When my wife Heera was killed in an accident, we had just started an 8,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
It was left to me to put all of the pieces back together, and it took longer than I thought.
I had already lost other loved ones: my mother, my best friend. Grief reminds me of riding waves, up and down. Even when you think the waves are calm and quiet for a while, a big one can rise up suddenly and crash down with surprising force.
When Heera died my grief was worse than anything I’d experienced before, and there were times when the only thing that got me through the day was working on that puzzle. Fitting pieces together and slowly completing small sections of the puzzle often seemed like the best thing I could be doing with my time. It also kept part of my mind occupied while another part tried to piece together the much larger puzzle of life and death.
As I made progress on the Sistine Chapel puzzle, the images that were appearing looked to me like a sea of humanity: hundreds of people crammed together, many naked, most alive, some dead or about to be. They were sitting, standing, talking, listening, living. The final image on the box looked something like a jigsaw puzzle itself, a jumble waiting to be sorted out and assembled.
I kept wondering what the painting was supposed to mean, and I started reading about it. Every description covered the same basic elements: the nine Genesis scenes, the seven Old Testament prophets and five pagan sibyls, the 40 generations of the ancestors of Christ, and the four brutal corner stories. Nothing I read ever discussed the larger meaning that pulled all of that together. And Michelangelo wasn’t of much help either: he never revealed his plan to anyone.
But I kept on reading, eventually finding the five-volume set by Charles de Tolnay, who spent more than 25 years studying the works of Michelangelo. I figured if anyone knew what the fresco cycle was supposed to mean it would be him. Here’s what de Tolnay had to say about the painting as a whole: “It is not a mere illustrative translation in the imagery of a given philosophic system, but a philosophy in itself — a creative synthesis in visual symbols of the transcendent idealism.”
I’d been hoping for a description that would really teach me about what I was looking at. Somehow de Tolnay’s just didn’t do that.
Many now argue the ceiling has no greater meaning, that it is simply a collection of Old Testament stories that is painted in a way to inspire awe. But I can’t accept that an artist could spend four and a half years of his life on a painting without investing it with more significance than the commission that paid for it. Especially that painting.
When I still didn’t have an answer after reading everything I could find about the ceiling, I began reading about the man. Slowly I discovered that Michelangelo’s life story is also something of a jigsaw puzzle. All of the pieces we have from his early years are the ones he gave us. But when you fit them together there are a few gaping holes, waiting to be filled in with the right pieces.
After five years of research, including several trips to Florence and Rome, I had still not found my answer.
Finally it occurred to me that the ceiling might actually be a brilliant diversion: painted to overwhelm the eye to hide a message buried inside it.
Like a jigsaw puzzle, the ceiling has hundreds of pieces that when pulled together should make sense of the whole. But it doesn’t, at least not on first look. For the secret cannot be found from the pieces Michelangelo gave us, but through finding the one piece he left missing.
I hope you enjoy the story!