Friday, August 31, 2012

Sistine Secrets of Michelangelo. Part 5 of 5

Today, most visitors to the Sistine have no idea who Clement VII or Paul III were, but they come from all over the world because of Michelangelo Buonarroti. The Last Judgment has become a permanent testament to the artist’s talent and philosophy. 
Michelangelo began at the top of the wall and slowly worked his way down for more than seven years, painting exclusively by himself, with only one or two assistants. He was trudging up and down ladders while he was in his sixties, an age at which most people in the sixteenth century were either retired or buried. When he finished, it would be the largest Last Judgment depiction in the world—in fact, it is the largest fresco ever done by one painter—and at the same time the most precedent-breaking, mysterious, and symbolic. Buonarroti, now world-famous, rich, in love but still the angry rebel, broke every tradition with this work. 
Directly over Jesus’s head is a handsome golden-haired angel robed in red, pointing at two men in this inner circle of the righteous. They are obviously Jews. ...One is wearing the two-pointed cap that the Church forced Jewish males to wear...According to traditional Church teaching, as clearly expressed in the first chapters of Dante’s Inferno, this depiction of those granted divine favor borders on blasphemy. Jews could never hope to have a heavenly reward. Even their greatest heroes, such as Moses, Miriam, Abraham, and Sarah, could only look forward to limbo at best. Yet here they are, Jews in the center of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, hovering over the head of Jesus. 
Since Martin Luther’s first protest against the Church in 1517, a large part of Europe had become Protestant. In Naples in the 1530s, a small but highly influential secret group formed, under the leadership and spiritual inspiration of Juan de Valdés. 
Valdés spoke out convincingly against the abuses of power and the hypocrisy of the Vatican. He wanted the Scriptures to be open and available to the average Christian, not used as an instrument of manipulation by the Church. He proposed an intellectual, questioning, analytical approach to the New Testament, in the same way that Jews interacted with their Scriptures by way of Talmudic reasoning and Midrashic insights. He believed that every Christian, free to delve into the Bible at his or her own level, would be illuminated spiritually by the holy text. In fact, this is what he called his philosophy: alumbradismo, or illuminism. Valdés regularly illustrated his teachings with Midrash and with metaphors from Moses Maimonides. Maimonides, according to Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, was the greatest mind in all of Spain in the twelfth century. Also called RaMBaM (an acronym from his full name, Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon), he was a rabbi, teacher, Bible and Talmud commentator, philosopher, poet, and translator—and all the while working full-time as a much-sought-after physician.
 With him were being extinguished the last embers of the Italian Renaissance. Leonardo, Raphael, Bramante, Botticelli, Lorenzo de’ Medici—all the other great figures had passed away long before. 
The Jews of Rome were walled up alive in the prison known as the ghetto, and all their venerable sanctuaries and centers of learning outside the ghetto walls destroyed without a trace. 
Back in the 1540s, Pope Paul III had started the repressive measures of the Counter-Reformation to crack down on the growth of reformers, Lutherans, and freethinkers in the Catholic world. 
They had hoped to meet with Martin Luther in person and somehow reach an accord that would have allowed the two faiths, Catholic and Protestant, to merge again into one new Church. The Vatican hardliners, however, were able to stall the proceedings so long that Luther died shortly after the opening session. That was the beginning of the end. 
The Council of Trent became the death knell for any reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics. 

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