As a student of Renaissance art, I’ve been obsessed for years with the following question: “Am I the only one that’s noticed there is nothing from the New Testament in the entire Sistine Chapel Ceiling?” Think about it. The most important work of Catholic art ever, in the Pope’s personal chapel, consists of panels depicting Genesis, Noah, Jonah … scenes entirely from the Old Testament. Surrounding these panels are prophets, sibyls from pagan mythology, and a frat-house-worth of nudes. 300 figures in all, and not one Saint, Virgin or Savior, the subject matter of 99% of the Renaissance art found in Catholic churches.
So there I was, my first night in Rome, mentioning this to my friend James Barron, an ex-pat art-dealer who has lived there from years, and he replied “Actually there’s a new book about it, a collaboration between a Rabbi and a Vatican tour guide. It made the NY Times best-seller list.” That night I googled it and found, The Secrets of The Sistine Chapel: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican, by Roy Derliner and Rabbi Benjamin Blech. The book argues that Michelangelo, unhappy with the Church and the Pope that commissioned him, drew heavily on Jewish culture and the doctrine of Kabbalah in designing the Sistine Chapel.
So my first point of biz in Rome …
was setting up a tour with Roy Dorliner’s company, Rome for Jews. This wasn’t your Daddy’s Vatican Tour. Although some of their interpretations are over-reaching, the majority of their arguments are sound. Some take-aways:
Pope Julius II, who commissioned the ceiling, wanted Michelangelo to paint scenes depicting the 12 apostles. Michelangelo railroaded through his entirely different design by taking advantage of the fact that the “Warrior Pope” was off on one of his many empire-building campaigns.
When Michelangelo was a teenager, he was taught by the greatest minds of Florence as a member of Lorenzo de Medici’s court. No news there. What’s news to me is that one of his main teachers was Pico della Mirandola, an expert on Judaic texts who had one of the largest Kabbalah collections in the world.
Check out the Tree of Knowledge in the garden of Eden (pictured above). Not the Christian version apple tree, but a fig tree, as described in the Talmud (the source of the proverbial fig leaf). In addition, the serpent has a human face, following the Jewish interpretation. (BTW, is it just me, or does this picture make it seem that Michelangelo never saw an actual pair of breasts, female-style? We know the guy saw a disected body or two, but if you think Eve’s mammories look wierd, check out the puppies on Night, in the Medici tombs)
The authors had a convincing enough argument that they were able to get Professor Enrico Bruschini, renowned expert on the Vatican Museums and the Official Art Historian of the American Embassy, to write the introduction to the book. One of the clues that put him over the edge was a figure wearing the cap of shame and circle on his sleeve that the Church imposed on Jews during that time. Michelangelo places him in the inner circle of the elect, as a blessed soul in Heaven, with an angel pointing it out.
The piece of paper painted to the left of the prophet Jeremiah’s knee shows the Hebrew letters alef and ayin. As with many of Michelangelo’s hidden visual messages these are invisible to the naked eye 65 feet below, and can only be seen with binoculars. Michelangelo’s own face appears as that of Jeremiah — the tortured lamenter of the Old Testament.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to ignore the authors’ desire to create a sensation akin to that of the “Da Vinci Code” (which A.O. Scott called “Dan Brown’s primer on how not to write an English sentence”). That part is pretty unappetizing. But anyone with a dog-eared copy of The Agony or Ecstasy in their bookcase knows that there was no love lost between Michelangelo and Pope Julius. And, although Michelangelo was not a participant in the Bonfire of the Vanities (Thank God!), he was a believer in many of Savonarola’s teachings, especially about the need of papal reform, and was unhappy with the Catholic Church under the Warrior Pope. It was not unlike him to place hidden messages in his art works. The Last Judgement is full of them.
For further exploration, there is a very good interview in The American and then there is the good Rabbi’s personal post. Bring a pound of salt for that one. But either way, this enlightening exploration gives the Sistine Chapel a whole new meaning to us non-Christians who love Renaissance art.