Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition is currently touring event centres across Europe and North America (including a stop in Toronto this spring), promising a “life-size, up-close, never-before-seen perspective” of one of the world’s most celebrated artworks, using high-definition photo technology that allows visitors to immerse themselves in the brush strokes and details of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni’s 34 frescoes, commissioned in the early 1500s by Pope Julius II for the Vatican’s papal chapel.
Perhaps it’s because most international travel halted during COVID-19, or the greater demand for Instagram-friendly experiences closer to home, but there has been a proliferation of these kind of arty spectacles in the past few years promising intimate access to iconic works by gallery-shop favourites such as Michelangelo, Frida Kahlo, and Vincent van Gogh. For my money, Jeannie Marshall’s second book, All Things Move: Learning to Look in the Sistine Chapel, is a better entry ticket not just to the frescoes themselves, but to a greater understanding of how humans interact – physically, emotionally, and intellectually – with works of art. It’s also a testament to quiet patience, and what we gain when we let go of preconceptions of how we are supposed to interact with an artwork of any medium or discipline.
The former National Post journalist has lived in Rome, Italy, with her family for more than 20 years, which gives the book a travelogue appeal provided by an insider’s view of daily life in the Eternal City. Despite its proximity, Marshall held off from visiting the Sistine Chapel for years, in part because of the jostling crowds of tourists, but also because she was concerned that this weighty symbol of Western culture and religious iconography would be a superficial, meaningless experience without any relevance to contemporary life.
Despite a couple of unpleasant first attempts, Marshall continued to sporadically visit the Sistine Chapel until she had that moment where she felt a connection to something larger than the work itself, and a realization that art didn’t have to be “universally appealing or approving” to inspire elation.
The book is divided into sections – each accompanied by photos taken by Douglas Anthony Cooper – that break down the paintings by segments of the ceiling and The Last Judgement with Marshall’s learnings. She provides enough context that she could get hired as a chapel tour guide, but uses this historical information as jumping-off points into deeper ideas.
All Things Move is a pleasure because Marshall is not an art historian by profession, so we get to follow along on her journey. She is a student of sorts, applying theories by the likes of established critics such as the late John Berger to her own experiences, addressing the challenges of translating art through words. “No one invented art; and no one invented language,” Marshall muses, “and yet we humans use it and bend it and twist it and change it to meet our needs.”
The book is at its strongest when Marshall abandons her journalistic instincts and gives way to poetic meditations, providing a thoughtful read for armchair art lovers, history buffs, and those who are just in the mood for a well-told story.