Michelangelo was primarily a sculptor par excellence. So when he was approached by Pope Julius II in 1506 and offered the commission to paint the Pope’s private chapel, he was hesitant to accept this responsibility. The pontiff was adamant. Michelangelo, unable to refuse the diktat, set about painting nine scenes from the Book of Genesis.
The dramatis personae were all depicted in their primeval splendour, every muscle, every sinew sending out paeans of glory to the perfection of the Creator. Instead of the accolades, ‘The Last Judgement’ was the cause of a dispute between Cardinal Carafa and Michelangelo. He was accused of immoral and intolerable obscenity, having depicted naked figures, genitalia et al. Thus a censorship campaign known as the “Fig Leaf Campaign” was organised by Carafa. Indeed the Pope’s own Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena said, “It was disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures exposing themselves so shamefully and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and taverns.” Michelangelo got back at da Cesena by painting him as Minos, judge of the underworld! It is said that when da Cesena complained to the Pope, the pontiff brushed him aside, saying that his jurisdiction did not extend to hell, so the portrait would have to remain. The genitalia in the frescoes were later covered by the artist Daniele da Volterra, who earned the derogatory nickname…Il Braghettone or the breeches painter!
Of course all these absurdities are relegated to history and today the very thought of tampering with the perfection of the human form as depicted by a great artist is sacrilegious. Husain sahib might have to wait a while for sanity to prevail in this land, but in his masterful brushstrokes, his vast canvas becomes a metaphor for the exquisite chiaroscuro of life. And along with his illustrious fore-runners his place is ensured in the galaxy of the immortals.