Michelangelo’s genius as perhaps the greatest of all artists of Western civilization is universally recognized. His frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are assuredly the major reason why the Vatican Museums in Rome welcome more than 4 million visitors annually, making the site the most-visited museum complex on earth.
What is far less known to Michelangelo’s countless admirers is the incredible courage of a man far ahead of his time, daring to introduce ideas considered heretical in his day into the holiest chapel in the Christian world, but ideas that have finally found a large measure of confirmation in our time. As we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the completion of his masterpiece this month, bringing Michelangelo’s convictions to light is long overdue.
Four and a half centuries before the Second Vatican Council rejected religious intolerance in the mid-1960s, before Pope John Paul II acknowledged Jews as Christianity’s “older brothers and sisters” and, in 2000, placed a prayer into the Western Wall in Jerusalem begging God to forgive the Catholic Church for its mistreatment of the Jews throughout the centuries, Michelangelo found ways to express his commitment to religious open-mindedness as well as to convey his profound horror at the abuse directed at the people who were nothing less than the ancestors of Jesus.
At the time that Michelangelo was toiling in the Sistine, the status of Jews in the Western world was at an all-time low. The Inquisition was churning at the height of its powers, having already despoiled and expelled the Jews from Spain, Portugal and Sicily. Jewish wisdom literature was being burned in public bonfires all over Europe, and sometimes the holy rabbis and sages who taught these texts were thrown to the flames as well. Jews and Christians were being driven apart by politics, prejudice and propaganda. The Jewish roots of Jesus and Christianity were being negated. In art, Jews were turned into diabolical caricatures, while Jesus, his family and his apostles were all visually “de-judaized.” In society, it became more and more difficult for Jews and Christians to be neighbors and friends; only three years after the Sistine ceiling frescoes were finished, the Jews of Venice were locked into the world’s first ghetto. Jews could not build or live where they wanted. Spreading the most ridiculous blood libels about Jews, assaulting Jews in public, accusing Jews of disloyalty to their host countries - all this became the norm. In short, Jews were considered as guilty of all of society’s ills in that era as they were of deicide in the distant past.
In the midst of this insane wave of prejudice and hatred, Michelangelo felt the need to go against the tide. He wanted to remind his world of its cultural, historical and spiritual roots in Judaism. Other artists before him had portrayed Jews, but always as evil hook-nosed tormentors of Jesus, or bearded, soulless, interchangeable packs of rabbis and prophets. Instead of such repulsive caricatures, Michelangelo’s portraits of the Jewish ancestors of Jesus are noble and sympathetic; his seven Hebrew prophets are all depicted with a grandeur usually reserved in art for classical heroes and philosophers.
Commissioned by Pope Julius II to create a work of art for the ceiling that would pay tribute to Jesus and the virgin Mary, Michelangelo ignored the demand of his patron and not only omitted Jesus and Mary entirely but failed to include a single New Testament figure - preferring instead the Hebrew prophets and the stories of creation from the book of Genesis. The Christian calendar as it is today calculates its years from the birth of Jesus to imply that nothing before this seminal event has true significance. Michelangelo, however, daringly chose to portray scenes that illustrate the progenitors of all mankind - Adam and Eve and Noah and his family - to emphasize his humanistic embrace of the concept of universal brotherhood.
Although he remained a Christian his entire life, Michelangelo appreciated and respected the Jews and their clear contributions to Western civilization, at great risk to his career and even his life. Whenever he was faced with the choice of taking the easy path in his panels on the Sistine ceiling - portraying the standard, safe Christian narrative - or the dangerous path of depicting the Jewish point of view, he invariably opted to pay homage to the Judaic roots of his faith.
A striking example is an incredible detail that has come to light in the aftermath of the cleaning and restoration of the Sistine ceiling at the turn of this century. Near the end of his torturous years of frescoing, Michelangelo was painting right over the elevated area where the pope would sit on his gilded throne. There he placed a portrait of Aminadab, a seemingly strange choice since Aminadab was far from a major biblical hero. On Aminadab’s upper left arm one can now clearly see a bright yellow circle, a ring of cloth that has been sewn onto his garment. This is the exact badge of shame that the Fourth Lateran Council and the Inquisition had forced upon the Jews of Europe. Michelangelo placed this powerful illustration of anti-Semitism on Aminadab, whose name in Hebrew means “from my people, a prince.” To the church, “a prince from the Jews” means only one person – Jesus, the prince of peace. Yet, here, directly overhead of where the pope, the Vicar of Christ, would sit, Michelangelo pointed out exactly how the hatred and persecution of the Catholic Church was treating the very family of Christ in his day.
Michelangelo’s hidden agenda was to remind the church that its roots were grounded in the Bible given to the Jewish people, and that to ignore this truth was to falsify Jesus and his mission.
It is fascinating to realize how far Michelangelo’s insights half a millennium ago have finally found their way into contemporary theological thought. When Time Magazine featured in 2009 a cover story on “The 10 Ideas That Are Changing the World” - the 10 most powerful ideas that are changing the way we think and that have the most potential for impacting our future - it singled out the movement in current religious scholarship toward “Re-Judaizing Jesus.” Calling it a “seismic change” in today’s seminaries across the Christian spectrum, it identified the new trend towards acknowledging Jesus’ Judaism and recognizing the Jewish roots of their faith, the very ideas that Michelangelo so desperately sought to incorporate into his masterpiece on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
It seems almost providential that Michelangelo’s final resting place should offer a fitting tribute to his efforts to open the window of tolerance to the church of his time. Because Michelangelo was first buried disrespectfully in Rome, the residents of Florence hired the services of its two best burglars, who broke into the church and brought it back to that city for entombment inside the Church of Santa Croce. In the 1850s, almost 300 years after Michelangelo’s interment there, the church commissioned its magnificent new façade, designed by a Jewish architect, Nicolò Matas. When Matas was told that his name could not appear on the church, he insisted that at the very least a large Star of David be placed over the front door. That is why today, the church that houses the tomb of the artist who made it his mission to emphasize his belief in a universal God whose service requires love of all mankind bears a giant Mogen David.
Michelangelo had notably defined genius as “eternal patience.” The passage of 500 years since he completed his inspired vision on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a vision with the barely concealed message of religious tolerance and respect for the righteous of all faiths, leaves us filled with awe at his very contemporary liberal insight into true spirituality - and with hope for how much still remains to be accomplished in order to fulfill his dream for all of mankind.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech is a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and co-author, with Roy Doliner, of “The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages In The Heart Of The Vatican.”