On greatness

Pope Julius II chose this day in 1512 to display Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for the first time. “We cannot know what a human being can achieve,” Goethe wrote, “until we have seen [the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel].” Calling Michelangelo’s work great is inadequate praise. Words don’t suffice; mute awe is a more appropriate response. There is also a greatness in the most humble creations – an ordinary utility box crafted by the Shakers, for example, or a simple raku tea cup – that is more available and therefore, perhaps, more real and meaningful. My neighbor who quietly tends her garden and makes a home for her small family is as emblematic of greatness as Michelangelo. She, too, tells me what a human being can achieve.

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