The Sistine Chapel is a highlight for visitors at Vatican City in Rome, Italy. Located adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica, the relatively small chapel attracts thousands of tourists who wish to get a glance at its frescoes especially the ones painted by the renowned medieval artisan, Michelangelo, from the years 1508 to 1512.
In a time where there was no radio, television, Internet, or magazines, frescoes, sculptures, and paintings served as the media of imagery in Europe. For the not-so-wealthy people, the artworks were mostly found in churches. People who entered a medieval church would be awed by the masterpieces painted on the walls and ceilings of churches and chapels.
The beauty of medieval art in churches is that the message they convey is timeless. Even in the 21st century, gazing at the painted ceiling and walls of a church built during medieval times, such as those found in the Sistine Chapel, one still sees the message. One sees how each panel’s small picture connects to its counterparts to form a very big picture of a religious teaching.
Most frescoes in medieval churches told stories from the Bible. A row of frescoes painted side by side in a row for example may tell the story of Christmas. Another would narrate the story of the Crucifixion. The aim was to supplement the teachings the priest would preach from the pulpit.
And it worked successfully. The Roman Catholic Church became the dominant religious (and even political) authority through most of the medieval ages. The Church’s faithful followers flocked to the churches. All were awed by the frescoes, housed in church buildings with ornate architecture and complemented with sculptures.
Fast forward to the 21st century, where exposure to media is everywhere. Streaming videos, podcasts, social media posts on top of traditional radio and television programming besiege our smart-phones, tablets, and desktop computers. Media imagery is virtually available to our senses with or without our permission.
The frescoes and artwork of the medieval churches have long lost their monopoly of people’s attention. But even today, they still attract thousands of tourists who continue to be awed by the timeless masterpieces and the common message they convey. The Roman Catholic Church, despite the competition of the Information Age, still manages to flourish thanks partly to the preserved artwork in their old but sturdy medieval churches.
The frescoes of the Sistine Chapel and those in other Catholic churches teaches us a valuable lesson about conveying a message. One best way to communicate a message is to tell a story. And when telling the story, a good way to do so is via small pictures that altogether form a bigger picture.
And when drawing a picture, make it a masterpiece.
Catholic Church leaders in the medieval ages engaged the best masters of art. Aside from hiring Michelangelo, who was considered one of the best, if not the best, artisan at the time, Church leaders also engaged architects and other famous painters (e.g. Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, and Cosimo Rosselli) together with their teams to design the interior of the Sistine Chapel and paint the walls and ceilings which weren’t included in Michelangelo’s scope of work.
Hiring Michelangelo and other famous painters immediately brought reputation to the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. It added to the attraction which brought many to visit the chapel and admire the frescoes even to the present-day.
The masterpieces of the frescoes were both influential and innovative in that they told stories via pictures and they told stories from artisans who had a far and wide reputation of making great art.
So, not only did the Catholic Church send their message by telling a story and making masterpieces. The Church also told their story via the influential and highly reputable masters of art whose works everyone wanted to see. Not only the Sistine Chapel but also many medieval churches conveyed the Catholic Church’s message via frescoes and supporting art and architecture throughout cities and small villages in Europe. It was a successful strategy in marketing, one that helped prop the Catholic Church as the largest religious institution through the centuries.
- Tell a story;
- Do it by small pictures that together form a big picture;
- Make each picture a masterpiece;
- Get someone talented and influential to make the masterpiece;
- Duplicate it at different locations.
That’s how the Church of medieval times conveyed her message. And it worked.