I sat on a bench under the most famous ceiling in the world. My camera sat on my lap under my hat, hiding from the guards. I stared at the Creation of Adam high above the 130-foot long Sistine Chapel. A white-bearded god surrounded by nude figures and a swirling cloak reached out to Adam’s outstretched hand, fingers almost touching.
A crowd of tourists waddled around with their heads tilted back and mouths open like penguins feeding at the zoo. Their volume ebbed and flowed. From a whisper, it grew toward crescendo until a guard would yell, "Be quiet!" and send their volume back to a whisper. Immediately, it began to swell again, repeating the cycle indefinitely.
Another guard noticed a man with a camera. “No photography!” echoed from across the room. The man continued taking pictures.
“No photography!” the guard yelled even louder while stepping closer.
“Come on dude, don’t you see all the no photography signs?” I thought while hiding my camera under my hat, waiting for an opportunity to sneak a picture.
I watched as a different guard spotted another infraction. He puffed up his chest and stormed over. The tourist moseyed around staring at the ceiling and grinning, unaware he was committing a heinous crime. The guard walked up to him with his arms bowed out like his lats were suddenly too bulky to lay them flat and stood inches from the man's face like a boxer sizing up an opponent. The tourist's expression went from obliviously delighted to thoroughly confused. The guard stared into his eyes for a couple more seconds then grumbled, "Take off that hat,” in a overtly masculine voice.
When nobody was looking, I took a quick flash-less photo. The photography ban started when the Vatican sold the photography rights to a corporation for funding the ceiling's $3 million restoration. From the looks of the place, I imagine they could have found that much money in the Vatican sofa cushions, so I didn't feel any guilt.
I got up and strolled around staring at each section individually. I didn't want to miss anything or walk away feeling like I didn’t give enough time to this rare moment in my life. I found the scale of it more impressive than anything. Without an art history education, I ignorantly looked for symbolism in the position of the bodies and inanimate objects. Did the robes around the white-bearded god resemble a brain on purpose?
"No sitting!" a guard yelled to a girl contemplating the ceiling while sitting on an altar step.
For some naive reason, I expected the Sistine Chapel to feel like a holy place, like the many empty and unlocked chapels I stopped in while walking across Ireland, a quiet peaceful space to sit and contemplate Michelangelo’s great masterpiece. Unfortunately, it felt about as holy as an art museum built inside prison walls. I left feeling like I was born a few centuries too late to see the Sistine Chapel properly.
If you do decide to pop in for a visit, my advice is to treat it like the Mona Lisa, a great work of art that people all over the world flock to go see. Not a place for quiet contemplation, but still a necessity on everyone's bucket list.