Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sistine Secrets of Michelangelo, Part 4 of 5

Bet, in Hebrew, means “house.” In its holiest and most profound sense, it refers to the house of God, the Bet Ha-Mikdash, the Temple that would eventually be built in Jerusalem. The Torah starts its prescription for human connection with the Creator by hinting that our primary obligation is to allow God to find a home in our midst. 
Sistine Chapel was built with one purpose in mind: to serve as a replica of the Temple, erected according to its biblical specifications. Michelangelo is completing the beautification of the bet—the house of God that was alluded to mystically in the first letter...
... autocratic, syphilitic Julius II headed a religion that had lost its way, that was no longer true to the mission of its founders. The Church had become more like Nineveh and less like Nazareth. Yet, to denounce it publicly would have meant to risk the fate of Savonarola, who had been burned at the stake in Florence. No, the way of Michelangelo was to preach through his art. Given the opportunity of expressing himself in the very “Temple” of the Vatican, he made the most of it in the hope that his viewers would understand. 
Michelangelo felt a deep affinity to Moses. After all, they were kindred spirits, men of the mountains who carved their messages in stone. Aware of this midrash, Michelangelo wanted to show Moses as he appeared with this gift of prophecy, looking all the way into the distant future of humanity. That is why he returned to the technique he had used so well in carving the David. He made the eyes slightly too far apart, extra deep, and not focused on the viewer. As you stare at the Moses statue today, no matter where you stand, you realize that he is not looking at you. That’s because his gaze is fixed firmly on the future. 
This is another secret of the statue—it never had horns. The artist had planned Moses as a masterpiece not only of sculpture, but also of special optical effects worthy of any Hollywood movie. For this reason, the piece had to be elevated and facing straight forward, looking in the direction of the front door of the basilica. The two protrusions on the head would have been invisible to the viewer looking up from the floor below—the only thing that would have been seen was the light reflected off of them. 
Now, after the death of their nemesis Julius II della Rovere, the de’ Medici clan had figured out the perfect solution to defend themselves against the persistent attacks from the Vatican—they bribed enough cardinals to have one of their own elected as the new pontiff. They defeated the Vatican by simply taking it over. 
Leo X was no Lorenzo the Magnificent. His papacy was even more corrupt than that of his predecessors. Rome under Leo became an endless series of banquets and orgies, while the de’ Medicis drained the Vatican’s coffers for their own family affairs and military adventurism. Michelangelo carved the aforementioned pieces, even though he probably realized that Julius’s tomb would never be built inside the new St. Peter’s, just to get his sculpting eye and hand back in shape after the years of painting on the Sistine ceiling. The other reason was that the surviving relatives of Julius were still paying him a retainer of two hundred scudi per month, a kingly income. 
Five years after Buonarroti finished the Sistine ceiling, an exasperated German cleric named Martin Luther nailed his protests against the papacy to a church door. Within only ten years, his religious movement became a tidal wave that swept over Europe, breaking into many groups and schisms, all of which, however, shared one hatred in common—the Vatican. 

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