Sunday, July 13, 2008

Jewish Secrets Of The Sistine Chapel

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and author of 12 highly acclaimed books, has co-authored a book with Roy Doliner entitled The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican.

In an article, The Michelangelo Code, Rabbi Blech summarizes the book's findings:
In the heart of the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel is the site of the conclave where every new pope is elected. It is without doubt the holiest chapel in the Christian world, and draws more than 4 million visitors per year. Most of the world knows it best for its magnificent frescoes painted by the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti. What has remained a little-known secret, however, is that within this citadel of Christianity lies perhaps the greatest subversive act in the history of art.

Whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, art lover or merely the curious, almost none of the visitors who enter the Sistine realize that they are gazing upon secret messages embedded by Michelangelo in his artistic masterpiece. They would certainly be surprised to learn that, in the pope's own chapel, Michelangelo employed these secret messages to advocate for a revolutionary change in Christianity's relationship to Judaism, and that the code itself was rooted in the Jewish tradition.

Michelangelo became fascinated with Midrash and Kabbalah as a teenager, studying with private tutors provided by his patron, Lorenzo de' Medici. Using his knowledge of Judaism and its mystical symbols, he later incorporated messages, via painted images, on the chapel's walls dangerously contrary to the teachings of the Church. In this way, he criticized the corrupt spiritual leadership of the time, and condemned the Church's failure to acknowledge its debt to Jewish origins.

One example, of many, of how Michelangelo criticized the church:
Michelangelo's contempt for the Church's treatment of Jews went further to insult the pope himself via an almost imperceptible gesture of Aminadab. Almost hidden in shadow, this surrogate for Jesus is subtly making "devil's horns" with his fingers, which point downward toward the very spot where Pope Julius' richly embroidered ceremonial canopy would have been, over the papal throne.
Another example, where Michelangelo apparently differed with the Church:
Michelangelo was fascinated not only with Jews but with Jewish texts as well. In the famous panel, "The Fall of Adam and Eve," Michelangelo does something no other artist in the Western world had ever done before - or probably since. The forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge had always been an apple. (In medieval Latin, the word for "apple" is malum, which in other word roots, becomes male and mala, synonymous with evil, as in the words "malicious" and "maleficent." In modern Italian, the vowels have been reversed by way of linguistic metathesis, making mela the word for apple.)

The Jewish tradition is the one exception to this commonly-held belief that the Tree of Knowledge's forbidden fruit was an apple. There's a clue in the Talmud (in Tractate B'rachot, 40a), which discusses the views of Rabbis who cite a mystical principle: G-d never presents us with a difficulty unless He has already created its solution within the very problem itself. Therefore, they propose that the Tree of Knowledge was a fig tree. After all, when Adam and Eve's transgression resulted in a shameful new awareness of their nudity, the Bible tells us their immediate recourse was to cover themselves with fig leaves - a cure for the consequence of the sin, provided from the same object that caused it.

If you look very closely in the panel depicting Original Sin, you will see that the fruits dangling from Michelangelo's Forbidden Tree of Knowledge are all juicy green figs. Having himself studied Midrash, Michelangelo chose a rabbinical interpretation of the biblical story over the one accepted by all of his Christian contemporaries.
Read the entire article--or the book.

Naturally, there has been reaction to the book. In an installment of Faith Matters Now, Father Edward Beck takes on Rabbi Blech in a 6 minute segment. The video cannot be embedded--but you can view it here. An article that presents both sides of the argument is here.

This isn't exactly The DaVinci Code, but it is interesting stuff.

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