Filled with the spirit of creation during a tour of the Sistine Chapel last year, senior editor Bob Roe turned to his wife, Nancy, and whispered, "I've got a really sick idea." He was imagining what the most famous ceiling in Western civilization might look like if Michelangelo had been a sports fan: Instead of bestowing the gift of life on Adam, the Creator would be reaching down to place a baseball in the outstretched hand of Babe Ruth. Irreverent? Perhaps. But a SIstine Chapel (page 139) seemed at once an ambitious and lighthearted way to commemorate the 50th birthday of SI, which published its first issue on Aug. 16, 1954.
The task of turning Roe's Alleluia! moment into something tangible fell to writer-reporter Bill Syken and illustrator Jeff Wong. Syken, who has worked at the magazine for two years, spent months researching the rich symbolism of the ceiling's nine panels--each illustrates a different theme in the story of creation--and figuring out a corresponding sports moment or person for the SI mural.
Wong got involved last winter, when creative director Steve Hoffman did his best impression of Pope Sixtus IV. "He asked if I knew anyone who could paint the Sistine Chapel," says Wong, a regular contributor to SI since 1994. "I thought, I could probably handle that." The first step was to create a digital scan of the ceiling from a photograph. Wong then "drew" over that layout on his computer using an application called Corel Painter, essentially repainting the Sistine Chapel.
While Wong breathed new life into Michelangelo's masterpiece, supermodel Marissa Miller updated a more contemporary collection of icons (page 182). This summer the woman from Santa Cruz, Calif., spent three days in a Manhattan studio posing for exact reenactments of some of our most memorable Swimsuit Issue photos, including Tyra Banks's breakthrough 1997 cover shot and the jaw-dropping 1983 image of a mesh-clad Cheryl Tiegs. The gig required extreme patience, a surgeon's attention to detail--and in one case (page 196), a willingness to work closely with snakes, not to be confused with the serpent in Wong's garden.