By Marco della Cava
ROME - As polling stations go, it's thene plus ultra.
When 115 Catholic cardinals parade into the Vatican's fabled Sistine Chapel on Tuesday to begin voting for the next pope, they'll be surrounded by priceless art that 5 million tourists a year pay $20 each to ogle, necks craned and jaws slack.
But the scenes surrounding the cardinals - exploding in newly vibrant Renaissance hues thanks to a series of restorations - represent far more than just deft masterworks from Michelangelo, Botticelli and Perugino.
Instead, the images of God, man, salvation and judgment are nothing less than marching orders from on high, historians say, visual reminders of both God's beneficence and the cardinals' own need to choose a worthy successor to St. Peter, the first pontiff. Imagine members of Congress voting while surrounded by stirring representations of the war for independence and you get the picture.
"Those walls tell the cardinals their decision isn't only for right here and now, but for the larger mission of, as Cardinal (Timothy) Dolan put it to me, getting souls into heaven," says Elizabeth Lev, Rome-based professor of Christian and sacred art at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Last week, she was a guest on the gregarious New York cardinal's SiriusXM radio show from the Eternal City.
"The best work in that chapel is all about seeing the big picture," she says. "And the cardinals know the church has to be about the big picture."
Neither the 15thcentury chapel nor its subsequent art was commissioned strictly with a papal conclave in mind. For centuries, pope were elected in a series of locations, while the Sistine Chapel - named after its benefactor, Pope Sixtus IV - was used primarily for the holiest of masses.
But beginning in the 1850s, the chapel took up its now familiar role as conclave central, which today features electronic sweeps for bugging devices and Wi-Fi jamming technology to keep the four daily votes shrouded in secrecy.
Those modern considerations aside, what doesn't change are the views facing the cardinals as they mull, pray and vote in deliberate silence. The Sistine Chapel's frescos - Italian for painting on fresh, or "fresco," plaster - depict the lives of Jesus (north wall) and Moses (south wall), the final judgment (back wall) and, most famously, Michelangelo's scenes from Genesis starring the creation of man (ceiling).
"The Vatican has plenty of places where large groups can gather, but the cardinals know that in the Sistine Chapel they're in the right place to make a monumental decision," says John Thavis, a veteran Vatican reporter and author ofThe Vatican Diaries. "They're not looking a nice decoration. They're looking at illustrations of the history of salvation."
Thavis says many a cardinal has told him the same thing, that "the Holy Spirit is at work in that room. And it's no coincidence that when each man walks up to deliver his vote, he's looking at Michelangelo's Last Judgment. They're keenly aware not just of the responsibility that vote carries, but that in the end we will all be judged."
None other than John Paul II was so taken by the 40-by 140-foot chapel and its impact on the conclave - Latin for "with key," a reference to the cardinals being literally locked inside while voting - that he penned a lavish ode to the building in 2003. The second work in his poetic trilogy,Roman Triptych, is called "Meditations on the Book of Genesis at the Threshold of the Sistine Chapel."
In it, the late pope wrote: "It is necessary that during the Conclave, Michelangelo teach them - Do not forget:Omnia nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos Eius" ("All things are naked and open before His eyes").
Michelangelo's nude figures - most notably a herculean man with his finger outstretched toward a robed God - are meant partly as a symbol of the creation's nakedness before the creator, but perhaps more significantly in the context of the conclave it's interpreted "by the cardinals as clarity and transparency," says historian Lev. "Put another way, it's saying that God will see the vote."
Another theme hammered home by the chapel's blanketing art is the church's long legacy, a gentle reminder to the cardinals entering that room next week they are just the latest players in a still-evolving drama of faith.
"You've got biblical stories, you've got portraits of famous popes, and most importantly you have that critical legacy of laws being passed down to Moses and then from Christ to Peter," says Ralf van Buhren, professor of art history at Rome's Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. "The frescos are evidence of not only great art, but also deep faith."
For van Buhren, the Sistine Chapel is far more than a place to get a sore neck while wondering how Michelangelo didn't go crazy during his four years on the job. It is in fact, thanks to its recurring role in the election of each new pope, simply put one of the most important buildings in the world.
"Think about it," he says. "Beyond the amazingly beautiful works, it is a place where people gather to elect a man who represents God on earth. So it is a church filled with art and political history on a huge scale. There is nothing else like it."