV, (1555-59) called the painting "a stew of nudes" and wanted it destroyed. During the reign of his successor, Pius IV, the Council of Trent censured the painting, decreeing that it must be "mended."

Michelangelo himself scornfully dismissed censors. But in 1565, with the old master safely dead the year before, one of his students, Daniele da Volterra, began draping nude forms with what became known as modesty breeches.

Volterra covered barely enough to assure the painting's survival. Clement VIII, 1592-1605, wanted to whitewash the whole wall. He didn't. But cover-ups and helter-skelter touch-ups continued deep into the 18th Century.

On Friday, restorers said they had removed the 17 most recent breeches, leaving Volterra's and a few others--23 in all--that would have damaged the painting if removed.

John Paul gave his imprimatur to the finished work Friday, but it came with a warning that "the splendor and dignity of the human body" must be viewed in the light of its creation by God.

"When you remove it from this dimension . . . it becomes an object that can easily be debased. Only before the eyes of God can the human body remain nude and uncovered and keep intact its splendor and beauty," the Pope said.

There is little splendor and less beauty about Biagio da Cesena. Michelangelo repaid his criticism by painting him into "The Last Judgment." And there, freshly restored, he writhes in misery in the bottom right-hand corner. Replete with ass's ears and a Michelangelo-painted serpent coiled tightly around his loins, Biagio suffers on the altar wall as Minos, the cruel judge of souls in hell.

Vasari says that seeing himself so humiliated in the painting, Biagio begged Paul III to have him painted out. "I might have released you from purgatory, but over hell I have no power," the Pope replied, siding with his favorite painter.

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