Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sistine Secrets of Michelangelo, Part 3 of 5

Michelangelo was deeply troubled by a Church that was trying to imitate the grandeur of the Caesars while ignoring the humility and poverty of Christ. He recognized that the Vatican had become a place of unbridled corruption, greed, nepotism, and military adventurism. No longer was spiritual leadership concerned with delineating the differences between the “One” and the “seventy.” And so Michelangelo dared to express his anger by way of the angry prophet Jeremiah, who predicted doom for precisely those who failed to heed this very message. Of course, it was an extremely dangerous and seditious statement. 
He is a satirical swipe at another bearded old man, the one who would sit directly below, also known for his bad temper—Il Papa Terribile, Julius II. 
The artist was warning that the Divine Presence and its protection were getting ready to abandon the Vatican. Exactly fifteen years after Michelangelo painted his prophetic warning, the Protestant Franks perpetrated the horrific, infamous sack of Rome in 1527, raping and murdering by the thousands. 
Michelangelo saved for last his most magnificent example of three-dimensional painting. Jonah seems to be actually dangling his legs out of the wall and over the altar, while his shoulders and head seem to be leaning back through the roof of the Sistine into the open sky beyond. It is incomparable technique. It resoundingly refuted Michelangelo’s critics. But again, why did Michelangelo choose Jonah as his paradigm “stand-out” figure? 
surely disturbing to the pope who commissioned him, that of all the prophets chosen to be spotlighted by Michelangelo, not one of the seven—Zechariah, Joel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Jeremiah, and Jonah—was a New Testament hero. 
Jonah is the final and most eloquent spokesman of the Sistine Temple because Michelangelo saw in Jonah his alter ego—a reluctant prophet forced by divine will into a mission he wanted at all costs to avoid. 
As the sun begins to set on the Day of Atonement, the Jewish prayer book offers the image of the closing of the heavenly gates. The prayers change from the request to “write us down for a good year” to “seal us for a good year.” And it is just before the gates close that Jewish tradition requires the recitation of one specific Scripture. It is the four chapters of Jonah, read in every synagogue around the world as the concluding message of the day. The prophet the Jews chose to close the prayers of their holiest day is the very same prophet Michelangelo selected
The Talmudic rabbis felt that the story of Jonah is the quintessential message for the day on which Jews are most concerned to make their peace with God. 
Imagine how much these ideas must have meant to Michelangelo. Jonah was the one biblical prophet sent to preach to the gentiles. That, Michelangelo understood, became his mission as well. Try as he might, he, too, just like Jonah, could not flee his appointed task. Michelangelo was deeply troubled by the corruption of the Church and its leaders. He could not bear to see how the lust for luxury and wealth dominated papal policy, and felt that the Church was in need of serious repentance and change. For many in Michelangelo’s era, this was considered an impossible dream. Martin Luther and other like thinkers finally gave up entirely on reforming the Church and started their own forms of Christianity instead. After all, they thought, how could one realistically hope that a system so deeply sunk in sin would ever alter its course? 
And so Michelangelo closed his sermon on the Sistine ceiling with the prophet who discovered that, in spite of his doubts and forebodings, his message was taken to heart by those who heard him—and he thereby saved an entire people. Perhaps, Michelangelo prayed, the Church—just like the people of Nineveh—might listen to him as well. 
Notice that over Jonah’s left shoulder are two little angels, or putti, one above the other. Nowhere do they appear in the scriptural text. So what are they doing in this painting? The upper angel is holding up his outspread fingers, showing us the number five. 
The Church of Michelangelo’s time tried to negate the importance of the Five Books of Moses; they were nothing more than the “Old Testament,” a vestigial remnant whose old laws had been invalidated by the “New Testament” replacement. Michelangelo is sending a message to the Vatican that a Church that ignores its roots in the Torah and the primacy of the Hebrew Scriptures will be lost. 
Anyone familiar with Hebrew letters, as Michelangelo was, cannot fail to notice that the blank space defined by Jonah’s strangely crossed and twisted right and left hands clearly forms the shape of this letter: —the Hebrew letter bet. As every reader of the Bible in the original knows, bet is the opening letter of the Torah, the letter that begins the Five Books of Moses and is—in order to convey its significance—written large (i.e., double the size of all the letters that follow) in every handwritten scroll of the Bible that is read in every synagogue. 

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