Art: The Sistine Chapel has a secret

    Some readers may not even be aware that there is a lost code. Many would insist that what’s going on in the Sistine Chapel is pretty obvious. And some of it is. God’s up there, creating the universe and touching fingers, nearly, with Adam. Noah’s up there, the prophets are up there, the ancestors of Christ are up there, a group of assimilated pagan girls called the Sibyls are up there, all thoroughly Christianised. It’s the first few pages of the Bible, illustrated by a genius. No mystery there.

    Yet one of the most astonishing characteristics of the Sistine ceiling is what we might call its bottomlessness. You can look at it for decades, day in and day out, and always see something new. So, one afternoon, 20 years ago, I was in there, up on the scaffolding (the chapel was being restored), when I finally noticed the significance of Zechariah.

    Zechariah is counted officially among the Bible’s “minor” prophets. It’s an unfortunate literary adjective, denoting nothing more than the page numbers of his contributions. Zechariah simply didn’t write as much as Isaiah or Ezekiel or any of the “major” prophets. That doesn’t make him less important than them. Actually, as a fully qualified recent expert on the prophetic tradition in apocalyptic literature, I would argue that Zechariah might be the most significant of all the Bible’s instructors.

    He is above the door when you step into the Sistine Chapel, and is therefore the chapel’s official agenda-setter. The door I am thinking of is not, of course, that nasty little cave opening through which we all have to squeeze when we visit the modern Vatican. That is merely the plebs’ door. I’m thinking of the chapel’s proper door, at the other end, the one the Pope uses, the one that usually appears so fiercely locked, the huge, two-storey processional swing door that has always been the rightful entrance to the Sistine Chapel. That’s the door above which Zechariah sits, reads and frets.

    If you are leaving the Sistine Chapel through this door, you step, immediately, into the real Vatican, the one I’m interested in. Palatial and gloomy, with huge painted ceilings edged with gold, patrolled day and night by unsmiling Swiss mercenaries in clownishly ornate military stripes (originally designed by Michelangelo, they say), it’s on the other side of the door, a thickness of wood away. I find it amusing to stand before the fiercely locked door and know what is behind it.

    We are here to look the other way, however. The Sistine ceiling was painted to be seen from this entrance. That’s why its foreshortenings work the way they do. If you come in through here, the chapel assumes a tangibly different identity. It seems to rush forward towards the Last Judgment on the far wall, a chapel in a hurry. Canoeists approaching Niagara Falls must feel these sorts of sensations. “Powerless” would be one word for it.

    Also tangible is the sense of all this being part of Zechariah’s fantasy. In a room packed with imaginings — every single occupant of the Sistine ceiling seems to be worried about something — the power of perspective ensures that Zechariah’s frettings carry the furthest. It’s not just the fact that he is above the door, reading from his own work, that feels so agenda-setting. Anyone reading Zechariah with any sort of capacity for belief inside them must worry at what they learn from him. Zechariah is perhaps the most quietly sinister of the apocalyptic prophets, who predicted the end of the world, or, as he preferred it, the day of the Lord. I’m an atheist and no sort of Bible-reader by instinct. But Zechariah got to me. And it surprised me not one iota to learn, after two decades of trudging, how and why he got to the pope who built the Sistine Chapel, and to the pope who had it painted by Michelangelo.

    They were an uncle and his nephew. They came from the same family and sported the same name: della Rovere, which means “of the oak”. Francesco della Rovere built the chapel when he became Sixtus IV; Giuliano della Rovere brought in Michelangelo as Julius II. I mentioned the Branch Davidians of Waco in my own agenda-setting opening, above, and to cut to the chase, the theology that motivated the Branch Davidians and led directly to their mass demise — their apocalypse — was exactly the same theology that prompted the building and decorating of the Sistine Chapel. The Branch Davidians get to be a spooky millennial cult from Texas that the FBI attacks with tanks, leaving 80 or so dead, while the della Roveres get to be great Renaissance popes. In their visitors’ centre, the Branch Davidians display pathetic photographs of their dead colleagues. In the Sistine Chapel, the della Roveres display the greatest example of sustained painting genius that any human has so far managed.

    It was, of course, Zechariah who predicted the coming of a character called the Branch, who would rebuild the temple and prepare us for the end of the world. I’m not going to go into any sort of detail here about the Branch and his identity. It’s all in the film I have made about the chapel’s secret, but I was particularly delighted to track down the origins of the chapel’s funny shape — it has the basic outline of a treasure chest in a pirate movie — which was copied from an obscure Christian cartographer called Cosmas, whose chief claim to distinction is that he refused to accept that the earth was round. Cosmas insisted the earth was rectangular, and shaped, as it turned out, exactly like the Sistine Chapel. Am I saying that the popes who commissioned the ceiling and rigorously controlled its icon- ography were flat-earthers? You bet I am. And Michelangelo would certainly have painted what he was told to paint.

    This will surprise some. Nothing in my field — technically it’s art, but secretly I think of it as civilisation — is quite as daunting as Michelangelo. He’s Everest. He’s the Amazon. By most modern mea-sures of such matters, he qualifies as the Adam of his species and was the first artist. There will be plenty of readers disagreeing with this claim. How can I call Michel- angelo the first artist when at least 30,000 years’ worth of cave-daubers and marble-cutters came before him? Well, yes, he did have zillions of predecessors. But I am talking here of the artist not as the hunter-gatherers of Lascaux viewed him, but as we do. I’m talking about the artist as a sensational public figure to whom a huge and gaseous aura of mystery and significance has magically attached itself. I’m talking Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso and the production of enough parallel literature to sink Venice. I’m talking biopics. I’m talking Charlton Heston.

    Two gigantic forces combined to create the Michelangelo fantasy. One was nature, which made him what he was and gave him all that exceptional talent he wielded. And the other was the birth of printing. It was Michelangelo’s good fortune — though some will view it as a curse, given how annoying artistic reputations can be — to coincide with the spread across Italy of Gutenberg’s momentous invention. Michel- angelo was the first artist to have a bio-graphy published while he was still alive. In fact, two were written. And he used both to spread assorted snippets of disinformation about himself and his achievements. Like a lot of old men, he was grudging about sharing credit. And, frankly, he told a pack of lies about the painting of the Sistine ceiling, during which, he must, on the most basic level, have been following strict orders from someone else about what to include.

    The birth of printing was also a factor in the Sistine ceiling’s conception, and in its secret. In 1471, a couple of Gutenberg’s pupils — heroes to my eyes — Arnold Pannartz and Conrad Sweynheym, fetched up in Rome, where, in a poky palazzetto that is still standing, just, they laid the groundwork for the invention of the Branch. I’ll go anywhere to see a Sweynheym and Pannartz production. They gave us literature with a daunting physical beauty. The first book they published was a Bible, naturally: the usual Vulgate. Soon after came a set of biblical commentaries by a famed medieval interpreter called Nicholas de Lyra. De Lyra spoke Hebrew, the native language of the Old Testament. Zechariah’s language.

    All the volumes of de Lyra that Sweynheym and Pannartz published were dedicated ornately to Sixtus IV. Volume III was aimed also at Julius, whom Sixtus had made a cardinal. Volume III is the one with de Lyra’s commentaries on Zechariah. It is the volume that reveals that Zechariah’s Branch was the Messiah. I believe it was this volume that triggered the madness of the della Roveres. Something did.

    Both of them became papal tsunamis: building, commissioning, fighting, starting things. Sixtus, as we know, began the Inquisition and built so much more than the Sistine Chapel. Julius was infamous not just for knocking down St Peter’s and erecting a new one, but for putting on armour and marching to war. It was not behaviour envisaged of a pope. But it was exactly the behaviour you might expect of a messianic crackpot who thought he was the Branch and forced Michelangelo to fill the Sistine Chapel with painted proof of his biblical calling, which I have finally decoded. The next time you go into the Sistine Chapel, count how many painted oak trees are there. You’ll be counting for ever. No wonder the old Michelangelo chose to misremember what the young Michelangelo achieved.