A Reading of the Secret Messages of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel was conceived as a pinnacle representative for the Christian church. It was built according to the biblical dimensions of Solomon’s Temple and decorated with images from the Old Testament and their parallel in the New, thus justifying the foretelling of the coming of Christ. Additionally, the Pope was seen as the spiritual descendent of Peter the Apostle, inheriting the keys to the kingdom of heaven upon gaining the papacy. It is in this Chapel that the Catholic Church holds its conclaves, debating and finally voting on the next pope. Capping the chapel is one of the grandest frescoes in Western Christian art painted by the Florentine sculptor, Michelangelo. He was commissioned by Julius II to paint the ceiling for various controversial reasons, among which include Julius’s on-going “punishment” for Michelangelo’s flight from Rome after his burial tomb project failed, thus forcing him into a medium for which he had little training and familiarity. Jewish “tradition teaches that Mikha-el ha-Malakh, the angel Michael [Michelangelo], is the defender of the Jewish people from its deadly enemies” (Blech and Doliner 43), suggesting that Michelangelo was divinely called to do this ceiling, to capture both the Jewish elements of the Old Testament and to make a statement on the state of the Christian church at the time post-Schism and Black Plague but pre-Protestant Reformation, a time of tension within the Church. Through this commission Michelangelo has created a critique on the Church through Biblical imagery and metaphor that suggests that the history of the Church is not the great innovation in the West, but, rather, its downfall.

Michelangelo inherited the project after a couple false starts. The Chapel was built on the decaying remnants of the Palantine Chapel beginning in 1475, the year Michelangelo as born, under the reign of Pope Sixtus the IV and the decoration of the chapel was begun shortly thereafter (Blech and Doliner 9-10).

[T]here is good reason to believe that the Chapel was conceived primarily as a background for the frescoes. … Austere simplicity had to be reconciled with plans for impressive pictorial representations of the truths which the Church serves as custodian of in this world. The paintings themselves, as always in religious edifices, would be expected to fulfill a double purpose: to remind the princes of the Church of its glorious past and their own responsibilities to it, and to instruct in an edifying manner the pilgrims and other faithful who would be admitted to this great shrine on feast days. (Salvini 9)

Now this Chapel is open on the Vatican tour, an event the pilgrims and faithful line up for hours to attend. The ceiling was initially frescoed with images of stars and the night sky, but due to the softness of Roman soil, the foundation of the Chapel was unstable and the ceiling quickly suffered from cracking. Julius II, Sixtus’ nephew, saw to the restoration of the Chapel during his papacy, including the reinforcement of the foundation and the redesign of the ceiling. When he gave the project to Michelangelo, Julius envisioned a ceiling that depicted the twelve apostles. Michelangelo successfully talked him out of what he considered a boring design, in part because “there was very little scope for him to explore his interest in the human form,” eventually convincing the Pope to give him a degree of free control in his design, something that was unusual and unheard of during this era of the Renaissance (King 59-60). Michelangelo chose to focus on the stories of the Old Testament, specifically Genesis and the prophets, partially due to the lingering impression the sermons of Fra Savonarola, the fire-and-brimstone Franciscan monk, had on him as a youth, and partially due to the popularity of portraying these stories in sculptural relief (King 64). He hired a team of assistants, built a scaffold and set to work.

There are four thematic groupings of the entire fresco: 1. In the center are scenes from the book of Genesis, comprising the central part, or storie, of the fresco; 2. the center is bordered with alternating images of the Jewish Prophets and Greek Sibyls; 3. the corners, or pendentives, each reflect a different episode of “the miraculous salvation of the people of Israel” (“Sistine Chapel”); and 4. functioning as a sort of border for the entire fresco are lunettes, or webs, which depict the Ancestors of Christ, including female ancestors not named at the beginning of the Book of Matthew. For the purposes of this paper, I am going to concentrate on the central panels of the fresco.

The fresco as a whole is supposed to reflect the continued Christian theme that the stories of the Tanakh were nothing more than predicators for the coming of Christ and what later became the Old Testament in the Christian Bible. The symbology of this Chapel visually communicates these stories to any viewers, while also reflecting the power and grandeur of the Church. Michelangelo was not compelled to concentrate on the New Testament, but chose instead a subject matter that is mostly Jewish and partially Pagan. Regardless of his actual intentions, one result of this choice in subject matter shows sensitivity for remembering the roots of the religion, but also for reflecting on the stability the Jewish faith represents. The Christian church at the time of Michelangelo was marred by continual conflict, often squelching out the opposition through battle and the burning of books. The threats towards the church were slowly coming to a fore as the printing press began to make written texts more accessible outside the scholastic community. Initially, the press facilitated in a revival of Greco-Roman texts, and it became a key factor in the publishing of pamphlets promoting the Protestant position.

The selection of the central panels communicate a timeline for the development of the Christian church, as though Michelangelo was demonstrating how Church politics had corrupted the faith by misappropriating the later books of the Old Testament as the foundations for the life of Christ, using the stories from Genesis to reflect how the relatively young church had corrupted itself into a corner. Michelangelo further enhances this message in his Last Judgment, depicting a skull in the blues of the fresco, glaring down from over the altar at the Pope and congregation. It is possible that he painted the ceiling as he did in order to remind everyone who visits the Chapel of the historical/religious roots of Christianity. “It has been conjectured … that the artist’s image of God reflects his personal feelings, that he translated pagan into Christian iconography, and even that Julius II served as the model for God the Father…” (Camesasca 192-193). To further remind the viewer of his link to Julius II, Michelangelo decorated the ceiling with images of oak leaves and acorns that represent Sixtus IV and Julius II, who “were from the della Rovere clan, whose name means ‘of the oak tree’” (Blech and Doliner 29).

There are nine panels going up the center beginning at the altar comprising the Biblical storie: 1. The Separation of Light from Darkness (Gen. 1:1-5), 2. The Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Planets (Gen. 1:11-19), 3. The Separation of Land from Sea (Gen. 1:9-10), 4. The Creation of Adam (Gen. 1:26-27), 5. The Creation of Eve (Gen. 12:18-25), 6. The Original Sin and Banishment from the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1-13, 22-24), 7. The Sacrifice of Noah (Gen. 8:15-20), 8. The Flood (Gen. 6:5-8, 20), and one of the first panels painted since its location over the door makes it less obvious should anything go wrong, and 9. The Drunkenness of Noah (Gen. 9:20-27). There are two ways to approach a “reading” of the ceiling, and both result in fundamentally different interpretations of the latent message of the ceiling fresco. Reading it from the altar to the door suggests the failure of the Christian church as an autonomous religion separate from Judaism. Reading it from the door to the altar gives a message of hope for the Christian church. Both readings are equally valid depending on the vantage point of the reader, but I favor the first reading, because that is the direction of the figures.

The first panel of this reading is the Separation of Light from Darkness, taken from Genesis 1:1-5, in which God, after separating heaven from earth, then separates earth from light and dark. Symbolically, this can be interpreted as the separation of Christianity from Judaism, hence its significant location over the altar of the Sistine Chapel. In this way, the painting initiates Michelangelo’s commentary on the politics of the Christian church.

The second panel is the Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Planets, derived from Genesis 1:11-19. Michelangelo takes some liberty with this passage in order to acknowledge the new astronomical developments of the Renaissance revolving around heliocentrism. This panel shows God from both angles. On the right side of the panel, Michelangelo shows God in the act of creating the sun and the moon, “the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night” (Jewish Study Bible Gen. 1:16). God is looking at and pointing to the sun, with an arm extended behind him pointing to the moon. This suggests the importance of the sun, an image associated with Christ, over the moon, again enhancing the message of the first panel, and the "triumph" of the Christian church over the Jewish. To the left of the panel, Michelangelo shows God reaching over a bush, suggesting the creation of vegetation; however, he shows God’s vulnerability in showing not only his back, but his bare ass as well. Already the ceiling is suggesting that the stability of the church is equally susceptible. “God is already, at this earliest moment in his story, a mix of strength and weakness, resolve and regret” (Miles 29). This could also be a rude insult to Julius, slipped in to help Michelangelo “release his pent-up frustration” (Blech 30).

The third panel is the Separation of Land from Sea, from Genesis 1:9-10. This is the last panel Michelangelo paints relating to the creation of the earth, yet it does not exactly depict the separation of land from sea as much as it shows God imposing his power over the land, which could metaphorically suggest the imposition of power of the Church over the people.

The fourth panel is among the most famous segments from the ceiling fresco, the Creation of Adam from Genesis 1:26-27. This panel shows God, supported by his cherubim, reaching, almost straining, to touch Adam, who appears to be returning the touch with only half interest. He does not fully extend his hand to reach God, and maintains a stiff pose with no real interest in making contact with God. Often, this is interpreted as the lifeless Adam just before God breathes life into him. This is the central panel of the ceiling, and the turning point of the story. With the creation of Adam, God is placing a lot of the task of fulfilling his duties onto his human race. Regardless of whether or not he created Adam to be a friend or to be subservient, he nonetheless created a sentient being capable of making his own decisions. From this point on, humanity faces a downfall. Or, to follow our reading of it, this marks the point when the Christian church puts its faith in the Pope to be its leader. With Adam representing the Pope, this suggests that the papacy has not always functioned with the church’s best interests in heart. Also, with the suggestion that Julius served as a model for God, it could be interpreted as Michelangelo’s own ambivalence toward Julius, possibly stemming from his frustration at not being able to complete the tomb project.

The fifth panel is the Creation of Eve from Genesis 2:18-25. Adam is passed out against a rock, while Eve is conversing with God, who stands in front of her, not floating on a cloud of cherubs as he is depicted in the previous panels. It is as though creating Adam has taken a toll on God’s energies, leaving him diminished and weakened. Eve appears to be begging God for something, as though she has it within her power to restore Christianity to it is original grandeur, working behind the back of Adam, as if to suggest that she knows he would not approve of her actions.

The sixth panel is the Original Sin and Banishment from the Garden of Eden, as told in Genesis 3:1-13 and 3:22-24. The concept of original sin is fundamentally Catholic and really makes no sense to this Protestant girl, but because of the event surrounding the apple, the Christian church, as represented by Adam and Eve, only became further corrupted and removed from God. The serpent could be taken as representing the Black Death, the plague that raped Europe of many of its resources. The papal powers needed to maintain a face of leadership, but the actuality of Christianity was that it was weakened almost beyond repair. Notice that God is not depicted in this panel.

The seventh panel begins the trilogy of Noah panels, just as the first three were God’s creation trilogy and the middle three are the trilogy of the follies of Adam and Eve. The Vatican website describes the Noah trilogy as showing “the fall of mankind and its rebirth with Noah, chosen by God as the only man to be saved for repopulating the earth after the Creator had decided to destroy every living creature in it because of human evil” (“Sistine Chapel”). The Sacrifice of Noah depicts the sacrifice Noah makes to God in Genesis 8:15-20 right after everyone gets off the ark. “In short, the Lord has to be seduced out of his rage by the scent of Noah’s offering” (Miles 44). Genesis 8:21 describes God’s satisfaction at Noah’s sacrifice and vows in that moment not to destroy the world again, “’since the devising of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done’” (Jewish Study Bible Gen. 8:21).

Yet, curiously, this panel precedes The Flood (Genesis 6:5-8, 20). The technical reason behind this is that Michelangelo wanted to paint The Flood first because it was a topic he found interesting, following the sermons of Fra Savonarola who preached about unloosing floodwaters on the unfaithful as if predicting the flooding of the Tiber (King 91), and because of its location in the Chapel in a relatively innocuous space over the door. This panel was the first Michelangelo painted and would have become the panel he experimented on as he learned fresco technique. If it did not go well, at least it would be out of the way.

Michelangelo shows the episode of the Flood in all its drama in the foreground there is a hill towards which a great multitude of persons, buried under the weight of their personal effects or their relatives, are heading, so hoping to avoid the wrath of God. On the other side they are crowding onto a small island, stretching out their hands to lend aid to those still in danger. In the centre is a boat, about to sink, while in the background is the ark on which, through the will of God, Noah, his family and pairs of animals will be saved. (“Sistine Chapel”)

The Flood panel depicts Noah’s ark landing on the rock after the main tumult of the flood that God set out onto the earth to cleanse it of sin. It reflects the very nature of God’s wrath. “The Lord acts because of his own feelings, his regret; God acts because a cleansing destruction is what the world needs. … The destruction is not a means, it is an end, an expressive not an instrumental act” (Miles 43).

The Drunkenness of Noah is an odd choice of a theme to paint on the ceiling. The story, told in Genesis 9:20-27, reflects a strong degree of shame on the part of Noah’s three sons for their father’s behavior. Camesasca suggests three interpretations for the drunkenness of Noah. First, derived from Michelangelo’s biographies, interprets the panel as depicting Ham mocking Noah while his brothers cover their father, which can be interpreted as Michelangelo’s mocking of the Pope while the bishops and cardinals, perhaps, cover him. The second interpretation, Camesasca’s own, suggests that Noah is actually sleeping, Ham is deriding him, Japheth is covering him and Shem is “reproving the mocker and trying to restrain him" (193). This interpretation suggests the human tendencies towards evil and original sin, which are further interpreted as foreshadowing the Passion of Christ, symbolized by Noah’s planting of the vine on the extreme left of the panel. The third interpretation is that humanity ignores the gifts from God. "Others pointed out that the contrast between filial piety (Japheth), Platonic thought (Shem), and Aristotelian science (Ham), on the one hand, and, on the other, the spiritual drunkenness preached by Savonarola" (Camesasca 193). Noah represents the pope/Church, and the sons are the various participants in the Church: those who criticize and mock, those who hide or ignore the Truth, and those who act as intermediaries between the two.

Bookending these central stories are two prophets at either end: Jonah over the altar and Zechariah over the door. As a prophet, Jonah’s role is that as a precursor to the coming of Christ, and the three days he spends in the belly of the whale is meant to parallel Christ’s time in the tomb. He is an unwilling prophet, and is, to a degree, angry with God for the missions he is called upon to perform and the suffering that they induce. “His place over the altar is neither for his virtues nor for his mission, but for his unique prefiguration, for he turns to look at God above him while pointing to the figure of Christ which once stood on the wall below” and was removed to make way for the Last Judgment (Murray 71-2). The parallels between the adventures of Jonah into the belly of the whale and of the three days Christ was shut in the tomb would not have remained unrecognized. The belly of the whale or of the tomb both symbolize a period of darkness and regeneration. The figure that went into the belly/tomb was dead, but emerges from it alive and altered by the experience. With the fresco of Christ no longer there, it looks as though Jonah is pointing at the altar and looking up at God, who is in the process of separating light from darkness. The path of faith that Michelangelo has painted down the ceiling begins with the altar and suggests an emerging from the darkness, only to fall into sin and need cleansing before reaching the final state of purity.

The prophet Zechariah over the door is “a prophet of gloom, of punishment for the backslidings of the Jews, but he also prophesies the establishment of the Kingdom, the building of a new Jerusalem and a new Temple, the restoration of peace, justice and prosperity, and the destruction of the enemies of Zion” (Murray 66, 68). Zechariah punishes not only the Jews but also symbolizes Michelangelo’s reproachement of the Christian church, but his position holds hope of a future where all of the religious groups get it right eventually. Underneath the image of Zechariah is the coat of arms of Julius II, completing Michelangelo’s commentary by suggesting the destruction of the enemies that Julius represents and offering the possibility of a new and restored religion/faith as symbolized by Jerusalem.

Regardless of Michelangelo’s motivation for the layout he designed, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel stands as reflecting his own critique of the Church. He was probably not along in his feelings, especially towards the Pope himself, but he used his abilities to express them. With the ceiling, he has not only made one of the greatest pieces of religious art, he has also used the teachings of the Tanakh to demonstrate that the grandeur of the Church is only show, that it is built on unstable and vulnerable foundations that reflect the folly of the separation of Christianity from Judaism.

Works Cited

  • Blech, Benjamin and Roy Doliner. The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in th Heart of the Vatican. New York: HarperOne, 2008. Print.
  • Camesasca, Ettore. "Apprendix". The Sistine Chapel. Vol. 1. New York: Harry N Abrams, 1965. Print.
  • The Jewish Study Bible. Eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. New York: Oxford U P, 2004. Print.
  • King, Ross. Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.
  • Miles, Jack. God A Biography. New York: Vintage, 1995. Print.
  • Murray, Linda. Michelangelo. London: Thames & Hudson, 1980. Print.
  • Salvini, Roberto. The Sistine Chapel. Vol. 1. New York: Harry N Abrams, 1965. Print.
  • "Sistine Chapel". Vatican Museums. Vatican Museums Management, 2007. Web. 16 December 2009.
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