The 53rd Gallery of the Vatican Museum

Everyone’s hearts were pounding around me as we all ventured onward.

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When my parents took me to Rome for the first time, I was 11 years old.  That was the first time I saw the Sistine Chapel.  Aside from the Creation of Adam, I remember most notably, the crowded, dim space and the guards ordering us to “Shhhhhhhh” every three minutes.  Why weren’t people allowed to talk? I wondered.

When I found myself in Rome again in my 20s, I was traveling solo and anxious to revisit the Sistine Chapel.  My parents weren’t there to plan out my itinerary this time around, so from my hostel, I searched on my iPhone how to go about planning a visit to the Sistine Chapel.  I had to go through the Vatican Museum.  Hmm, I don’t recall there being a Vatican Museum…

My intention was to spend at least an hour and a half in the Sistine Chapel, just to soak in every inch of the walls and ceiling from the perspective of… an appreciator of art.  At this point in my 3.5 weeks in my Europe, I was adept at reading maps and following signs.  Every new city and every new museum I entered, I made it a point to grab a map and get my bearings with the surroundings.  So now, which way was The Sistine Chapel?

I looked for signs all over that would direct me to the Chapel.  Once I’d found the right direction, I assumed the Sistine Chapel would not be too far away.  I was wrong about this, and for the record, so was everyone else.  You could sense it.

I followed signs for the Sistine Chapel all afternoon, as did everyone else.  They completely designed the museum, so that you absolutely must pass through every collection — all 53 salas (or gallerias) — before arriving at the Sistine Chapel.  I couldn’t remember any of these collections that I had apparently passed through as a child.  After each sala, I could feel the Sistine Chapel getting closer and closer as if it were the one approaching me.  The suspense grew thicker and thicker.  Everyone’s hearts were pounding around me, as we all ventured onward.

The signs took me down a seemingly secluded staircase.  I walked down, and as I approached the bottom of the stairwell, I heard music.  At the bottom, I turned the corner and was face to face with… an exhibition of contemporary impressionist art.  What?  Featured in particularly was Henri Matisse.  Had I not visited Musee D’Orsay on my last day in Paris, I think I would have kept walking with a Sistine Chapel or Bust mantra.  I saw many other museum goers doing this.  They barely even glanced at the (I’m just going to say it…) random exhibition of contemporary art.  I stopped though.  The music and the timeline of Henri Matisse’s life had lured me in somehow.  I read every (English) word in the description of Matisse’s upbringing and training, still perplexed by the fact that I was reading it in the Vatican Museum.

After reading, I came to an image that instantaneously caused a flood of tears to flow from my eyes.  It was the simplest impressionist sketch (not even a painting) of the Virgin Mary & Baby Jesus.  Forgive me, I did not end up taking a photo of it, but I came across this picture of it on Google images:

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La Vierge a l’Enfant, Henri Matisse (source: Sulekha.com)

Most likely under the influence of the music, I was so moved by this masterpiece.  I had been walking past and viewing masterpieces all day; most of them commissioned by the popes of Vatican past.  The extensive collection of religious art told stories from the Bible and of the history of the Catholic Church.  The interpretations of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus varied by artist and form, but they all told the same story.  Hundreds of years after the Renaissance, hundreds of impressionist and realist works later, there was something about the relationship between Mary and Jesus that caused Henri Matisse to create his piece.

Coming across this exhibit — this completely unexpected and final pre-requisite to the Sistine Chapel — reminded me that art can be retold in many forms.  It can be interpreted over and over again, and it will always be considered art.

Keep creating, all.

Some works of art from my visits to Paris and Rome influenced by the Virgin Mary and her Son…

Pieta at St Peter’s Basilica, Rome
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Mother & Child ceiling art in Norte Dame Cathedral, Paris:
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Mother and Child in le Lourve, Paris:
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