When you first look up at the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, it can seem like much, much too much to take in. It is a bewildering riot of shapes and figures and colors, all intertwining and blending together, overwhelming in both a good and a bad way — awe-inspiring, to be sure, but also confusing as anything.
We befuddled amateurs can take some comfort from the fact that the professional art historians as well still argue among themselves about what this or that part of it means, or why it’s there at all. The Sistine Chapel ceiling’s completely defensible claim to being one of the most important touchstones of Western art if not Western civilization in general can cause its more committed admirers to exaggerate its artist’s intentionality. In the last chapter, I quoted Miles J. Unger’s statement that Michelangelo “organized the visual field like an editor organizing a difficult text, dividing it into various chapters and sub-chapters, each with its own heading and each assigned to its proper place.” This is true as far as it goes — there is a master plan to the ceiling, as we’re about to see — but we mustn’t take it farther than it goes. We must remember that, while Michelangelo definitely was trying to create a timeless work of art, he was also performing a service for a demanding patron, under circumstances that were far from ideal. A goodly portion of what we see on the ceiling appears to be there just to fill in its blank spaces and to look impressive in the process of doing so; there is not always a code to be cracked.
With that caveat duly stated, allow me to introduce the broad scheme of the chapel ceiling.
The part of it which most occupies most observers’ attention — as, indeed, it will our own as we go about this short survey — is the literal centerpiece, running right down the middle of the vaulted ceiling. Here we have nine scenes from the very beginning of the Bible, the first nine chapters of the Book of Genesis. They are divided into three sets of three, that being a number with enormous implications in Christian numerology. (Think of the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.) Each trio of pictures tells a pivotal story known to Sunday school children everywhere: the creation of the world, the creation and fall from grace of Adam and Eve, and the Great Flood and its aftermath. We will return to the centerpiece shortly, but first let’s have a look at the rest of the ceiling, to get an idea of how it all fits together — or, in some cases perhaps, fails to do so.
The central procession of pictures is surrounded by smaller portraits of seven Old Testament prophets and five pagan sibyls. The former were all believed to have predicted the coming of Jesus Christ, in more or less strained interpretations of their actual words from the Bible. The presence of the latter may seem odder in such a thoroughgoingly Christian artwork as this one, but they reflect a very popular idea in Renaissance theology. These sibyls — female oracles or soothsayers, who most famously issued their prophecies and advice from the Temple of Apollo in the Greek town of Delphi — were also believed to have predicted the coming of Jesus, as recorded in a purportedly pre-Christian document called the Oracula Sibyllina. We now know this document to be a forgery stemming from the early centuries after Christ, and not a terribly adroit forgery at that. Yet it isn’t hard to understand why Renaissance scholars, so eager to reconcile — and to justify to a suspicious Inquisition — their reverence for Antiquity in light of the religion of their own day, would have found such a text so appealing, would not have been overly eager to question it.
One of the sibyls shows that the chapel ceiling wasn’t all high-mindedness. The Cumean Sibyl had supposedly spoken during the Trojan War — fully 1000 years before Jesus — of a time when the “first-born comes down from Heaven above,” with this blessed event destined to be followed by a “golden age.” Even as Michelangelo was painting, some of Pope Julius II’s more shamelessly obsequious hangers-on had begun to more than imply that this golden age had come belatedly, that the second part of the prophecy was being fulfilled only now by the reign of Julius himself. Perchance in response, Michelangelo painted the Cumean Sibyl as a slatternly, obese woman, peering at a book held weirdly far away from her eyes, as if she is suffering from a bad case of presbyopia. Most tellingly of all, one of the two greasily plump, equally unattractive children at her side is “making the fig” at her by placing his thumb between his index and middle fingers. This gesture, still known and practiced in some parts of Italy today, was the Renaissance equivalent of flipping someone the bird. Was treating Julius’s favorite ancient prophetess in this shabby way Michelangelo’s passive-aggressive way of getting back at the pope who had been making his life so onerous for years now? One somehow likes to think so.
But to continue our grand tour: the spaces occupied by the prophets and sibyls are encroached upon in eight places by triangular spandrels that form part of the structural architecture of the ceiling. Here Michelangelo opted to paint some of his most enigmatic scenes of all. All portray domestic family life, with women breast-feeding their infants or sewing clothing for their children, making quite a contrast with the more dramatic events to be seen elsewhere. We don’t know whether they were intended to be generically archetypal or Michelangelo had specific people or events in mind. If the latter, he took the secrets of his inspirations to his grave; no firm identification of any of the subjects has ever been made. The spandrels most likely reflect nothing more than Michelangelo’s deep-felt appreciation of motherhood, a constant throughout his career, which many armchair psychologists have been tempted to connect with his loss of his own mother at such an early age.
On each of the four fan-shaped pendentives that mark the corners of the ceiling, Michelangelo painted an incident from the Old Testament. The only obvious common thread among them is that they all show the Jewish people being saved from a threat.
In the northeast corner, from the Book of Numbers, we have Moses saving the Israelites from the fiery serpents that a displeased God has sent down to ravage their ranks.
And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.
And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.
In the southeast corner, from the Book of Esther, we have the fate of a Persian vizier — a lieutenant to the Persian king — named Haman, who attempted to slay all of the Jews in the Persian Empire when one of them, whose name was Mordecai, refused to bow down before him. His plot was foiled by Esther herself, the queen of the empire and a secret Jew. After attempting to rape Esther as a last-ditch form of vengeance, Haman was hoisted with his own petard.
Then the king returned out of the palace garden and into the place of the banquet of wine; and Haman was fallen upon the bed where Esther was. Then said the king, Will he force the queen also before me in the house? As the word went out of the king’s mouth, they covered Haman’s face.
And Harbonath, one of the chamberlains, said before the king, Behold also, the gallows 50 cubits high, which Haman had made for Mordecai, who had spoken good for the king, standeth in the house of Haman.
Then the king said, Hang him thereon. So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then was the king’s wrath pacified.
Michelangelo’s portrayal doesn’t dovetail entirely with that in the Bible: he shows Haman being crucified rather than hanged, a counterintuitive choice in that it might cause viewers to associate the deserved fate of this evil man with the supreme benevolent sacrifice made by Jesus Christ.
Indeed, it is worth noting here that, for all Michelangelo’s deep-seated religious faith, he may very well not have ever read much of the Bible for himself. Although the book had by now been translated into Italian, it was not yet widely distributed in that language, and its reading by laypeople in any language was not generally encouraged by the Church, which saw itself as the essential mouthpiece and interpreter of the word of God.
In the southwest corner, from the First Book of Samuel, we have a story that was clearly dear to Michelangelo’s heart: that of the young David’s single combat against Goliath, the seasoned champion of the Philistines, enemies of the Israelites.
[King] Saul [of Israel] armed David with his armour, and he put an helmet of brass upon his head; also he armed him with a coat of mail. And David girded his sword upon his armour, and he assayed to go; for he had not proved it. And David said unto Saul, I cannot go with these; for I have not proved them. And David put them off him.
And he took his staff in his hand, and chose him five smooth stones of the brook, and put them in a shepherd’s bag which he had, even in a scrip; and his sling was in his hand: and he drew near to the Philistine. And when the Philistine looked about, and saw David, he disdained him: for he was but a youth, and ruddy, and of a fair complexion. And the Philistine said to David, Come to me, and I will give thy flesh unto the fowls of the air, and to the beasts of the field.
Then said David unto the Philistine, Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied. And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead; that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth. Therefore David ran, and stood up on the Philistine, and took his sword, and drew it out of the sheath thereof, and slew him, and cut off his head therewith. And when the Philistines saw their champion was dead, they fled.
It’s a little surprising that Michelangelo chose to depict David clothed here, what with the gloriously, flamboyantly nude statue of the hero he had recently sculpted in Florence. The choice could not have been down to any sudden outbreak of prudery, for there is no lack of nudity elsewhere on the chapel ceiling.
In the northwest corner, from the Book of Judith, we have the story of the Jewish heroine by that name, who infiltrated the headquarters of the Assyrian general Holofernes as his army was about to defeat and massacre the Israelites. Being extraordinarily beautiful, she seduced Holofernes and plied him with drink until he was in a stupor.
Then she came to the pillar of the bed, which was at Holofernes’s head, and took down his fauchion from thence, and approached to his bed, and took hold of the hair of his head, and said, Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, this day. And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him, and tumbled his body down from the bed, and pulled down the canopy from the pillars; and anon after she went forth, and gave Holofernes his head to her maid; and she put it in her bag of meat: so they twain went together according to their custom unto prayer: and when they passed the camp, they compassed the valley, and went up the mountain of Bethulia, and came to the gates thereof.
Then said Judith afar off to the watchmen at the gate, Open, open now the gate: God, even our God, is with us, to shew his power yet in Jerusalem, and his forces against the enemy, as he hath even done this day.
So much for the pendentives. Before we turn to the central procession of images, we should have a look at one last ancillary part of the work done in the chapel by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512. This work is not found on the ceiling at all, but rather the very uppermost part of the chapel’s walls, the arched lunettes that crown each of its sixteen high windows: six on each of its longer sides, two on each shorter end wall. Here we see the only imagery derived from the New Testament rather than the Old.
The Gospel of Matthew, the very first book of the New Testament, opens by proclaiming “the generations of Jesus Christ.” There follows an extended genealogy for Jesus, starting with the Book of Genesis patriarch Abraham and descending down the paternal line through the likes of David and Solomon to Joseph and the savior himself, listing 41 names in all. (The text claims that there are 42 names — a much more numerologically satisfying total — but neglects to actually state one of them, probably due to a simple oversight on the part of the author of the gospel.) This fixation on paternal genealogy might strike us as odd on the face of it, given that the Gospel of Matthew goes on to claim immediately afterward that Jesus was the result of a virgin birth, that his mother Mary became pregnant with him before she and her husband Joseph ever “came together.” Thus Joseph and all of his ancestors weren’t really Jesus’s blood relatives at all. In light of this seeming contradiction, some have gone so far as to suggest that the first chapter of Matthew may be two separate texts spliced together, but there is no stylistic sign of this. The genealogy more likely reflects the author’s strong interest in fitting Jesus into the extant Jewish heritage of prophecy; the Book of Matthew is often described as the most intrinsically “Jewish” of the four New Testament gospels.
That said, the concerns of Renaissance Christians like Michelangelo were not the same as those of the early Jewish followers of Jesus, which can make us wonder why the artist chose this of all parts of the New Testament for the lunettes. The answer may come down to strict practicalities: the list made a good match with the amount of space Michelangelo had to fill. Then, too, because most of the names on the list are not otherwise prominent in the Bible, they could be painted quickly, with no obligation to live up to any long tradition of representation. And indeed, the little portraits that we see in the lunettes today, each explicitly labeled in writing as depicting one to three of Jesus’s ancestors, are fairly anonymous-looking. The visual family tree originally began on the short eastern wall of the chapel, then worked its way down the longer walls in chronological order from east to west, jumping from south to north and back again as it went, before concluding on the western wall.
But if you look at the diagram of the ceiling near the beginning of this chapter, you will see that there are no portraits today at the top of the eastern wall. This part of Michelangelo’s work, showing the earliest ancestors of Jesus, is the only one that hasn’t survived the intervening centuries to reach us more or less intact. Ironically, its destroyer was Michelangelo himself, who painted over the portraits when he returned to the chapel to decorate the eastern wall more than two decades after finishing the ceiling. Just to add an additional layer of irony, this group included some of the relatively few names in the family tree that the average Christian might actually recognize: names like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I will tell the full story of Michelangelo’s return to the Sistine Chapel later in these pages. For now, suffice to say that his willingness to paint over his own work tells us much about how comparatively unimportant he considered this part of his grand conception to be.
Better for us, then, to leave behind these sideshows now and return to the main stage, that central procession of pictures from the Book of Genesis. Generally speaking, these move forward in time from east to west. This means that Michelangelo painted them in reverse order, since he started with the chapel’s west half. And it also means that the average viewer of then or now, who enters the chapel via the main doors on its west wall and then walks toward the altar on its east wall, will pass under them in reverse order. Various philosophical meanings have been ascribed to this layout, the most spiritually alluring among them being that the worshiper who walks up to the altar to take communion finds herself walking back in time, from the current fallen world to the purity of God’s original creation, just as she will soon be cleansed of the sins of this world by the body and blood of Christ. But personally, I suspect that this explanation too ascribes more intentionality to the artist than may have been the case in reality. Whatever: like so much on the chapel ceiling, it just is what it is.
So, let us go through the pictures one by one, working from east to west. The easternmost shows the first day of creation, as described in the very first lines of the Old Testament.
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
One aspect of what you see above would have been absolutely shocking to Michelangelo’s contemporaries: that he has dared to depict God the Father himself. Even during the Renaissance, this was simply not done, on the logic that poor mortals couldn’t possibly imagine, much less capture, the ineffable majesty of God; to many minds, it was blasphemy even to try. Yet here he is. Michelangelo has deigned to clothe him in a flowing pink robe — displaying the Holy Genitalia to the world may have seemed too great a leap even to him — but otherwise he is of a piece with the artist’s many other depictions of idealized male beauty, muscular but also lithe, exuding power and self-control. He could easily be David, a few decades on but still hitting the gym regularly. God is one of us, Michelangelo seems to be saying: infinitely wiser and stronger, yes, but not fundamentally different in kind. We are all little Gods, he says, capturing the essence of the Renaissance.
Surrounding this bold image of God, threatening almost to overshadow him, are four nude male figures. Dubbed by Michelangelo himself his ignudi, there are 36 of them on the chapel ceiling in all: four to surround each and every picture in the main procession. They don’t seem to have any deeper meaning beyond being testaments to the artist’s love for the nude male form; their compositional purpose appears to be largely the filling in of what would otherwise be boring blank spaces. Many of them quote from ancient statuary with which Michelangelo was familiar, but we should be wary of reading too much meaning into that; the ancient statues were probably just a shortcut for the artist, providing a selection of poses to crib from that had already proved balanced and pleasant to look at.
We also see two painted-on bronze medallions on either side of God. Here as elsewhere on the ceiling, they show scenes unrelated to the picture they flank. In this case, we have Elijah being carried up to Heaven by a chariot of fire (Second Book of Kings) and Abraham about to sacrifice his beloved first-born son Isaac at the behest of God (an incident from later in the Book of Genesis).
I stated earlier that the main pictures on the ceiling’s central vault generally move forward in time from east to west. Next we have one of the exceptions that necessitated that adverb; the second and third pictures are juxtaposed in relation to where they ought to be, chronologically speaking. Our best guess as to why is that Michelangelo thought the chronologically third picture of this first trio the most striking, and so chose to give it pride of place in the center. For our part, though, we will stick to chronology and look at the third picture before the second.
Here we have the second day of creation and/or the beginning of the third; God appears to be separating heaven from earth and/or separating earth from water.
And God said, let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.
One medallion here shows the killing of David’s son Absalom (Second Book of Samuel), while the other is curiously blank, having been left unfinished for one reason or another; perhaps Michelangelo simply ran out of time before the big unveiling that was scheduled for All Hallows Eve of 1512.
The last picture of this first trio, larger than the other two and thus leaving no room for medallions, shows the third and fourth day of creation, when God made the flora of the world and the sun and the moon and the stars.
And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the third day.
And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so. And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.
Strictly speaking, this single picture is really two. Its left half shows the creation of plants, highlighting God’s toned bottom — what the Germans call a Knackarsch — as it does so. The right shows the creation of the sun and the moon.
The next picture, the first of the second trio, is the big one that everybody knows: God giving the spark of life to his greatest creation Adam. But before we look at it, we need to address the question of how we got here. For, if we are following along in the Bible, we see that there is an important break here.
The fact is that there are actually two distinct creation narratives to be found in the Book of Genesis. Up to this point, we have been seeing the first of them, in which God completes the task in seven very efficient days — or rather in six, taking the seventh as a day of rest. (This is of course the origin of the Sabbath, a day reserved for worship and rest alone: Saturday in Judaism, Sunday in Christianity.) We might assume that we will be seeing the fifth and sixth days now, in which God creates the animals of the water and land, and finally, as his crowning achievement, human beings. But instead Michelangelo jumps ship to the other creation narrative right here, as many Christian retellings of the Book of Genesis tend to do.
Such retellings are attempting to massage into coherency the first place of many where the Bible blatantly contradicts itself. After finishing the story of a seven-day creation, it launches without explanation or preamble into another, more initially abbreviated creation narrative, in which humans come to be before plants or animals rather than vice versa. Almost all scholars agree that these really are two self-contained creation myths that have been stuck together, perhaps as a sort of compromise solution to a theological rift in early Judaism. (The scenario that I mooted and then rejected for the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew, in other words, truly does seem to be the case here.)
The first creation narrative strongly implies that God made many humans at the outset, and also states outright that he made men and women at the same time: “male and female he created them.” It is only the Book of Genesis’s second creation narrative that tells of a singular first human, of a Garden of Eden, and of everything that ensued from there. And this story, with its strong Christian resonances, is the one that Michelangelo suddenly jumps to now on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. For only a fallen humanity could require Christ the savior to redeem it.
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the Lord God commandeth the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden mayest thou freely eat: but of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
We can see above that Michelangelo has changed even this version of the story slightly: instead of breathing life into the first man, God seems to be passing a spark of life into him by touching his fingertip. One good ground for the change isn’t hard to come up with: the original story would be hard to distinguish from God giving his creation an open-mouthed kiss on the lips, which was not exactly in keeping with his divine dignity.
The next picture continue with the (second) creation story, where the Bible gives us the name of the first man — Adam — for the first time. There is a reason he is named so, and a reason that his name is used in the Book of Genesis without any explanation or introduction: in Hebrew, the word which we translate as “Adam” means simply “Man.”
And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.
And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; and which the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.
The medallions make a return here, the subjects of both of this pair being matters of debate. The easterly is probably either King David being rebuked by his spiritual advisor Nathan for arranging the death of one of his most faithful lieutenants in order to steal said lieutenant’s wife (Second Book of Samuel) or Alexander the Great paying homage to Jaddus, the high priest of Jerusalem (a tale found not in the Bible but in the ancient book Jewish Antiquities, by the historian Josephus). The westerly most likely shows either the killing of Ahab, a wicked king of Israel who forsook the one true God for pagan deities (First Book of Kings), or the killing of Nicanor, a Seleucid general and oppressor of Jews (Second Book of the Maccabees).
Next we have Eve’s tasting of the forbidden fruit at the behest of the serpent and the consequent expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. (The name “Eve” is associated with life, breath, and the giving of life — i.e., motherhood — in Hebrew.)
Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yes, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden. And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?
And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.
And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?
And the man said, The woman whom thous gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.
And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done?
And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.
And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thy go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: and I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thy shall bruise his heel.
Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
And Adam called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them. And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the Garden of Eden cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
Once again, this single picture is really two, showing Even’s plucking of the forbidden fruit on the left and the couple’s resulting banishment to a life of shame, worry, and hardship on the right.
The serpent before the fall has been depicted many ways over the centuries. (Rest assured that the phallic connotations have not gone unexplored…) Michelangelo shows him either as a hybrid creature like a centaur, or, given that we see two separate moments in time combined into one image here, perhaps as an angel or cherubim whom God transformed into a reptile; this would seem a perfectly valid reading of the Biblical text. (Oh, and speaking of phalli: the proximity of Eve’s face to Adam’s penis is cheeky, regardless of whether the artist meant it as a sign of a burgeoning sexuality or of complete innocence.)
For the third trio of pictures, Michelangelo leaped forward many centuries, past the time of the long-lived early patriarchs — introduced in the Book of Genesis as “the generations of Adam,” a phrase self-consciously echoed by the Gospel of Matthew — to arrive at the Great Flood. This third trio is, like the first, chronologically scrambled: the first and second scenes ought to be swapped. Taking the middle picture first, then, we have the flood itself, which God unleashed upon the earth to scour his creation of the wickedness and corruption that he had been seeing all too much of lately. He chose to spare only the pious Noah and his family, instructing them beforehand to build a great ark that could ride out the storm and to gather seven of every “clean” beast — meaning those that were acceptable to eat under Jewish Law — and a single male and female of each “unclean” animal.
In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep opened up, and the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.
In the selfsame day entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah’s wife, and the three wives of his sons with them, into the ark; they, and every beast after his kind, and all the cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind, and every fowl after his kind, every bird of every sort. And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life. And they went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him: and the Lord shut him in.
And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth. And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered. Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered. And all the flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man: all in whose nostrils was the breath of life, and all that was in the dry land, died. And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both men, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark. And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days.
Noah’s ark is seen in the background here, receding from the desperate, scrambling masses who are not destined to survive the cataclysm. A piece of that part of the ceiling on which this picture was painted cracked and fell down after an explosion at a nearby gunpowder factory in 1797; this is the reason for the unsightly plaster patch at the upper right, which all but obliterates one of the ignudi.
Next we have Noah and his family offering sacrifices to God after having spent six months adrift on the water.
And in the second month, on the seven and twentieth day of the month, was the earth dried. And God spake unto Noah, saying, Go forth of the ark, thou, and thy wife, and thy sons, and thy sons’ wives with thee. Bring forth with thee every living thing that is with thee, of all flesh, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth; that they may breed abundantly in the earth, and be fruitful, and multiply upon the earth.
And Noah went forth, and his sons, and his wife, and his sons’ wives with him: every beast, every creeping thing, and every fowl, and whatsoever creepeth upon the earth, after their kinds, went forth out of the ark. And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.
And the Lord smelled a sweet savour; and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every living thing, as I have done. While the earth remaineth, seed time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.
The easternmost medallion here may be related to one we examined earlier: the one that possibly shows King David being reproved by Nathan for conspiracy to commit murder and wife-stealing. Jumping back in time, we see here Uriah, the troublesome husband who was the target of David’s plotting, being cut down from the head of an Israelite army, where his king has arranged for him to be exposed to the kingdom’s enemies. (Whatever else he was, David was certainly no saint…) The other medallion shows the Israelites tearing down a statue in a pagan temple, which building they will soon turn into a latrine (Second Book of Kings).
The third picture of the third and last trio gives us the melancholy coda to the tale of Noah, in which he becomes a drunkard and, it would appear from reading between the lines, something of a sexual pervert as well. With consummate bad grace, he condemns to perpetual servitude the son of his son Ham, even though Ham has by any literal reading done nothing worse than stumble upon Noah lying naked in his tent. This incident is so inexplicable that one almost wonders if a portion of the original text has gone missing here. More insidiously, it would later be used by white Christians as one of the Bible’s alleged justifications of black slavery.
And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: and he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.
And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. And Noah lived after the flood three hundred and fifty years. And all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years.
Michelangelo’s depiction of the incident is in its way as strange as the Bible’s. He shows Noah’s three sons looking away from the nakedness of their father in seeming disgust as they cover him, despite being themselves all naked.
The first medallion here, which was also damaged in the 1797 explosion, shows the killing of Abner, who led a rebellion against King David (Second Book of Samuel). The other shows a soldier throwing the body of the deposed Israelite King Jehoram away into a field (Second Book of Kings).
And such is the Sistine Chapel ceiling, by many standards the most ambitious single work of Christian art ever created at the time of its unveiling. If it isn’t the perfectly orderly, perfectly coherent set of imagery some art historians might wish it to be, it is every inch the humbling sight that Michelangelo and Pope Julius II intended it to be. Will Durant’s assessment strikes me as defensible if inevitably subjective: “No one of these pictures quite equals Raphael’s The School of Athens in conception, drawing, color, and technique; but taken all together, they constitute the greatest achievement of any man in the history of painting.”
But art is not just pretty pictures; it also tells us about the thoughts and feelings, predilections and prejudices of those who make it, whether it intends to or not. What happens when we get over that initial rush of seeing the ceiling in all its audacious glory and begin to ask ourselves what it is saying about the men, the religion, and the culture that willed it into existence?
Well, then… the sibyls at the margins and the images of family life on the spandrels notwithstanding, it’s a thoroughly masculine tableau — and not just because of the copious quantities of naked male flesh on display. The ceiling is stuffed from end to end with images of power and dominance, of vengeance and banishment, of victory and violence. All of this seems eminently worthy of a self-styled “warrior pope.” But is it really a Christian tableau at all, in the original sense of that faith? There is no sign here of the humble carpenter who told his followers to answer violence with kindness and to spend their lives helping those less fortunate, who lived and died a poor man offering comfort to the poor, who washed the feet of beggars and gently reprimanded those most eager to judge their fellow humans, who stayed out of worldly politics, quietly rendering unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s. Somehow, it seems, a whole lot of that message got lost over the course of fifteen centuries. One cannot help but think again of the cruel irony of Michelangelo’s reason for not painting the twelve apostles up there on the ceiling: because they were too poor.
Christianity began as one of the best ideas in human history, a noble alternative to the ethic of the ancient world, which ethic Bible scholar Bart D. Ehrman calls a “culture of dominance.”
In a culture of dominance, those with power are expected to assert their will over those who are weaker. Rulers are to dominate their subjects, patrons their clients, masters their slaves, men their women. This ideology was not merely a cynical grab for power or a conscious mode of oppression. It was the commonsense, millennia-old view that virtually everyone accepted and shared, including the weak and marginalized.
Christianity dared to posit an alternative, replacing the ethic of dominance with one of mutual respect and loving kindness, the kernel from which would eventually sprout our Modern, post-Enlightenment understanding of the fundamental rights of all human beings. Small wonder that so many of Christianity’s early converts were women, who saw in this religion of love and mercy an alternative to the toxic masculinity under which they had been suffering for time immemorial.
Yet since those earliest centuries Christianity had itself become the religion of kings and emperors, to be imposed by force if necessary. And as it had done so, it had come more and more to resemble the older belief systems it had replaced. What else is the Sistine Chapel ceiling but an extended display of violence and dominance? There is little grace to be found there, only image after image of the God of power and vengeance. Where is the God of love, who sent his only begotten son down to earth to take upon himself the sins of all the peoples of the world, whether they happened to be strong or weak, rich or poor, male or female? That God no longer seemed to be living here in Rome, the bosom of the Church that presumed to speak in his name.
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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)