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A Sistine Chapel for Our Time

“Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.” — Johann Wolfgang Goethe, 23 August 1787 —

I must confess that I felt no such awe when I first saw the Sistine Chapel, sometime in the seventies. By the time I reached it I was furious, having come from the Vatican Art Museum where I saw works of art that had been plundered but were exhibited as trophies to the glory of the Holy See. The Chapel did nothing to restore my capacity for awe. I giggled at Adam in limp-wristed lassitude, reluctant to receive God’s touch; at God swooping toward him in a conveyance that looks like a cutaway section of a body organ. Feeling suffocated by the reverence of the craning necks on all sides of me, I beat a quick retreat.

That awe I’d hoped for all those years ago permeated my body last month at Milan’s Pirelli HangarBicocca, a converted 15,000 sqm industrial space that houses a permanent installation, Anselm Kiefer’s site-specific work, The Seven Heavenly Palaces 2004 – 2015.

First, one approaches the building alongside a garden, its formal composition a counterpart to the waving informality of ornamental grasses, the whole feeling alive, texturally compelling, crunchy green and golden stalks, clearly a work in its own right.



After passing through halls for several temporary exhibitions, one enters the cavernous space of the Kiefer.


The towers are made of shipping containers reinforced with concrete. Immense, they too ask for neck-craning, but here they seem to teeter. The floor is strewn with debris. The paintings alongside them are neither in conversation nor in isolation, but are instead a counterpart that doesn’t ask for interpretation but rather for the open-mouthed, heart-soaring, shaken-to-the-core reception of encountering a great and mysterious work of art.


The towers echo among themselves, sentinels far too unstable in their own right to be guarding much of anything, and yet as monolithic and unshakeable and gap-toothed as a contemporary Stonehenge. Again, a viewer cannot settle; there is no one story. The space feels layered with history, myth, and personal vision, compositionally cohering but resistant to analysis.


One peers into the gaps — doors, windows, blankness? — and sees nothing that makes any sense, except perhaps as rubble of bombed-out buildings.


The scales in one painting are real in that they are physical objects breaking out from the surface, hanging in front of the viewer, emblems of magisterial, inexorable and unbalanced justice (or injustice) awaiting us.


The towers spread around us, a city, and yet when one turns right, to the far end of the space, they seem to be leading to one painting, holding down one wall by itself, end-stopped.


About Michelangelo’s frescoes in The Sistine Chapel, Giorgio Vasari wrote, “This work has been and truly is a beacon of our art, and it has brought such benefit and enlightenment to the art of painting that it was sufficient to illuminate a world which for so many hundreds of years had remained in the state of darkness.”

It is no longer sufficient to illuminate a world. We are returning to the state of darkness. As Kiefer does, we must find ways to image that world in all its light and darkness, and then stand inside those images, knowing ourselves to be the children of sublimity and sadness, makers and receivers of both.


© 2016 All photographs by Janet Sternburg




  1. Janet,
    When I started reading this and I was getting ready to get my tickets to Milan, but by the time I looked and read it through, I felt you took me there. Thank you!

  2. That final paragraph feels like a call to attention for all of us. thank you.

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