The Sis­tine Secrets: Michelan­gelo’s For­bid­den Mes­sages in the Heart of the Vatican

Ben­jamin Blech; Roy Doliner
  • Review
By – January 16, 2012
Pur­port­ing to be a rev­e­la­tion of cod­ed antipope and anti-Rome mes­sages embed­ded in the fres­coes of the Sis­tine Chapel, the book reads a bit like a detec­tive sto­ry of sub­ver­sive art. Accord­ing to the authors, Michelan­ge­lo Buonarot­ti was recruit­ed against his will to paint the ceil­ing of the chapel in trib­ute to Pope Six­tus IV at first, and lat­er to his nephew Pope Julius II. The case is made for Michelangelo’s famil­iar­i­ty with the Jew­ish Bible, Midrash, and Kab­bal­ah, which he incor­po­rates in his depic­tions of the Jew­ish prophets, bib­li­cal per­son­ages, and events such as the flood. The rival­ry between Flo­rence and Rome, the cor­rup­tion of the popes of the peri­od of the 15th and 16th cen­tu­ry, and the homo­sex­u­al­i­ty of the artist are all part of the his­to­ry as to why Michelan­ge­lo depict­ed scenes and male fig­ures in a par­tic­u­lar man­ner. Often repeat­ed in the book is the fact that Michelan­ge­lo want­ed to sculpt, not paint, and the entire Sis­tine project was forced upon him. Notwith­stand­ing that the pope want­ed the ceil­ing to be a trib­ute to him­self and his fam­i­ly, the artist’s resent­ment is expressed through obscene ges­tures toward the pope in sev­er­al depic­tions. The authors, Rab­bi Ben­jamin Blech, a pro­fes­sor of Tal­mud at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty, and Roy Dolin­er, a Vat­i­can docent spe­cial­iz­ing in the his­to­ry of Rome dur­ing the Renais­sance and Jew­ish his­to­ry in Italy, claim that Michelan­ge­lo was phi­lo-Juda­ic, delib­er­ate­ly select­ing only Jew­ish Old Tes­ta­ment” sto­ries and embed­ding them with mes­sages based on Kab­bal­is­tic and Midrashic inter­pre­ta­tions. A select­ed bib­li­og­ra­phy and index are includ­ed, but the lack of exten­sive foot­notes is a draw­back. A note about the illus­tra­tions: the col­or insert of select­ed scenes that are dis­cussed in the book is help­ful, while the black and white pho­tographs are less so. The book jack­et deserves com­ment — designed by Clau­dine Man­sour, it opens to a poster-size col­or repro­duc­tion of the ceil­ing fres­coes — quite impressive.
Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

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