Earthly gossip and heavenly voices

ss04242015p05pha.jpgMICHELANGELO AND THE POPE'S CEILING
By Ross King
Published by Bloomsbury, $18

Goats grazed on the Capitoline Hill. Vegetables grew in the Circus Maximus. Sewage floated in the Tiber. The Papal Schism (1378-1417), when rival popes had ruled from Rome and Avignon, France, had eroded the moral authority of the papacy. And the Sistine Chapel was falling apart. With its cracked walls, mildew, peeling paint and structural failures, this architectural gem was in serious disrepair. As Ross King puts it in this richly detailed -- if gossipy -- history recently published in paperback: "The city was a vast ruin."

Focusing on the four years (1508-12) that Michelangelo spent painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, King tells the vibrant story of two of the most difficult personalities in art and religious history. He drives his narrative with many colorful details, which, while they bring the story alive, can make the action hard to follow.

Pope Julius II (1503-13), who had an eye for beauty as well as a vile temper, insisted on hiring Michelangelo to work on the Sistine ceiling. But how could he get the 16th century's most talented artist, the creator of David and the Pieta, to fresco the ceiling when Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor -- not a painter?

Besides, Michelangelo, distrustful, intolerant, temperamental, and in his own way as difficult a personality as Julius, was furious with the pope. Julius had commissioned him to sculpt the magnificence that would be Julius' tomb. But, as King describes it, when the time came to pay for the 90 wagonloads of the finest blocks of white marble, Julius disappeared.

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As it turned out, there wasn't enough money to finance both a tomb and extensive repairs on the Sistine Chapel. And Julius had decided that the chapel had to come first.

In addition, King says, Julius was not someone you refused. Known as the "dreadful" pope, he had a reputation for violent rages. When his purpose was to "ensure the power and glory of the papacy," even a star like Michelangelo could not turn him down.

King tells all, including Julius' private life (four daughters and several mistresses); his selling indulgences and papal offices; how to make and where to buy the best pigments; insider gossip (Michelangelo thought he was being set up to fail since he wasn't a painter); and Michelangelo's true inspiration (the fire-and-brimstone sermons of Girolamo Savonarola, who was hung as a heretic).

Ultimately, after all the trouble between Michelangelo and Julius, most everyone agreed that the Sistine ceiling was a masterpiece and that Michelangelo was the greatest artist who ever lived.

One dissenter was the scholarly Pope Hadrian VI (1522-23), who disdained to celebrate Mass beneath Michelangelo's images. He considered them more appropriate to a bathhouse than to a chapel and planned to destroy the frescoes. Fortunately, he died before he could do any such thing.

ss04242015p05phb_0.jpgTHE SMILE OF A RAGPICKER: THE LIFE OF SATOKO KITAHARA -- CONVERT AND SERVANT OF THE SLUMS OF TOKYO
By Paul Glynn, SM
Published by Ignatius Press, $16.95

Why would a Japanese laywoman like Satoko Kitahara take the Gospel message so seriously? Kitahara (1929-58) converted to Catholicism from the Shinto religion of her wealthy parents and moved to a homeless encampment in Ants Town, a seedy section of Tokyo, to minister to the poor.

Marianist Fr. Paul Glynn's informative biography, first published in 1992, tells the remarkable story of this little-known woman.

A college graduate, she spoke several languages, played the piano, and had a degree in pharmacy. Rather than use her credentials to make a name for herself, she opened a school for poor children -- all because she believed Jesus Christ meant it when he said to give everything away and come follow him.

Kitahara died in Ants Town from complications of tuberculosis at age 28. On Jan. 23, 1958, more than 600 people attended her funeral Mass. On Jan. 22, 2015, Pope Francis started Kitahara on the road to sainthood, naming her a servant of God.

According to Glynn (who was a missionary in Japan), Kitahara "got" Christ because his story and his message are similar to that of Eastern spiritual traditions. Among other things, she felt connected to the poetry of Basho and the Japanese concept of wabi, the idea that one can experience beauty even in desolate conditions.

Glynn adds context to this biography with discussions of Japanese history, culture and literature. Although somewhat discursive, his comments help readers understand the motivation of a woman who was a near-perfect blend of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions and, as such, a ready receptacle for grace.

ss04242015p05phc.jpgJOAN OF ARC: A LIFE TRANSFIGURED
By Kathryn Harrison
Published by Doubleday, $28.95

She said she saw visions and heard voices that directed her actions. No one knows if she did. What is known is that in the 15th century, Joan of Arc led an army that turned the tide of battle during the Hundred Years War. And she was only 17 years old.

Now Kathryn Harrison, novelist, memoirist and biographer, weaves together threads of Joan's story -- both actual and invented. She gathers material from cultural, historical and literary records, including quotes from filmmakers, composers, playwrights, novelists and poets. Although somewhat overwritten, Harrison's version enhances the tale of Joan's extraordinary life.

Creative nonfiction with the emphasis on creative, Harrison's "biography" unfolds in chronological order, beginning with Joan's birth in Domrémy in 1412 (possibly on Jan. 6) and ending with her canonization in 1920.

Most of the documents that pertain to Joan's life -- including her portraits -- were destroyed when she was executed for heresy at age 19 in 1431. Twenty-five years later, her condemnation was nullified. But the damage was already done.

Harrison centers her account on the fact (or fiction) that Joan heard heavenly voices and that those voices were catalysts for Joan's success.

Harrison doesn't side for or against the authenticity of those voices. But the poetic way she presents Joan's life lets the voices speak for themselves: One feels that the voices are true, if not literally then metaphorically -- or perhaps a little of both.

Harrison does side against the 15th-century Catholic church with its misogynistic attitude and its tendency toward "reflexive revisionism." But her bias doesn't detract from the book so much as it causes readers to sympathize with Joan, who, after all, believed herself to be the beloved of God.

[Diane Scharper teaches the writing of memoir at Towson University.]

This story appeared in the April 24-May 7, 2015 print issue under the headline: Earthly gossip and heavenly voices .

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