Friday, November 20, 2015

FFB: THE SISTINE SECRETS, Michaelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican (2008)

In gearing up for our trip to Italy, I read a pile of books, both fiction and non. This was the most interesting, and had the biggest payoff.

The authors of The Sistine Secrets present what is apparently a pretty radical theory to explain why Michaelangelo Buonarrati (I'll call him Mike) painted some of the weird things he did on the Sistine ceiling. Are they right? There seems to be disagreement among readers, but the basic argument makes a lot of sense.

No single photo can capture the entire scope of Mike's work, but this one does a better job than most. The problem is that the ceiling curves into the walls, and even this shot is missing a couple of important wall paintings. Along with at least forty major panels, there are extraneous figures and doodads filling every nook and cranny inbetween.

The facts are these: The Pope wanted a starry sky on the ceiling itself, ringed with depictions of saints and stuff from the New Testament. Instead, Mike focused exclusively on the Old T, glorifying a lot of famous, not-so-famous and anonymous Jews - and got away with it.

And, according to the authors, he got away with a lot more than that, packing the ceiling with hidden messages and not-so-hidden insults aimed directly at the church leaders. Why? The theory goes that Mike was exposed to a lot of Jewish mysticism while attending the Medici family art school in Florence, and some of it wore off. Add to that the notion that he saw the Popes of the time as vain and corrupt despots who had lost their way, and the ceiling begins to make sense.

Over the shoulder of the prophet Zechariah is a little scamp slipping his thumb between fore and middle fingers. This, we're told, is "making the fig," the Renaissance equivalent of flipping the bird.

And here, according the authors, we see God mooning the Pope.

I'm always intrigued with paintings of Judith and the head of Holofernes. This one has two added attractions. The head is said to be modeled after Mike himself, and figures are postioned oddly to form the Hebrew letter something-or-other.

The book's drawback is that it contains few color photos, and only enough black and whites to illustrate major points of interest. I solved that by pairing it with another book featuring large color pics of each of Mike's panels.

As a result, while most of the folks funneling into the Sistine Chapel were suffering sensory overload, I had a pretty fair notion what to expect, and was able to pay attention to details. My wife and I went on a Friday night when the joint wasn't crowded and made a beeline for the chapel, where we were able to spend over an hour taking it all in and studying each panel with binoculars. It was awesome, and made the rest of the museum (with the notable exception of the Rafael Rooms) seem a big waste of space.

Stay tuned for more on the chapel's other cool attractions - Mike's Last Judgment and the strange non-Mike story cycles of Moses and Jesus.


Joe Koomen said...

Pretty interesting stuff. I'm sure they was a lot of good story material in both the book, and the trip itself.

Richard R. said...

This is pretty interesting, though I was expecting to see what you came up with for the winter / holiday theme FFB.

Mathew Paust said...

Fascinating. Not only did I not realize Mike painted so many frescoes in the chapel, I had no idea how irreverent some of them were.

oscar case said...

Thanks for the interesting details.