A Review of the Book, The Sistine Secrets
By Benjamin Blech & Roy Doliner
2008, HarperCollins, New York
The Sistine Chapel in Rome is at the very heart of the Roman Catholic universe, the pope’s private chapel in the Vatican and, notably, is one of the most famous tourist sites in history. Millions of people visit each year to view the world’s largest fresco painting painted by Michelangelo in 1512 and, according to a new book by Rabbi Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner, almost certainly all miss the hidden Judaic messages the artist embedded in ceiling above them.
In their book, The Sistine Secrets, Rabbi Blech, popular author and professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University, and Roy Doliner, docent and guide to Rome and the Vatican Museums, make the radical claim that Michelangelo’s Sistine fresco contains many secrets and veiled messages “that preach reconciliation – reconciliation between reason and faith, between the Jewish Bible and the New Testament, and between Christian and Jew. While that claim is ultimately not convincingly proved, the journey of analysis of the complex images rewards the reader with many profound insights about the artwork and the complex nature of Michelangelo’s ideas.
The book is a fascinating and engaging, if at times infuriating, examination of one of the most famous and complex works of art in the world. Michelangelo painted the 12,000 square foot ceiling over the period of four years at the height of the Italian Renaissance. It depicts the narratives of the Creation and the Flood; the four salvations found in the stories of David and Goliath, Judith and Holofernes, Esther and Haman, and Moses and the Brazen Serpent; an odd collection of Jewish prophets and pagan sibyls; and a singular depiction of the Jewish people.
The book’s starting point is the surprising fact that there is not one Christian figure or image out of the hundreds of figures in the entire ceiling of the Papal chapel. They assert that in defiance of the pope it was Michelangelo who, by sheer insistence, changed the original Christian design to an overwhelmingly Judaic subject. Traditional interpretations of the ceiling have emphasized that this choice of subjects simply presents the ancestors of Jesus and the theological antecedents to the triumph of Christianity.
Blech and Doliner dismiss this as a superficial misreading of the true (and forbidden) content of the ceiling which they assert is a complex presentation of Kabbalistic concepts that preach unity of opposites and refer to many aspects of the seferot. This argument posits that from Michelangelo’s youthful exposure to Neoplatonic ideas, esoteric philosophy, Torah, midrash and Kabbalah, he found himself forever at odds with mainstream Catholic theology; hence the need for “secrets and “hidden meanings embedded in his images.
Finally, they attempt to document the antagonism between Pope Julius II and the artist by pointing out a number of alleged visual insults directed at his patron. Unfortunately, many of these assertions remain just that because of the flawed methodology of the book.
Perhaps the most grievous problem with The Sistine Secrets is that it’s fundamentally a popular and, therefore, superficial presentation of rather complex artistic, religious and cultural issues. The lack of an index, footnotes and primary and secondary sources makes many of their claims almost impossible to substantiate. Several of their arguments suffer from lack of sufficient quality reproductions. The introductory chapters and many other sections are rife with an endless banter about secrets, hidden messages and forbidden meanings that would have considerable more substance if original sources and documents had been quoted to illuminate the claims.
Zechariah (detail from Sistine Chapel), fresco (1512) by Michelangelo − Portrait of Pope Julius II, patron of Sistine Chapel
Additionally, sloppy writing and what appear to be simple mistakes of facts weaken the overall sense of trust the authors must engender with any intelligent reader. (Were artists really forbidden to sign their works even though we have numerous examples of signed works in the Renaissance?) In their popular “gee whiz writing style, the authors betray their over-investment in their interpretation of Michelangelo’s ideas. It does not help that their final assertion that Michelangelo’s intention was to “construct a giant bridge of the spirit, spanning different faiths, cultures, eras and sexualities matches much too closely the contemporary “Pave the Way Foundation supported by Rabbi Blech, that is “dedicated to achieving peace by bridging the gap in tolerance and understanding, between religions through cultural, technological and intellectual exchanges.
What should have been an exploration of the significance of a work of art seems to have slipped into advocacy for a preconceived political and social program. Nonetheless, there is much to glean from The Sistine Secrets.
The Sistine Chapel was designed to be an exact copy of the sanctuary of Solomon’s Temple, duplicating the dimensions found in I Kings 6:2 and even dividing the space into a larger Kodesh and smaller Kodesh Kodeshim with a marble partition grill echoing the curtain in the Heichel. This was part of a well-established Catholic theme of successionism − that the Church was the replacement of Judaism as the one true monotheistic faith. A series of frescos that circle the lower walls reflects this theme, depicting six scenes from the life of Moses opposite six scenes from the life of Jesus.
Perhaps one of the most interesting facets of the book is the uniquely Judaic interpretations of some of Michelangelo’s works. The world famous Pieta in St. Peter’s is a prime example. The image of Mary holding the dead body of Jesus has one startling anomaly in that she has the face of a young woman. The authors interpret a parallelism of Mary, mother of Jesus, with Sarah, mother of Isaac and matriarch of the Jewish people. And just as Rashi interprets “The life of Sarah was 100 years and 20 years and 7 years to mean that as an old lady Sarah nevertheless appeared as a 20-year-old, so too Michelangelo depicted the aged Mary as young. The concept that Isaac was a potential sacrifice and was the forerunner to Jesus as actual sacrifice strengthens this argument. Positing Michelangelo’s knowledge of Jewish texts indeed opens up an intriguing reading of the Pieta.
Less convincing is their interpretation of the Creation of Eve on the Sistine ceiling. Again the authors posit that it was Michelangelo’s Jewish knowledge that led him to depict Eve emerging from Adam’s side, as the Torah text states, rather than from the more traditional Christian depiction of being created from Adam’s rib. Unfortunately almost the exact same image is found in a relief sculpture on the façade of the basilica in Bologna done 72 years earlier by Jacopo della Quercia, an artist who was an early influence of Michelangelo.
So too are the assertions that Michelangelo had special Talmudic knowledge that caused him to depict the serpent with arms and legs. We see exactly that depiction from a Hugo van der Goes 1470 painting of Adam and Eve. It is not an unusual phenomenon that there was considerable permeability between Jewish and Christian sources of textual interpretations. Michelangelo was hardly unique, and the inclusion of these did not necessitate secret or hidden Jewish messages.
In spite of a number of fallacious claims, the authors do present some other very intriguing observations. The interpretation of the triangular panels in the four corners (David and Goliath, Judith and Holofernes, Esther and Haman, and Moses and the Brazen Serpent) as referring to four exiles and four salvations of the Jewish people, if indeed intended by Michelangelo, would strongly point to a considerable amount of rabbinic knowledge.
Perhaps the most impressive argument Blech and Doliner make for Michelangelo’s uniquely Jewish message is found in the central ceiling panel of the Temptation and Expulsion from the Garden. On the left, Eve turns and accepts the forbidden fruit from the serpent as Adam reaches over her and plucks a piece of fruit for himself. This is, of course, totally contrary to the text and has almost certainly bewildered commentators for 500 years.
What we are actually seeing is the uniquely Jewish and midrashic interpretation that Adam was equally responsible for Eve’s sin. When Adam communicated G-d’s command to Eve, Adam actually added the injunction “nor shall you touch it. That was not what G-d said and, according to the Midrash, exactly that unwarranted addition allowed the serpent to fool Eve into thinking that there was no harm in tasting the fruit. It is more than likely that only the midrashic understanding of Adam’s culpability would prompt Michelangelo to depict Adam as literally eating the forbidden fruit quite on his own without prompting from Eve.
It is clear from both the success and failure of many aspects of The Sistine Secrets that Blech and Doliner have uncovered many complex Judaic meanings in this most famous work of art. What needs to be done is to put their substantive insights into a larger perspective that deals with the many contradictory messages the Sistine ceiling poses. We shall explore some of these issues in my next review.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at email@example.com.