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Posts Tagged ‘Roy Doliner’

Michelangelo And The Jews: Part II

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

The Sistine Secrets
By Benjamin Blech & Roy Doliner
Harper Collins, New York, 2008

 

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.


The small and large narrative ceiling panels alternate across the long vault: G-d Dividing Light from Darkness; G-d Creating the Moon, the Sun and the Plants; G-d Separating the Waters from the Land; Creation of Adam; Creation of Eve; Temptation and Sin of Adam and Eve and the Expulsion from the Garden; the Sacrifice of Noah, the Victims of the Flood and Drunkenness of Noah. In the corners of the ceiling are the four salvations of Israel: Judith and Holofernes, David and Goliath, the Brazen Serpent of Moses and the Punishment of Haman. 

 

 

 

Moses (1515), marble by Michelangelo, San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

 

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.


It should be noted that these issues were not overlooked by the generation that followed Michelangelo.  The Council of Trent (1545 – 1563) was the Catholic reaction to the Protestant Reformation and they found these aspects of Michelangelo’s work deeply troubling.  Before the great artist had died, they ordered his friend Daniele da Volterra to cover up much of the most egregious nudity in the Last Judgment (painted by Michelangelo between 1536 and 1541 on the huge altar wall of the Sistine Chapel).  A similarly censorious program on the ceiling was prevented by logistical problems with constructing a practical scaffold to reach the entire ceiling.

 

 


Jonah (detail of Sistine ceiling, 1511), fresco by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, Rome

 

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 rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

Michelangelo And The Jews

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

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 rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/michelangelo-and-the-jews/2008/08/27/

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