The sign of a great artist may be how censored their art was during their lifetime and after.

Michelangelo and the Vatican: Masterworks from the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples may be a mouthful, but it’s as concise an art exhibit as one could hope to stroll through. There’s more going on in this show in a handful of galleries than entire wings of other museums.

In one fell glance, the viewer can take in works by Titian, Raphael and Michelangelo.

Perhaps this would be the proper time to reflect on how the names of certain fine artists from centuries past have been appropriated as nicknames of pop culture heroes — in this case reptiles distinguished by their shells and ninja prowess and mutant powers.

The exhibit includes a reproduction of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, which hangs overhead in the main gallery and can actually be viewed by looking down on mirrored pedestals that enlarge the image so you don’t get a crick in your neck from looking up.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564) was the recipient of the good will from clergy like Pope Julies II and Pope Paul III (also known as the Farnese Pope) who coined the phrase “nepotism,” for hiring relatives during his reign.

Michelangelo’s most important painting, “Last Judgment,” while finished under Paul III’s watch, was actually commissioned by a previous Pope.

Pope Paul III (when he was merely Cardinal Alessandro Farnese) is depicted in a painting from Raphael as a young man who looks perhaps not surprisingly like Christopher Lee in The Man With the Golden Gun. The Titian portrait of Paul III was painted over three decades later and portrays the same man with years of wisdom etched on his face.

Another gallery presents “cartoons,” another name for the stencil paper that Michelangelo and crew would use to outline the various tableaus used for the creation of their art. The thin sheets were often destroyed after their use. The fact that some of these flimsy pieces of paper have been preserved is remarkable. It would be comparable to someone pulling crumpled up drawings from the wastebasket of, say, Andy Warhol and centuries later proclaiming them as both authentic and profound.

Michelangelo would lay the cartoon over the area to be painted and draw lines with charcoal or other inks and then use a sharp pen to prick the image onto the intended surface.

A nearby video monitor plays a clip from The Agony and the Ecstasy, a 1965 film that accurately depicts this process as played out by Charlton Heston as Michelangelo, and which the curator proclaims as a very authentic recreation. 

Venus and Cupid (Venus en Cupido), by Hendrik van der Broeck, c. 1550-1570, 16th Century, Oil on panel, 120 x 195 cm.

Michelangelo painted the “Last Judgment” with abandon. It depicted the entire cosmology of the then known religious world with the figures nude. Eventually, the painting was literally painted over by Vatican decree. The person who painted over Michelangelo’s painting, which was painted on a wall of the Vatican that overlooked an altar, was known in slang Italian language of future generations as “The Zipper.”

There are techniques where scientists can scan paintings and determine what was originally underneath, but that is not possible with “Last Judgment” as the original paint was scrapped clean.

Even as the original was to be altered, they commissioned a painting of the original altar wall fresco in oil on canvas by Marcello Venusti.

Looking at this reasonably facsimile may very well be one of the most amazing moments of realization one will ever experience in a museum setting.

Michelangelo and the Vatican: Masterworks from the Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples will be on display until June 10 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.