5/23/08

Kabbalah and Talmud in the Sistine Chapel?

Reserving my judgment until I read this myself.
LA TIMES BOOK REVIEW
'The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican' by Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner

The inclusion of unorthodox symbolism in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling

MICHELANGELO studied the Kabbalah and Talmud? It's all right there, above our heads, as Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner demonstrate in their fascinating study of the Sistine Chapel, "The Sistine Secrets" (HarperOne: 336 pp., $26.95). I understand the desire to reach Dan Brown's audience with the book's provocative subtitle -- "Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican" -- but this book is hardly a "Da Vinci Code" knockoff. The authors, both experts on Judaica, scoured Michelangelo's work and found many oddities, raising such questions as: Why does the serpent in Eden have arms? Why, in that scene, is the Tree of Knowledge a fig tree instead of an apple tree? And, hey, why does the shape of "The Last Judgment" resemble the tablets of the Ten Commandments?

The Florence of the Medicis, the authors explain, was a community receptive to the Jews in a time of tumult and intolerance elsewhere. Jewish philosophy and thought filtered down to the young artist through master tutors, such as Pico della Mirandola. It was the search for an all-embracing religious philosophy, the authors suggest, that led Michelangelo to draw on alternative sources for his biblical subjects and to "brilliantly hide inside these works antipapal messages more in keeping with his true universalistic feelings." Like the best art historians, the authors give us a fresh context for the times, never hesitating to make contemporary parallels: The Medicis, for instance, gave to Florence "the feeling of a new golden age, comparable in many ways to the popular spirit . . . when the Kennedy family brought the feeling of 'Camelot' to Washington." This is a stimulating exploration that makes familiar masterpieces seem strange and new.

-- Nick Owchar

2 comments:

John D. Enright said...

Don't waste your time on this issue, Rabbi. These allegations are nothing other than the DaVinci Code wearing new clothes. If you must know about this, watch the 20/20 report about it. Since it aired a couple of weeks ago, you might be able to get it via cable on demand. I don't know if it is available on the internet. I saw it, and this is my reaction: (1) who really cares? (2) it amounts to a boring issue of little importance; and (3) it is most likely nonsense.

The idea that the Great Artist was overly concerned about corruption of the clergy and the treatment of the Jews is unlikely, although not impossible. I'd like to observe, however, that Rome was still in decline at the time, and very few of its citizens were Jews. Since Mickey wasn't particularly religious, I don't see him as upset by clerical abuse. (In fact, corruption was the normal manner of conducting business and government at the time!)

I wish that the story really had legs, because curing both evils, i.e. treatment of religious minorities in a proper manner and eradication of the rampant corruption throughout the Church, would have been laudable.

I know that what I've said could open the door to a couple of zingers, but try to resist. I am much too tired to respond right now. If I have to respond later, I just be crankier than my usual self.

bryce said...

"Since Mickey wasn't particularly religious, I don't see him as upset by clerical abuse."

A nice post, john, but I imagine that we can both find lots of people who aren't particularly religious but very upset by clerical abuse.