Chillul Tefila Bifarhesia, as well as halachicly challenged verbiage and dress, are external manifestations of a critical lack of personal yiras shomayim which has lethal consequences.
The Sistine Secrets by Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner raises many intriguing issues about one of the most important works of Western art and its creator, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564) as first presented in my review on August 29. Now we shall attempt to put this masterpiece and the artist in a larger context. Here is a brief summary of the frescos 65 feet above the floor on the Sistine ceiling that measures 46′ wide and 131′ long:
The shallow barrel vault rests on a series of round lunettes at the top of the walls that depict the Jewish Ancestors of Jesus; six panels on each side each showing two figures to represent salient figures named in plaques, such as Jesse, David, Solomon, etc. Above each is a triangular spandrel with a female dominated Jewish family associated with the ancestors below.
Above them on the ceiling proper are twelve painted architectonic thrones, each seating a dramatic and over-life size Hebrew prophet (Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Joel; Zechariah is seated over the main entrance of the chapel while Jonah is over the altar) interspersed with five pagan sibyls. This alternating prophet/sibyl motif along with 20 seated male nudes known as ignudi frames the central narrative panels of the ceiling.
Considering the visual complexity of this ceiling and our author’s radical claims of Kabbalistic and hidden Judaic content, we need to understand whether Michelangelo was really a philosemite trying to articulate and add an authentic Judaic vision to the Sistine ceiling or simply an appropriator of a handful of Judaic concepts to create a kind of artistic “cholent” mainly composed of Neo-Platonism, Catholicism and Greco-Roman paganism.
Exactly because the distinction between these ideas is vital to us, our examination of Blech’s and Doliner’s assertions must demand that we make the crucial distinction between what is historically known about the artist’s intentions through primary documents, and our contemporary analysis on the work of art, specifically the critic’s own reading and opinion of the work of art. Both are equally valid but critically distinct from one another. As viewers, we must always know the difference.
Notable is the predominance of the 20 seated male nudes, ignudi, in the pictorial scheme of the central ceiling. Twisting and turning in a constant variety of emotional poses, they effectively frame each of the scenes from Genesis and the bronze colored Biblical medallions. The term ignudi was invented by Michelangelo himself and represents his version of the idealized and eroticized nude male figure, a celebration of the Classical ideal that equates beauty with virtue, set here in immediate proximity with the Biblical narrative and the prophetic tradition. This juxtaposition would be radical enough if it were not for the fact that many of the figures in the narrative panels themselves were nude including numerous angels, Adam and Eve, the serpent, many of the victims of the flood, Noah and his sons, Holofernes and Haman. Whatever access Michelangelo had to Jewish texts and thought, the notion of modesty was clearly overlooked.
Even if we accept the premise that Michelangelo was deeply respectful and enamored of Jews and Jewish ideas in his frescos on the Sistine ceiling, two of his most famous sculptures, David and Moses, are deeply problematic from a Jewish point of view. The colossus David, twice life-sized, was installed in 1504 in front of the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence, the very heart of a newfound republican, anti-Medici and free city. Carved by the 24-year-old Michelangelo out of one massive block of marble, the totally nude depiction of the young David about to confront Goliath is a proud Renaissance image of a Greco-Roman hero representing the city of Florence in her fight for liberty.
Evidently it was admired by the Jews of Florence – no doubt as much proud, that the greatest king of Israel was seen by the Florentines as their hero, as by the spectacle that he had been transformed into a goy; he was unmistakably depicted as uncircumcised. The authors contention that perhaps Michelangelo had never seen a circumcised man or was somehow afraid of the Inquisition’s possible charge of Judaizing, fails to convince us of the artist’s deep and abiding respect for Jewish thought and concepts. It is much more likely that the great artist had little or no respect or interest in the meaning of the sign of the covenant each male Jew proudly accepts.
The similarly colossal Moses, carved right after Michelangelo finished the Sistine ceiling in 1515, is perhaps the most awesome vision of the prophet ever conceived. He sits poised to rise, grasping the tablets in his right hand as he turns and intensely gazes into the distant future. The great biographer of Renaissance artists, Vasari, comments that “the Jews continue to go there (as they do every Sabbath, both men and women, like flocks of starlings) to visit and adore the statue, since they will be adoring something that is divine rather than human.” And what they saw, in spite of Blech’s and Doliner’s apologetic, was Moses with horns, the horns derived from Jerome’s mistranslation of this passage in the Bible and yet cherished by the medieval Christians as proof of the evil demonic nature of the Jewish people. Even if Michelangelo believed the horns were symbols of magical power, the Jews knew that the common folk saw them as a symbol of evil incarnate that doomed the Jews to eternal perdition for the crime of deicide.
Another problem with the premise of the “Sistine Secrets” is the very nature of secrets and hidden codes. To communicate a secret code, one must have an audience who will understand it. The maxim of Ockham’s Razor (The simplest answer is usually the correct answer) must be applied to the explanations found in the Sistine Secrets.
Blech and Doliner argue at length that the dramatic figure of Jonah is embedded with many secret signals and meanings, indeed they see the Hebrew letter “hay” in the positioning of the prophet’s legs, echoed by the youth behind him holding up his five fingers, signifying that the primacy of the five books of Moses must be observed by the corrupt papacy. Even Jonah’s twisted pose looking above is seen as a rejection of the Pope below. Furthermore they maintain that Michelangelo understood that Jonah also means a dove, thereby substituting a Hebrew dove for the traditional dove of the Christian Holy Spirit.
All of this is possible, but is totally speculation in comparison to the clear verse in the Gospel of Matthew that compares Jonah to Jesus, quoting Jesus saying that “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale; so shall the Son of man (Jesus) be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” before the resurrection. It is a simple, direct Christian message to all visitors to the Sistine.
It is less than certain that any of the visitors of the Sistine understood the rather complex allusions to Hebrew letters, Talmudic references and Kabbalistic programs that the authors allege are present. Because of the historical silence concerning these images it would seem that no one understood these codes. On the contrary, the only controversies that the ceiling and the subsequent Last Judgment wall ignited were concerned with the egregious nudity of the figures. In fact, it is quite plausible that the silence of 500 years may simply point to the fact that these hidden codes and allusions posited by Blech and Doliner are not there at all. While they are fascinating and even at times plausible, they may simply be wishful constructions similar to the forms of figures and faces found in transitory cloud formations. What we do know is that in the vast body of Michelangelo’s letters, documents and contemporary comments about the Sistine, the artist never voiced a clear expression of his intentions. More importantly, to posit the author’s speculations as other than simple opinion is to blatantly indulge in sensationalism.
When approaching any work of art it is prudent to assume that very little can be known with certainty about the artist’s intentions. Rather the historical setting and primary documents serve as a foundation to giving a critical contemporary reading of the artwork. Ultimately it matters little what the artist intended. After a work leaves the artist’s studio and especially after the artist is dead, the artwork is on its own to establish its meaning and convince the audience of its beauty.
As Michelangelo lay dying, he summoned his close friends and assistants and ordered them to burn his remaining notes and drawings. His role as a creative artist was now ending and by closing the door on his life, he ushered his artworks into a world of their own. The ideas and creativity of Michelangelo’s works our now our inheritance. We must treat them as precious gifts in themselves, not as convenient tools for our own designs.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at email@example.com
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Dear Dr. Yael:
Do you really believe that the Internet is the reason why the divorce rate is so high among young couples? This may be so in some cases, but what about the fact that many singles are pressured to get married at a young age despite not having any idea what they are looking for in a mate? And add to that the fact that many are pressured to make a decision about marriage after dating for a very short period of time.
From the moment they stand under the chuppah, newlyweds have two years to enjoy the special bliss that new love brings. This new finding, reported by the New York Times, is based on a study undertaken by American and European researchers. 1,761 people who got married and stayed married over 15 years were followed. The research shows that after two years the couples moved into a more companionable state in their relationships.
Shel Silverstein’s 1974 poem “Where The Sidewalk Ends” is intended to paint a magical picture of a world of peace and serenity far away from the “black and dark streets.” At the time, perhaps the end of the sidewalk was a place that was “measured and slow.” Today, however, for many parents, where the sidewalk ends can feel like a scary place.
The next chapter of the award-winning novel.
Florida is famous for sparkling water. We have the beautiful Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico surrounding our coast. We have bays, lakes, canals and, of course, an incredible abundance of swimming pools in homes, resorts, apartment complexes and city parks.
The buzz is back as Camp Gan Israel Florida Overnight gears up for another fantastic summer, CGI Florida style. What makes CGI Florida so different from all the other overnight camps? It’s all in the details.
Leah Katz, a TeenZone camper at Oorah’s TheZone summer camp and an 11th grader at Midwood High School, read her winning essay about how TheZone changed her views on Judaism at the Jewish Heritage Awards Ceremony held at Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes’s office in April. The purpose of the Jewish Heritage Essay Contest is to acquaint public school students with Jewish history and customs and to help foster a deeper understanding of Jewish culture. The contest is open to students of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. Leah’s essay is reproduced in full below.
Moshe Sharett, the head of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department, visited Egypt in 1945. In Cairo he met a most remarkable young woman, a beautiful journalist who was the darling of Egyptian high society – from high-ranking military brass, to culture icons and Muslim sheikhs, to the court of King Faruk.
The two proceeded to talk about everyday things and surprisingly her mother-in-law did not find anything else to criticize. This occurred a few more times, with my client changing the topic every time by complimenting her mother-in-law or mentioning something positive about her.
There is always a lot of confusion surrounding sensory processing disorder – mainly because there are many different diagnoses that fall under the catch-all phrase sensory processing disorder (SPD). Among them are three specific subcategories:
The doctor had warned us that even if we did everything right and followed the protocol after the follicle was of the right size, there was no guarantee of success. Fertilization still had to occur, and just like couples do not necessarily become pregnant every month, we had no way to know if we were actually expecting for two full weeks.
The next chapter of the award-winning novel.
In the eyes of the ram lies the artist’s commentary on the Rosh Hashanah piyyut “The King Girded with Strength.” From the Tripartite Mahzor (German 14th century), this illumination simultaneously echoes the piyyut’s praise of God’s awesome power and expresses the terror of actually being a sacrifice to God. The ram is but a reflection of Isaac. It is all in the eyes.
Reaching back in time to reclaim a family for herself and, in a yahrzeit moment, to rekindle lives snuffed out, Diana Kurz’s paintings stand as testaments to victims of the Holocaust. After a successful 20 year career as an artist and teacher, (with a strong feminist bent), in 1989 Kurz happened upon a few surviving photos of her own relatives “who disappeared during the war.” Suddenly her past opened up and possessed her. This spring (April 4 – May 2, 2012) a series of these paintings was shown at the Art Gallery at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY.
Examining a choice selection of drawings done by Itshak Holtz over 30 years ago is a rare pleasure that allows for the appreciation of his unique sensitivity and insights. I was afforded that pleasure at the inaugural exhibition of the Betzalel Gallery in Crown Heights this past May. Although this modest selection of 25 drawings and watercolors of this paradigmatic frum artist ranges from 1963 to 1999, the majority of the works is from the 1970s and reveals a special aspect of his inner artistic soul. The selection of images could easily narrate the fabric of ordinary Jewish life.
Earlier this year I was presenting my survey of Jewish art, “A Jewish Art Primer,” in a West Hartford, Connecticut synagogue and during the intermission a local artist, David Holzman, introduced himself to me. He relayed his rich and fascinating artistic background and then produced a portfolio of 8 black and white prints that he generously gave to me as a gift. As a tantalizing glimpse into recent work, they are truly amazing and I would like to share them with you.
Boris Schatz (1866 – 1932) had a revolutionary vision. He believed that the creation of a new modern Jewish visual culture would become a major force to both articulate a Jewish national identity and sustain the Zionist enterprise. In 1904 he approached Zionist leader Theodor Herzl with the proposal to establish a national arts and crafts school in Palestine and got his blessing. Tragically Herzl died later that year, but the Zionist leadership in Vienna assumed responsibility for the project and its funding.
The exhibitions that precede Judaic auctions are rather special events for anyone who has a feeling for the fabric of Jewish life as it has been lived for the last 500 years. Not only is one afforded the opportunity to see a wide variety of Judaica, books, manuscripts and Jewish art of considerable historic importance, but if something strikes your fancy; intellectually or acquisitively, you can actually handle the objects. For most artwork the thrill is in seeing it up close and judging the brushstrokes and details of a painting or watercolor. One stands in the exact proximity as the creator did.
The auction at Christie’s in Paris this May 11 of a Tuscan Mahzor, created and illuminated in the 1490’s, will be an extraordinary event. This rare example of illuminated Jewish art has not been seen publically in over 500 years and, aside from tantalizing internal suggestions, lacks conclusive identification of the scribe and illuminators. Because the gold-tooled goatskin binding was made about 50 years after the manuscript and has a different coat of arms than those found in the machzor, it is assumed that this prayerbook may have quickly changed hands.
One thing is certain about Robert Feinland – he has shuls on his mind. His career has spanned over 40 years, exploring landscape, cityscape, sculpture and abstraction. For many of those years he has focused on the relentlessly changing urban landscape of New York, feeling the necessity to document and, in some way preserve, the physical fabric of the city he loves. A selection of recent paintings, most concentrating on the Crown Heights community, is currently at the Chassidic Art Institute. Many of the images are of shuls.
Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/michelangelo-and-the-jews-part-ii/2008/09/10/
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