Friday, February 11, 2011

Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel is situated in the Vatican City and is the official residence of the pope. Many people from various religion and especially art lovers, will come to see with their very own eyes the frescoes on the ceilings of this chapel. The fresco was designed and completed by none other than Michelangelo Buonarroti, or better known as Michelangelo.  Although Michelangelo calls himself a sculpterer, he was still being forced to paint; a form of art which he despises.
The content of this post is a summary from The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the heart of the Vatican. This book narrates certain meaning of the fresco that had only recently been unearthed. Recent cleaning of the frescoes had lead to a discovery of hidden messages from Michelangelo; and these hidden messages had exposed the true colours of the papacy during his time; and the stand at which Michelangelo holds.

                                                                  The Sistine Chapel

                                                              Frescoe by Michelangelo

Before continuing on, readers must know this. During the Western Renaissance, the popes were dictators and corrupted.  In this era too, the Jews were hated and shamed excessively . Only in 1962 the Church has referred the Jews as "our elder brothers and sisters" rather than "perfidious".

The Four Corners of the Universe

Lets us first brief through the frescoes in the four spandrels (fan shaped curved panels where the walls of the chapel meet the ceiling) first. They contain the frescoes of Judith and Holofernes, David and Goliath, Esther and Haman; and Moses and the Plague of Serpents.

                                                            Judith and Holofernes

Judith is a beautiful Jewish lady who had tricked and finally killed Holofernes, for he wanted to annihilate Jerusalem. She then chopped of Holofernes head and displayed it on the front wall of the city. When Holofernes soldiers march into Jerusalem and saw their leader's head, they all flee in cowardice. This story is taken from the Apocrypha, the collection of religious stories that is both important to Jews and Christians.

                                                             David and Goliath

 David and Goliath tells the story of a young shepherd who had defeated the giant, Goliath, with only a slingshot and a sword. This is taken from the biblical book of 1 Samuel 17.

                                                                   Esther and Haman

Haman is a grand vizier to the emperor Achashverosh of Shushan(Susa in modern Iran). He advises the emperor to hold a beauty pageant and marry the winner. Esther won, therefore is crowned as the queen. Later on, Haman decides to massacre all the Jews and dupes the emperor into validating his cause. At the last minute after founding courage, Esther tells the emperor that she's also a Jew, condemned to die because of Haman's evil machinations. So this had brought rage to the emperor. The emperor then had Haman strung upon the very tree upon which he wanted to hang the Jewish leaders. This story is both found in Hebrew and Christian Bibles in the book of Esther.

                                                         Moses and the Plague of Serpents

Moses and the Plague of Serpents is a story taken from the Bible.  The wandering Israelites was stricken with a plague of poisonous snakes that threaten to kill them before they can reach the Promised Land. In order to distract their attention from the snake, Moses had just hung a copper image of  a snake on a high wooden pole. So the Israelites look upward to the image, thus lifting their thoughts toward the Divine and are saved.

Their hidden messages:
These four panels depicts the salvation of Jewish people when they were feeling doomed. Also, each facing set of spandrels display scenes of hero and heroin. This is one of the Kabbalistic teachings: the duality of God's gender. All in all, Michelangelo is conveying his interest in the Kabbalah. He also advises the viewer of this painting to hold on to hope, even when the future is dark.
A Company of Prophets

Michelangelo had chosen the prophets of Zechariah, Joel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Jeremiah and Jonah instead of other prophets to be frescoed on the ceiling; and that is 7 prophets in all.

Their hidden messages:
According to Kabbalah, the universe and Reality had been created in 7 days. The number 7 too could possibly refer to the 7 Middot, the seven characteristics of the seven lower spheres on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. According to Kabbalistic beliefs, these 7 Middot is ascending toward the divine unity. This message is perfectly conveyed by using these prophets; for according to Jews, they foretold a future spiritual redemption. So again, Michelangelo had displayed raw bravery in frescoing all of these in a Christian place of worship.



The Middle Path

Finally, we have reach the central strip of the ceiling. There are 9 panels here: First Creation, Separation of Day and Night, Separation of the Waters (theme has long been debated), Creation of Adam, Creation of Eve, The Forbidden Fruit, The Sacrifice of Noah, The Flood and The Drunkenness of Noah.

                                                               Creation of Adam

Their hidden messages:

If you look at the Creation of Adam above, you can see the cape that God (the right figure) is wearing resembles the human brain. In Michelangelo's time, it is forbidden and is considered sinful to dissect a corpse.  So nobody would actually know how a brain looks like. But here, Michelangelo had painted it in a chapel, showing that he did dissections.
Also, this central strip is actually  presenting the viewer with a deep spiritual question: Is the viewer taking a step closer to God or a step away from God.

Parting Shots

Michelangelo had painted panels that will be the epitome of his frescoes. The panels include Jeremiah and Jonah.
According to the Hebrew Bible, Jeremiah is the God's messenger who had warned the corrupt priest of the Holy Temple that their bronze and gold will be taken away if the corruption within does not stop.This fresco is situated above the papal throne in the chapel.



Their hidden messages:
Michelangelo had painted Jeremiah to warn the Vatican of the consequences of their corruption.  15 years after, the Protestant Franks had pillaged the Vatican and took away all its bronze and gold, just like what he had predicted.
Now why the artist had painted Jonah apart from to picturize the 7 Middot? Well, it is because  he sees an alter ego of his in the prophet - a reluctant prophet forced by divine will into a mission he wanted at all costs to avoid (according to the Old Testament). Same goes to Michelangelo. He despises painting but is still forced to do it. Also very worth mentioning here is, the picture of Jonah is being drawn using the method of trompe l'oeuil - a highly difficult technique of making two dimensional image, such as a painting or a fresco, seem to be three dimensional. If you are standing in the Sistine Chapel and gaze upon the ceiling, you will have the illusion as though Jonah's leg is dangling.

It's definitely a remarkable feet on how Michelangelo could actually paint the ceiling without any advance technology to assist him. And it had definitely took a toll on him. After Michelangelo had finished this fresco, his eyesight worsen and his health starts to deteriorates.

Source: wikipedia, , The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican by Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner