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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
‘Miserere’ in the Sixtine Chapel
By Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875)
 
From ‘The Improvisatore’: Translation of Mary Howitt

ON Wednesday afternoon began the Miserere in the Sixtine Chapel. My soul longed for music; in the world of melody I could find sympathy and consolation. The throng was great, even within the chapel—the foremost division was already filled with ladies. Magnificent boxes, hung with velvet and golden draperies for royal personages and foreigners from various courts, were here erected so high that they looked out beyond the richly carved railing which separated the ladies from the interior of the chapel. The papal Swiss Guards stood in their bright festal array. The officers wore light armor, and in their helmets a waving plume…. The old cardinals entered in their magnificent scarlet velvet cloaks, with their white ermine capes, and seated themselves side by side in a great half-circle within the barrier, while the priests who had carried their trains seated themselves at their feet. By the little side door of the altar the holy father now entered, in his scarlet mantle and silver tiara. He ascended his throne. Bishops swung the vessels of incense around him, while young priests, in scarlet vestments, knelt, with lighted torches in their hands, before him and the high altar.  1
  The reading of the lessons began. But it was impossible to keep the eyes fixed on the lifeless letters of the Missal—they raised themselves, with the thoughts, to the vast universe which Michael Angelo has breathed forth in colors upon the ceiling and the walls. I contemplated his mighty sibyls and wondrously glorious prophets,—every one of them a subject for a painting. My eyes drank in the magnificent processions, the beautiful groups of angels; they were not, to me, painted pictures;—all stood living before me. The rich tree of knowledge, from which Eve gave the fruit to Adam; the Almighty God, who floated over the waters,—not borne up by angels, as the older masters had represented him—no, the company of angels rested upon him and his fluttering garments. It is true, I had seen these pictures before, but never as now had they seized upon me. My excited state of mind, the crowd of people, perhaps even the lyric of my thoughts, made me wonderfully alive to poetical impressions; and many a poet’s heart has felt as mine did!  2
  The bold foreshortenings, the determinate force with which every figure steps forward, is amazing, and carries one quite away! It is a spiritual Sermon on the Mount, in color and form. Like Raphael, we stand in astonishment before the power of Michael Angelo. Every prophet is a Moses, like that which he formed in marble. What giant forms are those which seize upon our eye and our thoughts as we enter! But when intoxicated with this view, let us turn our eyes to the background of the chapel, whose whole wall is a high altar of art and thought. The great chaotic picture, from the floor to the roof, shows itself there like a jewel, of which all the rest is only the setting. We see there the Last Judgment.  3
  Christ stands in judgment upon the clouds, and his Mother and the Apostles stretch forth their hands beseechingly for the poor human race. The dead raise the gravestones under which they have lain; blessed spirits adoring, float upward to God, while the abyss seizes its victims. Here one of the ascending spirits seeks to save his condemned brother, whom the abyss already embraces in its snaky folds. The children of despair strike their clenched fists upon their brows, and sink into the depths! In bold foreshortenings, float and tumble whole legions between heaven and earth. The sympathy of the angels, the expression of lovers who meet, the child that at the sound of the trumpet clings to the mother’s breast, are so natural and beautiful that one believes one’s self to be among those who are waiting for judgment. Michael Angelo has expressed in colors what Dante saw and has sung to the generations of the earth.  4
  The descending sun at that moment threw his last beams in through the uppermost window. Christ, and the blessed around him, were strongly lighted up; while the lower part, where the dead arose, and the demons thrust their boat laden with the damned from the shore, were almost in darkness.  5
  Just as the sun went down the last lesson was ended, the last light which now remained was extinguished, and the whole picture world vanished in the gloom from before me; but in that same moment burst forth music and singing. That which color had bodily revealed arose now in sound; the day of judgment, with its despair and its exultation, resounded above us.  6
  The father of the church, stripped of his papal pomp, stood before the altar, and prayed to the holy cross; and upon the wings of the trumpet resounded the trembling choir, ‘Populus meus quid feci tibi?’ Soft angel-tones rose above the deep song, tones which ascended not from a human breast: it was not a man’s nor a woman’s; it belonged to the world of spirits; it was like the weeping of angels dissolved in melody.  7
 
 
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