I move away from the guide-lady. I've already had a row with her, anyway. I asked her if she'd seen i Prigioni in the Accademia in Florence, surely the most powerful sculpture in existence. It is thirteen years since I stood in front of them, but I hear their whispering still. It is possible to fall in love with a statue. Anyway, she told me, yes, she'd seen them; they represented Michelangelo's belief that to get close to God, you have to chip away at all the unnecessary stuff of your existence, until all that's left is perfection, rising from the dust. I thought this was nonsense and told her so. I don't know how you can look at Michelangelo's statues and think about God. I look at them, and I think about Man. Walking away from my group I can hear the guide gleefully pointing at a picture of Plato and Socrates: They are in limbo! Limbo! and I'm thinking Don't you dare diss my heroes and pull the earpiece and her voice from my head, thinking, as usual, that Forster was right (I abhor Baedeker. If it were up to me every copy would be flung into the Arno). I enter the Sistine Chapel.
You come to see the iconic South Bank Show ceiling, but God touching Adam is a bit disappointing, a bit lost in the wonder of the whole. Being in the chapel, uncrowded, silent, on a dark winter's late afternoon, what struck me, what I kept returning to, what in the end I had to sit down and gaze upon for an hour, is the back wall, Michelangelo's Last Judgement, or, better, how my Italian friends described it: Armageddon.
The claustrophobic nature of the chapel means you tend to rotate your body with your head pointing upwards. This magnifies the swirl of the Last Judgement painting, whose narrative arc is determinedly circular. All those souls in a whirpool of judgement. Even the Virgin appears to cower somewhat in front of the God. Andrew Marvell's poem has always given me comfort: But at my back I always hear/ Time's winged chariot rushing near/ And yonder all before us lie/ Deserts of vast eternity. Just get on with life, because worms will be eating you soon enough (perhaps a follow-up slogan for the atheist bus campaign?). Today, and in the light of the Armageddon wall, it gives pause. Where is this desert of vast eternity?
Without a Godly bone in my body, I think I can understand the desire for judgement, or, rather, the desire to be judged, made plain by the picture. I find judgement nearly impossible. To say of a fellow human being: I judge you fairly and find you wanting strikes me as one of the hardest statements to be made by a man, if made with honesty. Andrew Lilico, in the recent debate about abortion, suggested that I was claiming this as a virtue. I was not; but I find not much less virtuous a rush to judgement accompanied by self-generated feelings of certainty.
Think of the bigger picture, we are often urged. I've always detested the phrase. I don't believe, for human beings, that there is a bigger picture than that which your eyes can see. There's an irony there, because it's as I'm gazing at Michelangelo's biggest of pictures, even as it is taking my breath away in wonder, that this thought finally crystalises in my head. I don't believe in God, but I do believe that only a God could see the bigger picture. Regardless of His existence, leaving aside those of our fellows who feel they have a direct line to His insight, none of us can see the bigger picture. We have to make do with the fragments which appear in front of us, and perform inference (Why did he do that? What made her unhappy? How have I let this person down?) as best as we can. Inference is a good thing. But it would be foolish, it would be a foolish man indeed, who believed that his inference was an exact representation of that Bigger Picture which exists, properly (and platonically?) forever out of our reach. Act, yes. But never act without acknowledgement of doubt.
I'm sorry to mention politics, in a way. But failure to doubt is one of the hallmarks of our failing government and one of its least appealing attributes. We won't have anything as terrible as Michelangelo's Last Judgement come polling day, of course, thank goodness. But a judgement will be made, the resultant vector, composed of the sum of all our votes, acting as surrogate for that external arbiter. The bigger picture will be glimpsed through the addition of lots of small, local acts.
A line from a song I love: I was puzzled by a dream, that stayed with me all day ... I woke in the early hours, trying to scream, trying to force my jaws apart so that I could call out for help. I could feel the Bad Thing's talon, tapping on my back, could see the bedroom in front of me sliding away into the distance, dissolving ... a portent of death, I should think. Deserts of vast eternity, indeed.