In Sistine Condition; SATURDAY CHOICE

The Evening Standard (London, England), May 20, 2005 | Go to article overview

In Sistine Condition; SATURDAY CHOICE


Byline: IMOGEN RIDGWAY

SATURDAY CHOICE

The Michelangelo Code: Secrets of the Sistine Chapel 7.10pm, Channel 4

RIGHT, then - the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: what springs to mind? Those big fingers from the title sequence to the South Bank Show? A long queue to get in? Michelangelo lying on his back for four years in order to paint it?

Ah- perhaps not.

Apparently, the artist didn't spend 48 months prostrate with a paintbrush, as is often thought.

And that's not the only way the Vatican City's tourist attraction differs from expectations, according to art expert Waldemar Januszczak (right).

He should know. He has spent a great deal of the past 30 years researching the artwork on the chapel ceiling, trying to establish what is really being said by Michelangelo's sumptuous creation - or, as Januszczak calls it, "a football pitch of unforgettable images stretching away in all directions".

(For a start, it was designed to be seen as visitors came through the main entrance that is now reserved for the Pope, so tourists entering by the small door at the back of the hall see it the wrong way round.) In this one-off film, being broadcast to mark the 500th birthday of the Sistine ceiling, Januszczak travels around Europe and examines historical documents in order to discover what the famous artwork actually means. He also visits America, because he believes that the messages on the ceiling can be linked to the US religious-cult siege in Waco in 1993.

Januszczak's research takes him back to 15th-century Italy and the influential della Rovere family, who believed they were a vital part of history - so much so, that when one of them became pope, he commissioned the Sistine Chapel and promoted all sorts of relatives to high-ranking religious positions.

The next pope in the family commissioned the ceiling, which apparently reflects the role of the della Roveres in a part of scripture that foretells the end of the world.

This is interesting stuff, and obviously titled in order to attract da Vinci Code fans. But why couldn't Januszczak's work have been presented as a multi-part series, rather than one brain-melting, two-hour extravaganza?

After all, his film is the distillation of three decades of research.

Has Channel 4 given up on the idea of making series about art or history?

Recent highbrow films about British architecture, Impressionism and The Princes in the Tower have all weighed in at two hours.

Surely if we are interested in watching a programme about an intellectually challenging subject, we also have the brain capacity to follow a whole series.

* Subjects ranging from Cezanne to the Simpsons form the specialist round of Junior Mastermind: the Grand Final (5.30pm, BBC1). More fun than the actual questions, though, are the filmed inserts where we see what the little swots get up to when they are not reading and learning. Sam, who answers questions on the House of Stuart, goes to Westminster Abbey, where he tells us that the Stuarts were "pretty pathetic, actually".

* Brilliant Manchester police series Conviction (9pm, BBC2) gets even more complicated when Chrissie the copper's girlfriend, Jemma, asks him why he went for a walk and ate chips with the mother of the former prime suspect in the child-murder case. …

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