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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fear and Loathing in the Sistine Chapel

Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi once dismissed Michelangelo's work with the scoffing word: 'beefsteak'. In fact, it's only relatively recently that I have been able to overcome my own resistance to his art to really examine what is there. And what is there is both magnificent and strange. When I look at his frescoes for the Sistine Chapel ceiling (admittedly by proxy, as I have not seen the actual building), I really wonder how he got away with it - and that he apparently continues to do so.

Forget about the storm of controversy that raged around Cosimo Cavallaro's recently banned life-sized chocolate sculpture of Christ (the work's title, My Sweet Lord, was clearly facetious) that rattled the windows of religious sensibilities. Right there on the ceiling of one of Catholicism's holy of holies, larger than life and for all to see, is a bizarre mix of paganism, gay pride, and the least flattering depiction of the Almighty that I know of in all of Western art. It's true enough that one painting in the chapel, that of God creating Adam, with its detail of the hands of God and Adam outstretched towards each other (above), has become one of the iconic images of our culture. But what are we to make of the God (below) whom the artist depicted creating the plants?

Assuming that we knew neither the artist nor the setting, but nevertheless were given the information that this was a portrayal of the Christian deity, it's hard to resist the suspicion that it would provoke either affronted howls of protest or guffaws of ribald wisecracks, depending upon the beliefs or otherwise of the viewers. It's downright cheeky - in both senses of the term. But Michelangelo gets away with it. Why? Because he's Michelangelo? Because it's the Sistine Chapel? Because we know this? Do five centuries of veneration intimidate believers into respectful silence? I wish that I knew.

Flanking the nine principal scenes on the ceiling, and serving to separate them visually, are twenty large male nudes (in fact, there are nineteen, as the twentieth now survives only as an incomplete disjointed head and leg). The reasons for the inclusion of these figures is mystifying; any relevant Biblical symbolism, if it existed, would seem to be lost upon all except the artist. The figures are clearly at their ease amongst the writhing Biblical turbulence which surrounds them: their languid poses (three of the more decorous of the twenty figures, above) would have made these nudes comfortably at home on the walls of some temple in pre-Christian Ancient Greece - or even decorating some chic gay bar. And yet here they are gracing a chapel: a Christian place of worship. Why are they there? There can only be one answer: they are there because they were the artist's preferred choice of subject matter.

Perhaps it is not so much the nudity of these figures which seems misplaced, as the pagan ethos which they project; an ethos which is as alien to Christian tradition as the artist's mystifying inclusion of the *sibyls - the oracles of the pre-Christian Ancient World - whose placement on the ceiling gives them equal status with the prophets of the Old Testament (the prophet Daniel, above left, and the Libyan sibyl, above right). Placing such figures alongside each other is no different in substance from, say, placing the figure of Christ next to the sun god Apollo. In his choice of figures and subjects, Michelangelo was not merely mixing cultures. He was mixing faiths.

The surviving study which the artist made for the Libyan sibyl (above) confronts us with a further enigma. The artist's model was clearly male. Another sketch in the Uffizi Gallery (the last image, below) of a male model whose testicles are visible, matches the pose of the female statue of the personification of Night (below, seen with her accompanying owl), created by the artist as part of the mortuary monument to Giuliano Medici. And looking at the statue, it's difficult to resist the thought that the woman's breasts look like nothing so much as the two halves of a buttered muffin which have been stuck on almost as a reluctant afterthought. Even given the artist's Mannerist style of exaggerating for dramatic effect, and given all the individual variations in the human female figure, Michelangelo seems here to be straining anatomical credibility.

If we join up the dots, Michelangelo is himself telling us what we can infer from history: that being in the presence of female flesh, even were it to be in the form of passive nude artist's models, was apparently a fearful - even a loathsome - experience for him. So much so that when needs must, he preferred to use male models even for female subjects. That's okay, of course, and to each his own, for the artist's towering genius carries it all off with the self-assurance of a titan. But the next time that overly-vocal conservative Christian sensibilities manage to get a chocolate Christ (or somesuch equivalent artwork) banned from public exhibition, let them reflect upon the homoerotic elements of the Sistine Chapel's frescoes and their idiosyncratic creator.

All of the above images in this post are to be seen in any good art book about Michelangelo's work, as well as, of course, in their original settings. Am I offended by what is included here? Not remotely. I am, however, both offended and alarmed by those self-appointed conservative forces - of whatever religious persuasion - which succeed in arbiting what others can and cannot see.

Artist: Michelangelo Buonarroti
Work: The Sistine Chapel ceiling, 1508-1512 (the wall of the Sistine Chapel, whose subject is the Last Judgement, was begun by Michelangelo twenty four years later, and completed in 1541)
Medium: Fresco
Location: The Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

'The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists', by Peter and Linda Murray. First issued in 1957. Revised and reprinted multiple times.
The fresco images are from the excellent scans available at:

*The art historians Peter and Linda Murray propose that the sibyls' presence is based upon their apparent prediction of the coming of the Messiah. But this, as tends to be the case with prophesies, is clearly open to willful interpretation.

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