No photo? No problem!
“No photo!” men in dark blue suits said with booming voices. Stationed in the corners, they seemed irritated; reminders on the ban on taking pictures and videos were posted at the entrance of the naturally lit, frescoed room, after all. The instruction seemed to hinder such a scene from staying alive in one’s memories. But was it about keeping it in a device that was more or less petty? Of course, some persisted and found ways to take that elusive photo. In this case, I thought, taking photos merely made for a synthetic reproduction of what is real.
The Sistine Chapel was packed with people from all over the world on that sunny afternoon. Tour groups scattered as time was allotted for looking at the works of Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists like Botticelli. The noise grew louder as people emerged from a doorway on the side of the altar adorned by a crucifix and backed by Michelangelo’s colossal “Last Judgment.” The personnel sounded a vehement “Shhhhhh!” Come to think of it, one might as well be silenced out of awe (or even exhaustion). Nevertheless, excitement filled the room; various thoughts spurted from one side to the other. “Shhhhhh!” “No photo! No video!”
According to our tour guide, photography is discouraged in the Sistine Chapel because of preservation procedures. I surmised it may be for the preservation not only of the artworks themselves, but also of the ambiance.
Almost perfunctorily, “No photo!” shot from the mouths of the personnel and drilled through my ears; it was beginning to annoy me, and perhaps also my sister, who grumbled about the obstinacy of others. But the disturbance led me to an unexpected epiphany. The thought underlying the reminders, it seemed, went beyond the act of documenting the event. The paradox, I realized, lay in how our experiences ought to be cherished in the same way magnificent works of art are.
The word “fresco” came early on. Besides it being a painting style, it literally means “fresh,” and I was far from being that. My legs were beat and my back was longing for that comfy bed I left hours ago. My neck, despite the strain, rotated and bent, almost like an acrobat. My eyes were wide open, gazing at the sculpture-like figures above, and my mouth was agape, helplessly mouthing “wow” from time to time. Countless things have happened in this room ever since its conception — that’s a lot of history in one enclosure.
I found a vacancy at the side and took a seat. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and Michelangelo was up on the scaffolding, facing the ceiling, fostering a strength out of his anxiety, bringing the biblical Creation Story to life. Masses were held in solemnity. Cardinals were sternly deciding on who to head the Church. “Nooo phoooto!”
I looked at the floor and remembered: “Ah, Cosmati.” The term refers to a Roman family that specialized in the craft of geometric mosaics — also known as Cosmatesque style. Back then it was necessary in churches, especially in Rome, because pews were not yet a trend; people had to sit on the floor during Mass. Intricately designed, it is stepped upon—almost ignored—by many so they can look at the kaleidoscopic sky of characters and colors above. Forgive my imagination, but if the floor would be taken away, the whole ground might as well just cave in to the depths of who knows what.
Clearly, all elements in the Sistine Chapel are what make it what it is today. Hence, if one part, however small, is taken away, it would be incomplete. Like life: If an encounter is cut off, it would take a toll on the future, making it somewhat incomplete—just think of the butterfly effect. “Nooo phoooto!”
When a picture we took of something somewhere or sometime is viewed, the thought of how empty it is compared to actually experiencing it shows how great a chasm there is. We must, therefore, fill the gap with timelessness. Indeed, experiences are too precious to replace (or to tarnish) with a photo—worse, a video.
I’d like to think that memories show up as they find meaning in our lives, at the right moment. We often dwell on trifles and sentimentalize them, because of an immediate — or, rather, compulsive — reminder in our devices. We call ourselves tourists, pilgrims, yet we never learn how to travel light, to bring only what is necessary for the trip, or, in this case, tour. In other words, detachment is key. Well, unless it is necessary — that is to say, for a noble cause — to document anything for the purpose of study or dissemination, why not? Until then, “No photo! No video!”
All throughout the walks among the treasures of Vatican City (in the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, Saint Peter’s Basilica, etc.), I was rather comforted by the thought of what had happened earlier in the day. It was a relatively hot morning, and my family and I were a train ride and some blocks away from Vatican City. We were in one of the four major papal basilicas of Rome—the splendid Santa Maria Maggiore. A discussion amid the immense beauty of the interior eventually led to the Sistine Chapel. An English companion enthusiastically expressed how her and her husband’s visit to the chapel fared, adding: “Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed.” My father tapped his chest and said, “We keep it in the heart.” “Oh, yes.”
Sister Emanuela — our outstanding guide, who explained the Cosmati tiles — told us the story of a painting found in the middle of the altar of the Borghese Chapel, the “Salus Populi Romani” (Salvation of the Roman People). It is an image of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus painted by “Saint Luke himself.” I was entranced. Saint Luke himself? Those are millennia of history right there. It was as if the synoptist said, “Yup, that’s right. I did that,” touching his quill to my spine. This is amazing, I thought. I stared, starry-eyed, then glanced to the side and saw a sign scream the prohibition of photography in that chapel bound by artful grills: “NO PHOTO/NO VIDEO.”
It was my (family’s) first time in such places. There were so many archaeological and historical treasures scattered all over it truly made the heart race. Overwhelming as they were, it never occurred to me to catch them all. As such, one might not be able to capture all rare moments for the world to see. But in visiting places or experiencing things, it is not so much that we were there as that it will always be there, ingrained in our hearts.
In this hunt of a tour, I discovered the greatest treasures. They are stored not in an edifice, or in a wooden chest, but in a chest of flesh. It contains a compartment that holds the world’s most priceless things, which are then circulated through every part of our being, sustaining us for what is to come. It is where memories are kept dear, where knowledge and wisdom abound, creating what we call life.
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Jose Martin V. Singh, 18, is an incoming third year history student at the University of Santo Tomas.
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