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Ancestors (3)

Michelangelo spent time in the chapel studying the frescoes that were already there. He had figured out the hardest part of his project — where to begin and end his story — thanks to his fascination with two of the wall frescoes.

They were both by Cosimo Rosselli. The first told the story of Moses and the parting of the Red Sea: the moment the people of Israel were finally set free from their Egyptian captivity and led by Moses to the Promised Land.

Crossing of the Red Sea by Cosimo Rosselli

Crossing of the Red Sea by Cosimo Rosselli

The second, on the opposite wall, was Rosselli’s version of the Last Supper: the moment Jesus was betrayed by Judas. The moment set in motion Jesus’s crucifixion and burial, followed by the glory of the resurrection.

The Last Supper by Cosimo Rosselli

The Last Supper by Cosimo Rosselli

Michelangelo knew the story he wanted to tell lay somewhere between those two scenes. But he got lost trying to weed his way through every story of the Old Testament.

The more he read, the more frustrated he became. Every story seemed to end at the same place. God sent leaders and prophets and the people were saved, only to forget over time and lapse back into their evil ways. Michelangelo didn’t want to show the same story over and over.

He reviewed everything again. The center of the ceiling started with the first words of Genesis and the idea of the two creation stories — those would be the nine scenes running down the middle of the ceiling. From there he had been drawn to the prophets from the 16 books at the end of the Old Testament — those would be on the pendentives.

The solution for the lunettes and spandrels hit him when he started to read the first words of the New Testament, a list of 41 names at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew: the ancestors of Jesus, from Abraham to Joseph and Mary. It felt right, just as the Genesis scenes felt right, and the prophets. It was so simple, so perfect.

The prophets came and went, and yet nothing changed. They spoke of the coming of the Messiah. Then Jesus came and went, and still nothing changed. Michelangelo could see he had to add another piece, on the double spandrels in the corners. Everything made sense now.

There was still much work to be done, but he was excited again. Thank God.

Michelangelo knelt to say a long prayer of gratitude. When he stood up he felt overwhelmed by his relief, and this moved him to take pen to paper to write a few lines.

He who made everything, first made each part,
and then from all chose the most beautiful
to demonstrate here his sublime creations,
as he has now done with his divine art.

Next: Ominous Trials (1)


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