MEXICO CITY – On most weekdays after a late breakfast, Miguel Macias walks over to his neighborhood church where his 45-foot wide canvases await.
Then he gets to work on what has been a humongous, 14-year project: a life-size, hand-painted replica of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling.
“I do this for the love of art,” says Macias, a 71-year-old retiree.
As Mexico prepares for the pope's visit in February, its capital city could end up welcoming Francis with not one but two replicas of Michelangelo’s masterwork.
Mexico City’s government said this month that it is planning to erect its own temporary replica of the Sistine Chapel, a decision that has been met with some criticism from Mexicans questioning whether it’s a good use of taxpayer money.
Macias, on the other hand, is largely digging into his own pocket to finance his project. He buys many of the painting materials with his pension money, and works for free at the Perpetuo Socorro Church in Mexico City with two volunteers. His gigantic replicas are first made on canvases, and then placed carefully on the church’s ceiling. Slowly, they are beginning to form a colorful, and fairly accurate replica of Michelangelo’s masterpiece.
“It took Michelangelo only four years to finish his version,” Macias says. “But he had the Vatican’s support, and around 40 assistants.”
Macias is unlikely to finish in time for the pope’s visit, because he lacks the resources. Each 45-foot wide canvas—there are 14 in total—takes him about six months to complete. So far Macias has finished 10.
“A priest told me I can’t die without finishing this,” the retired graphic designer told me during a recent visit to his studio.
In order to support his cause, Macias' neighbors have written the pope to invite him to visit the church when he comes to Mexico City. They figure that a papal visit would be a fitting reward for Macias’ tenaciousness and could lead to a boost in donations to help finish the project.
But the church's neighbors in Colonia Moctezuma were surprised to learn recently that their version of the Sistine Chapel won't be the only one vying for the Pope's attention, now that a government-backed replica is planned for Mexico City’s iconic Zocalo square.
“It will be the first of its kind in the world,” said Mexico City Mayor Miguel Mancera, apparently unaware of Macia’s work. “People will be able to visit it for free and feel what it’s like [to be there]."
Mancera said that Vatican envoys came up with the idea of building a temporary Sistine Chapel in the Zocalo, so that people can learn about one of the Catholic Church’s masterworks. But Macias says his hand-painted, and permanent replica of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling already fulfills the same purpose.
“I painted this so that people who cannot travel can get a taste of European art,” said Macias, who began the project in 2001 after visiting the original in Rome.
Macias said he was inspired to replicate Michelangelo’s frescoes not just because it's a stunning work of art, but because he realized the real Sistine Chapel’s ceiling had almost the same dimensions as his local church.
“I think this was something that God wanted me to do,” Macias says. “When I was there I even paced up and down the chapel to measure its length and width.”
The self-taught artist said the main difference between his church and the Sistine Chapel is the height. The ceiling at the Perpetuo Socorro church is 10 meters lower than the Sistine Chapel’s, which makes Macias’ paintings of scenes from the book of Genesis appear bigger, even though they're the same size as the original.
“I’ll bet you that the pope hasn’t seen these drawings from so close,” Macias said as we inspected the next giant canvass to be placed on the church’s ceiling.
“He should come here,” Macias said. “A big part of our life, our time, our knowledge and our love for art is in this church.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.