UP ABOVE, JEHOVAH REACHES TO Adam and, with the flick of a finger, gives him life. Nearby, the saved ascend heavenward, the damned go to hell. All about, golden-haired seraphim float and chubby cherubim cavort. Down below, well-heeled burghers twirl pasta and sip Chianti.

This odd juxtaposition—of the sacred and the al dente—is on display in Cocotoo, an Italian restaurant in Manchester, England, where artist Michael Browne is engaged in a punctilious recreation of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, or as much of it as will fit.

For the last 18 months, Browne, 32, who has a master's degree in fine arts from Manchester University, has spent up to 10 hours a day plying his pencils and brushes in the service of his remarkable reproduction. His masterpiece, which will ultimately cover 2,000 square feet (the Vatican original covers nearly 6,000 square feet), is a giant mosaic of individually painted wood panels, executed in Browne's studio and then bolted to the 15-foot ceiling. Only when he is adding the finishing touches does Browne, like his forebear, take his brush to the ceiling.

What motivates a man who lives on government benefits and the sale of a few paintings to spend years on a project whose only payoff is the acclaim of Cocotoo's clientele and all the Italian food he can eat? "This is the only way I can establish myself," says Browne. The reward, he says, will come if the attention he gets leads to commissions.

Cocotoo's owners, Alfiero Centamore, 54, and Alan Bowyer, 41, spent more than $1 million to renovate the cavernous space. But the room, which seats about 300, still lacked warmth and atmosphere when it opened two years ago. "It was a nightmare," says Centamore, "because the place looked too big, too empty." Browne, an occasional patron whose works have been hung in the National Portrait Gallery in London, got the commission and went to work in July 1993.

Scenes in the re-creation fit together roughly the way they do in the Sistine Chapel, except for a little rearranging to accommodate the spatial idiosyncrasies of the ceiling. And, in the grand tradition of Renaissance artists, Browne worked in the likenesses of people who are important to him—his patrons Centamore and Bowyer appear as the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel, and his girlfriend, hairdresser Bridgette Elwood, 27, is Delphica, a mythical Greek prophetess.

With a year and a half to go, Browne is already making plans for his next painting. There's a bare wall at one end of the Cocotoo, and he thinks it would be just perfect for—what else?—Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper.

MICHAEL NEILL
JOHN WRIGHT in Manchester

  • Contributors:
  • John Wright.