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Book Review: Tracing Jewish influences on Michelangelo

Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican, Benjamin Blech and Roy Dolinger. HarperOne, New York, 2008. 320 pages.

By David Strom

David Strom

SAN DIEGO — Over the years as a reader and book reviewer, I have focused my interests mainly on nineteenth and twentieth century history. Most of that interest is focused on the Jewish people in the European, American, and Middle-Eastern areas. I have never read nor been too interested in learning about the Sistine Chapel. However, I am now glad I picked up and read this extraordinary book on the secrets of the Sistine Chapel because of the insights it has given me into the impact of Judaism on the work of the great artist, Michelangelo.

What can a well written and thoroughly researched book do for the reader? In the case of the Sistine Secrets it excited me enough to want to visit the Sistine, a place I never gave much thought to or had a desire to see. It has awakened an untapped interest in the sculpture of Michelangelo, his political thoughts, his religious beliefs, and the important ideals he stood for and fought for through his life and his art. The Sistine Secrets informs readers about the struggle to make religion understandable and accessible to the “person in the street.”

As a young boy from the mountains, Michelangelo came under the watchful eye of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who was often called Lorenzo the Magnificent. In 1489, Lorenzo saw that this mere boy could carve stone better than any adult. Seeing that Michelangelo was a child prodigy, he virtually adopted him and raised him in his home. “Thus, Michelangelo, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, suddenly found himself being raised with the richest offspring in Europe… and studying with the best private tutors in Italy.”

His education (in Italian, formazione meaning shaping, molding, forming) gave Michelangelo a particular view of the world that impacted him for the rest of his life. Important in his formazione were two Florentine masters in philosophy: Marsilio Ficino and the childhood prodigy Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. From Ficino he learned about Plato and Neo-Platonism. Michelangelo absorbed the daring ideas of this philosophic school of thought. From the young Pico, Michelangelo learned of interconnectedness “between ancient mysticism, Greek philosophy, Judaism, and Christianity.” Pico in fact inspired freethinkers, enraged the Vatican, and deeply affected the passionate, impressionable Michelangelo.” The ideas that Michagelo absorbed at this tender age would later secretly turn the ceiling of Sistine into a testimony to Pico’s unique and heretical teachings.

Ficino and Pico, Michelangelo’s teachers, were “powerfully inspired by Jewish thought.” They transmitted their ideas to their prize pupil who easily absorbed them. They taught him about the Midrash. Midrash “is not the name of one book, it rather refers to many collections of stories, legends, and biblical commentaries from the hands of different scholars.” They are, according to Jewish tradition, a part of the oral law. Midrash is interested in theology, while the Talmud is more dedicated to the law. “It has been well said the Talmud speaks to humanity’s mind but the Midrash is directed to its soul.”

With the recent cleansing of the Sistine ceiling it became clear that Michelangelo had knowledge of the Midrash. Many of his insights, as depicted in the Sistine, emerged in his biblical scenes on the ceiling. “An excellent example is the panel in the Sistine ceiling known as The Garden of Eden. There we find Adam and Eve standing before the Tree of Knowledge.” Most cultural tradition at the time, and even some today, looked upon that tree as an apple tree, however one did not. The Jewish culture did not view it as an apple tree. When Adam and Eve ate from the tree they were immediately ashamed of their nudity, so they quickly found a solution. They covered themselves with fig leaves. “According to the Midrash, the Tree of Knowledge was a fig tree, since a compassionate God had provided a cure for the consequences of their sin within the self-same object that caused it.” It is difficult to imagine any Christian being aware of this, either in Michelangelo’s era or even today. Yet, in Michelangelo’s panel of the Original Sin his Tree of Knowledge is a fig tree.

Michelangelo’s strong familiarity and affinity with Jewish knowledge helped make the Sistine into a work of art best understood with a grasp of Midrash. The “Midrashic allusions that Michelangelo worked into his frescoes-something unfortunately are almost completely unknown and ignored by contemporary scholars.”

Pico, the great teacher of Michelangelo, had the largest Judaic library of any gentile in Europe, and –more striking still-holds the record for the biggest private library of Kabbalistic materials gathered in one place anywhere.” Kabala was his passion. In fact, Pico’s dedication to this branch of Jewish knowledge “may well explain his very positive feelings towards Jews and Judaism.”

What fascinated Michelangelo about the Kabala “to the extent that almost every part of the Sistine ceiling bears traces of its teaching?” Surely some part “of the answer lies in the major premise…that beneath the surface of every object are hidden ‘emanations’ of God. Things are far more than they seem to the naked eye.” This thought fit perfectly with Michelangelo’s neo-Platonism philosophy. “Every block of stone has a statue inside of it and it is the task of the sculpture to discover it.”

Kabala allowed Michelangelo to think positively about sex. Sex was not just for procreation, as the Church taught, nor was it a sin to enjoy sex. Kabala provided a different view of male/female distinctions. “Both are equal parts of divinity because God himself/herself is a perfect blending of both characteristics-God is man and woman.

Sistine Secrets by Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner has opened a new window of light for this casual reader. In just a few pages the book has given me greater insight into my Jewish historical heritage. While I knew we should not “judge a book by its cover,” I never linked this to Kabala. Now, I might.

While I and thousands of others know the role that Martin Luther played in reforming the Catholic Church, what do we know of Michelangelo and his lifelong struggle to make the Catholic Church more humane and truly inclusive of its Jewish roots and its Jewish sisters and brothers? Michelangelo created his art filled with forbidden messages and through his boldness and courage, fought and died for these ideals. Michelangelo through his work hoped to reform the Church, and the world of his day. Through his knowledge of the Torah, he wanted all humans to live peacefully as loving sisters and brothers. While he was ahead of his time, we can work for a more just world to make his dream of Tikkun Olam come closer to being realized in the modern world.

Strom is professor emeritus of education at San Diego State University

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