Sunday, September 05, 2010

The haze on the Sistine ceiling

When Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, did he use bright colors or dim ones?

The Creation of Adam, restored

Until a few decades ago, experts and visitors alike thought it was the latter. The figures, while brilliantly executed, were not brilliantly colored, but rather grey and dingy. Many interpreted the colors as the artist's intentional choices, possibly selected to reflect the seriousness of the subject matter.

A composite image of The Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve.
The upper left is shown unrestored, the lower right is shown restored.

But between 1980 and 1994, restoration efforts uncovered a different palette. It seems the waxy smoke from years of candles (as well as windblown soot from the Roman streets and varnish from an earlier restoration) had muddied the artist's original work and created a grimy haze over the once-vibrant colors. A few small areas remain unrestored, to allow viewers to compare them with the remainder of the ceiling.

Daniel, before and after restoration

How easy it is to see a painting (or a Bible passage) through hundreds of years' worth of haze and think we're seeing the artist's (or author's) true intent.



  1. Wow, this is really fascinating! Adam and I were just having a conversation about authorial intent yesterday, so it's really interesting that you posted this and I'm just now reading it. I'll have to make sure he sees this.

  2. Great post. Thanks for writing it, and thanks for the tip, Rachel.

  3. Thank you both for your feedback.

    Of course, as you'll read in either of the links provided, the restoration has been controversial... some critics have argued that removing the grime also removed some of the contrasts original to the work... not unlike the controversies surrounding Bible translations.

    But regardless what translation we use, we read it through the lens of our language, our culture, our experience... and our understanding can't help but be colored by those things.

  4. The problem with the interpretation of Scripture is not with the object (the Scritpture) but with the viewer (us). The Word of God does not grow dim from candle soot or any other outside influence. It always remains as pristine as it ever was. So in this respect, it is not like any painting.
    The problem with the interpretation of Scripture lies with the viewer, not the object being viewed. Thus, we ought to remember that in order to see the Scripture in its original "vibrant colors" then we need to fix our eyesight. The only lens that is strong enough to overcome our shortsightedness is the lens of the Holy Spirit.

    The passage of time does not hinder the understanding of God's word, but the hardness of the heart. No one with a prideful heart has ever been able to correctly understand what God intended to communicate. When a man allows God to clean the grime off of his eyes, then he may see the Word of God clearly and begin to understand what God has communicated to His creation.

  5. Excellent points. I especially like your extension of the analogy to the lens of the Holy Spirit -- well done!

    Of course, I hope readers don't infer from my analogy that I believe the grime to be a problem with scripture itself -- I don't. My intent was only to suggest that we may not be seeing exactly what the author Himself wrote, but rather a hazy version of it.


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