The Glory of the Lord
The Sistine Ceiling
© John W. Dixon, Jr.
It is necessary to begin with a simple descriptive statement of the ceiling and its primary paintings.
The infamous Pope Sixtus IV built the Sistine Chapel in 1475-81 and it bears his name. It was intended as the Pope's private chapel and appears from the outside as a plain, rectangular mass. It has a fort-like appearance, signifying the necessity to guard the central authority of the church.
The interior is a plain rectangular space with a shallow, flattened vault. The side walls are covered with a series of paintings done by several leading painters of the fifteenth century, Botticelli, Perugino, and others. The program of these paintings is germane to the understanding of the whole Chapel. There was not, originally, an over-all program that Michelangelo completed; the earlier artists had no way of anticipating the program of the ceiling. Michelangelo, however, knew their work and could build on it. Above these series, there are paintings of popes by various artists.
On the liturgical south wall there are scenes from the life of Christ, life under grace. On the liturgical north wall there are scenes from the life of Moses, life under the law. While they are no rivals to the awesome expressive power of the ceiling, they do provide the occasion for the program of the ceiling, left free for a presentation of life before the law.
Interpretations of the ceiling usually trace a theological program derived from contemporary documents. No one of these interpretations has received general acceptance in the scholarly community. The late Renaissance was full of complex programmatic pictures developed as intricate intellectual arguments by scholars in their studies. Michelangelo had little formal schooling but he read a great deal and talked with intellectuals. he certainly had intellectual ability sufficient to handle a complex program. Nevertheless, there is little precedent in his work for such intellectual riddles nor is there much in his personality to suggest that he would have accepted the direction of a Vatican official. Summers' statement of this issue is reasonable: "Michelangelo did not mean that he could paint whatever he wanted; rather, like Ghiberti, he meant that he could treat his theme in whatever manner he chose. Probably too, like Bellini, he meant that the theme could not be constricting, but rather must yield when necessary to pictorial invention, so that the distance between conceptual and visual elaboration was closed" (Summers 1981: 453).
While Michelangelo was an irascible and difficult man, he was not a boor and nothing precludes conversations with various Vatican officials while maintaining his statement that the Pope gave him a free hand. Whatever the complexity of detail, the framework of the program is simple and everything is dominated by the nature and the power of the presentation, which was always under the control of the artist. We do know that the project began with the idea of painting the twelve apostles where the prophets and sibyls now are. The ceiling itself was to be covered with traditional decoration. At Michelangelo's insistence, the program was enlarged to include the whole ceiling. The few surviving sketches suggest the inevitable, that he first planned the design of the ceiling without regard for the subjects within the divisions. With no evidence one way or another, I am supposing that he had a general idea of the type of subject appropriate to each area and then worked out the details in consultation with one or more of the resident theologians.
It seems to me essential to state again that, if there were a theological program of the traditional kind and if we had secure knowledge of that program, we would be no nearer to understanding what we see on the walls. We are on most secure ground if we assume that the whole of the ceiling is Michelangelo's achievement.
The scholars who develop these accounts establish an intricate web of interlocking Biblical and theological allusions. To those without special knowledge, each proposal is convincing and might remain so were it not for the others that differ in almost every detail. On the one hand, these intricate programs might be considered a tribute to the creative ingenuity of the scholars. On the other hand, they are tributes to the depth and range of Michelangelo's fundamental simplicity, that his work can generate so many responses differing with the personality of the observer. We confront the awesome simplicity of a powerful mind dedicated to a simple principle. There is a program but it is not the traditional kind derived from documents and exhausted in words. It is a program that can be seen, not determined by research, an artistic, not a philosophic, program. It is best to start with the assumption that the ceiling is evidently and essentially what we see it to be.
Although the initial impression of the ceiling is one of great complexity, the organization is simple. Within its great size and its astonishing complexity, the ceiling can be divided into four levels, two of which can be subdivided.
1. The backbone of the ceiling is the series of paintings, alternating large and small, which run down the center. The series begins above the altar with "God Separating Light from Darkness" (the traditional title; it appears more nearly to be the first division of chaos, which may be the same thing). It proceeds through the various stages of creation, the fall, the flood, and ends above the doorway with the Drunkenness of Noah.
2. Flanking the small paintings and often overlapping the edges of the large ones, are twenty nude young men. They hold garlands of oak leaves (the emblem of the Pope's family, the delle Rovere) and ribbons from which hang painted medallions of selected Old Testament events.
3. The next level is the most varied. Between the spandrels of the windows, there are alternating prophets and sibyls, accompanied by two child figures. Pairs of putti flank their thrones, in active poses but painted to look like sculptures. Flanking these putti are bronze-colored nude male figures in various poses and with no indication of identification or function.
4. In the spandrels and lunettes around the windows are the ancestors of Christ, from the genealogy in Matthew. In the corner spandrels are four Old Testament scenes traditionally considered types of Christ or precursors of redemption.
5. The painted architecture is so much a part of the interpretation of the ceiling that it deserves to be listed as though it were among the actors. Michelangelo has painted a cornice around all four sides of the ceiling, enclosing the painted scenes and the ignudi. These panels are separated by painted ribs, terminating at the cornice and apparently supported by buttresses that constitute the sides of the thrones of the prophets and the sibyls.
None of this is illusionistic in the sense that characterized later Baroque vault paintings. That is, there is never a sense that the vault opens up to a vision of a scene that lies beyond it. All is clearly on the surface of the vaulting. The vaulting sets up a series of "levels of reality" that are important to the understanding of Michelangelo's achievement.
The ceiling has to be seen and understood both longitudinally and transversely. The histories provide the longitudinal axis; all the rest is designed to be seen from one side or the other. There is no single point of view. Each segment of the ceiling is seen from its own point of view and the spectator is required to move processionally through the Chapel to experience its successive unfolding. Unlike Baroque ceilings that are coherent from one point only, the visual reality of the ceiling's segments beyond the immediate field of vision is not violated. The parts beyond the spectator's place are progressively more foreshortened but not misshapen.
The shape of the Chapel, with the vertical wall surface curving over into the ceiling, is not denied but accepted and articulated. Above the lunettes, Michelangelo has run a strong painted cornice around the central area. Without compromising the curvature of the vault, which is still clearly perceptible, this cornice creates a fictive distinction between wall and ceiling while framing the histories. It is the first determinative of the pictorial reality. The ignudi sit on blocks resting on the apparent cornice, the prophets and the sibyls sit between the vertical pilasters supporting this cornice, the pairs of putti stand or are pictorially "carved" against the pilasters. Since the ignudi belong to the defined central area with the histories while being oriented to the side, they are the principal means for dissolving any isolation between the two sections of the painting without compromising the distinction.
It is still too soon after the completion of the cleaning of the ceiling to have full confidence in the analysis of its color. Nevertheless, the color is too important to ignore. Michelangelo uses color both to model the forms and to counterpoint its rhythm across the modeled forms from one part of the ceiling to another. The energy of the ceiling is not simply the depicted energy of the represented forms but the swelling and receding of the color. The color is both representational, in the presentation of flesh, and abstract, in the handling of drapery. Representational color anchors vision in earthly experience. The abstract color with its independent rhythm transcends mundane experience into a kind of ecstasy. The overpowering sense of vitality we receive from the ceiling is, in part, due to the color. It remains to be seen how Michelangelo handles color in the Last Judgment since it cannot now be seen properly under all the dirt.
The consequence is clarity of definition within a tightly interrelated series of forms. In its initial apprehension, the ceiling assumes a commitment of intelligence without any requirement of emotion, of mystical intuition, or of the non-rational. Equally, the form of the ceiling requires a process of participation, both to grasp the successive levels of the composition and to press forward down the Chapel to see the whole successively unfolding.
Painting and Participation
Before looking at the actual painting, it is necessary to consider certain preliminary matters, else the painting will be misunderstood. A painting is not merely the representation of a subject and an illustration of a program but a placement and a relation that is part of the definition of a world.
Both truth and meaning are inseparable from the situation. The immediacies of the situation that need concern us now are Michelangelo's place in the enterprise of Florentine Renaissance painting and the actual shape and energies of the strange place of his painting.
I have proposed that the whole painting is not simply a program but a liturgy. The initiating material for a true liturgy is the physical and symbolic (psychological) elementals of human life. The specific shape of the liturgy is the manner of incorporating these elementals into a larger body of meaning and purpose. The action of the liturgy is the incorporation of the worshiper into the symbolic image by the action of the body, by participation in the sacramental elements, by the symbolic (metaphorical) language. The consequence of an effective liturgy is the shaping of the sensibility, the consciousness, the image structure, of the worshiper. The purpose of the liturgy is the construction of the soul in the image of that religion.
The fullness of true liturgy requires full participation in the transforming action; the principle of the true liturgy is the same as the enspiriting principle of so much art, taken as central to the Florentine enterprise. It is in this sense that Michelangelo's work in the Sistine Chapel is participant in the liturgy, an instrument of the liturgy. As the true art work requires a participation of the sensibility of the spectator in the structure of the work, so these paintings are a means for the total liturgy that is not exhausted in the service at the altar. requiring participation. For Michelangelo, participation is an intellectual act but it is more than that. It is an action involving the whole sensibility. Michelangelo did not work in a vacuum but in terms of an inherited visual language that he developed much further. To apprehend the ceiling in its fullness, it is necessary to examine the all important transaction between the painting and the spectator.
Every painting of whatever style is an element in such a transaction and, in ways we are only timidly beginning to understand, great paintings shape the imagination of those who participate in them. The transactions are more complex than the ordinary distinction, "realistic" and "abstract", suggests. Every traditional representational painting is a complex whole made up of formal elements that variously possess perceptual reality in themselves but, in their arrangement, suggest to the perceiving mind another reality that is not to be identified with the actuality of the painting. Differently put, the physical elements of the painting and the representation conjured up by the ordering of those physical elements are equally real, although in different modes of reality.
The fictive reality of the representation is related to the perceptual reality of the experienced world, itself a product of the perceptual equipment of the observer, trained and tuned by the ideological and perceptual structures the observer inhabits. Some aspects of the perceptual experience are universal; people in all cultures walk around without bumping into things. (There are more universals than simply perceptual proficiency. See Turner 1986 25ff, for a summary of this research.)
Other aspects are culturally determined, as the intricate perceptual experience becomes ingredient to symbolic experience (which is meaning): are the edges of the self permeable or impermeable? how large and how inclusive is the word "we"? is meaning and purpose up, down, around? is time like a stream, or a lake, or a wheel? Such questions are almost innumerable and the answer to them constitutes the world of a person or a culture. The account of this world is both purpose and bedrock of all history and interpretation, for "ideas", philosophical or theological, are generated out of this matrix, formulations of its implications in the terms of various languages. It is probably impossible to work out causal priority among the various languages; their interactions are too complex for any understanding. The most I am willing to claim here is that art's immediate involvement in the organization of perceptual experience and its transformation into symbolic experience makes it a primary and not a derivative enterprise.
This is the reality of art and of criticism. Artists make their works by the instruments of their perceptual and symbolic equipment, trained in their world. We apprehend the work by perceptual and symbolic equipment in part trained by those artists. We do not make the work but the work we experience is other than the work made and can never be otherwise. We reconstruct as best we can; the reconstruction is essential to our humanity.
Medieval art is as complex and varied as every serious style, but the element most of its paintings share is their status as objects within the observer's world. Renaissance painters decisively changed the conception of the painting's relation to the experienced world. It is still an object in our world, but it is seen as an opening, a window, into an imagined world.
Our own perceptual-symbolic equipment is a product of the great shift of the modern period that, in one important respect, is a return to the medieval conception of a painting: it is again, an object in our world and not an opening into an imagined world.(Steinberg l972: 289-291.) Despite this congruence, we have a different perceptual style (insofar as we can determine the perceptual style of medieval people from a study of their art; the argument here is inescapably circular). Because of our very different perceptual style, it is impossible for us to know how the medieval observer "saw" the object and those things on or within the object's surface that in some way corresponded to things in their actual or fantasy world. We can postulate only that they saw an ordered world that was not interrupted by the objecthood of the painting. The painting, as an object within that ordered world, elucidated the structural principles of the order and, by that, affirmed the order even against and apart from ordinary perceptual experience.
The creation of a fictive world beyond the plane of the picture was decisive to the creation of what we call the "Renaissance". The perceptual and intellectual transaction became far more complex. The painting, for all the representation on it, is no more separate from the experienced world than any other painting, being equally made of pigment applied to a support. At times, the fictive space and objects took on such a sense of actuality that they seemed to obliterate the surface of the painting. Even so, there is no way of abolishing the surface, nor is there any way of making the fictive world coterminous with the experienced world or any part of it. By a variety of devices, the Renaissance artists analyzed the fundamental modes of our perceptual-intellectual dialogue with the world.
This is part of the definition of our and their relation to space. It also defines the relation to time (and the account of time and space is more basic than anything else in the interpretation). The objecthood of earlier art suspends the issue of time; the thing simply is, within the world as we experience it. Florentine Renaissance painting made the spatial relations of things a matter of central interest. Among the things, motion is a matter of principal interest and among the represented people, expressive motion is the primary concern. But the motion never moves. The momentary is fixed. The very suspension of time reminds us inexorably of the fluidity of time; affirmation and denial are co-existent.
Italian paintings on walls are a very special case. The wall occupies a singular place in the Italian imagination; every visitor to an older Italian city can testify to the visual dominance of fine walls, in natural stone or beautifully colored and weathered stucco. Openings and ornament do not dominate the walls but articulate them, giving them their characteristic rhythmic order.
Fresco painting is one of the great Italian arts, in itself and in its definition of the wall. Wall painting is different from easel painting. The wall shapes architectural space, which is the physical context of the spectator. Once shaped, the space becomes the psychic and symbolic context. The interiors of Italian churches are rarely dominated by windows but by their great walls. The shaped wall is a powerful psychic force and, therefore, a major theological issue.
Framing is a more immediate problem in easel painting but the necessities of his ceiling and his intellectual disposition required Michelangelo to make it a major issue in his fresco. The frame is not simply a boundary between the painting and its context. It is an instruction in the nature of the relation between the extracted segment of the experienced world that appears in the painting and the world within which, as a painting, it is set. It is a means of defining the relation of the painting to the spectator. The spectator occupies for the moment the same contextual world as the painting, comes to it from a world that is not that of the painting or of the represented context but is, by all the means of the painting, including the framing, disciplined to the symbolic order that the painting embodies.
This project, the Renaissance definition of the relation between spectator and image, was one of the most profound in the western intellectual enterprise. Awareness of it is the necessary background for any intelligible treatment of Michelangelo's work. When his work is seen programatically, in routine "formal" analysis, it remains inaccessible to us. It will become accessible only as we grasp it in its place in the matter of Italian painting.
At the same time, what Michelangelo has done in the Sistine Chapel cannot be seen only in terms laid down by his predecessors. While his Italian rooting is beyond dispute, his achievement is a modulation of Italian painting into a new key.
Michelangelo's predecessors kept the painting on or behind the picture surface. There are exceptions even to this. The major exceptions were Michelangelo's great predecessors, Masaccio and Donatello, and Donatello paid for his boldness with a lack of general comprehension not yet overcome. Nevertheless, the generalization applies to the bulk of what was done. There is no precedent for Michelangelo's particular achievement, affirming the surface while, by his framing architecture, carving out pictorial niches in it to contain some figures while having other figures placed at varying distances from it.
In defining the relation of a Renaissance painting to the spectator, the matter of framing is inseparable from the matter of the point of view. A Renaissance painting was a window into an imagined world; this required that the space of that imagined world be convincingly organized for the placement of both figures and things within it. Linear perspective was essential to the enterprise of Renaissance art.
Linear perspective organizes the space of the painting around two points, one fictive, one actual. The fictive is the vanishing point, the point all parallel lines in the painting recede to. The actual one is the eye (the single eye) of the spectator. Linear perspective depends on the establishment of this single point of view.
The consequence is striking. By definition, the spectator is outside the picture, looking at it through the frame, but detached from it, as though inside a room, observing the enacted event outside. Obviously, the more fully the perspective is established, the more the spectator is detached from the painting and the desired empathy with the acts of the figures. Intelligent looking at a Renaissance painting compels, by its separation of the acts of seeing, a new kind of self-consciousness. The history of Florentine painting is the history of contention with this problem.
Michelangelo's solution would not have been possible without the great size of the chapel but then, no one else could have organized that space to the same effect. Before the painted surface can be understood, the surface to be painted must be understood. While ceiling paintings were a part of the repertoire of Italian art, there is no precedent in size or difficulty of shape for this one. It may be that this ceiling produced Michelangelo as much as Michelangelo produced the ceiling.
The point deserves repeated assertion; the problems of human thought are not simply those of verbal propositions. The problem of the Sistine ceiling was peculiar to that situation since it was determined by the placement and shape of the surface but the particularities of its situation are a part of a basic problem of thought and Michelangelo's solution to the problem is one of the great achievements of philosophical-theological thinking.
A surface to be painted (as well as a block to be carved and a space to be enclosed) is not empty and neutral. It is already a field of forces which the good painter must take into account. Study of the few surviving preparatory drawings for the ceiling confirms what ought to be expected, that Michelangelo began with the problem of organizing this vast and strange area according to its inherent forces. In the eloquent words of de Tolnay:
It follows necessarily that the fundamental thinking, literally basic thinking, had to be done prior to any selection of subjects. Conversely, the subjects had to be those whose form and energies would fit into the structures and the energies of the ceiling. This was a decision only Michelangelo could make, whatever advice he may have received from theologians.
While its forces may determine the basic composition of the ceiling, the surface of the ceiling is far from being the controlling force. Only the narrative scenes are fully on the other side of the picture plane; the rest are variously placed within the fictive architecture or apparently come forward from it into our space and thus involve us in the action of the ceiling and involve us differently with each pictorial element.
These are not casual matters of composition but determinants of thought. Michelangelo's solution to the problem is a distinctive example of his ability to grasp the truth of a situation and shape his meanings around it.
Every part of the painting has its own point of view but each is coherent from any point of view. The spectator is never displaced from the reality of the painting but, equally, never permitted to remain in a single place; it is a dramatization of the traditional journey from entrance to altar. To see the painting it is necessary to move through it, thus being forced to submit to it without, at the same time, being obliterated by it. The spectator is never separated fully from the paintings; the overwhelming experience of the chapel is the emphatic and immediate presence of the figures within it.
This analysis is directed toward those elements of the ceiling that are setting and reinforcement for the main series of pictures, the formal and iconographical backbone of the program. Both the fictive architecture and the figures placed within it exist as support for the central panels and the understanding of the central series is the key to understanding the whole.
The formal ordering of the central series is profoundly ambiguous. We can only assume that this ambiguity is deliberate. The paintings are not what ceiling paintings were later to become, windows into the heavenly regions beyond. Neither are they unequivocally paintings on a clearly defined wall surface. They are not seen from below up, although there were precedents for such a design. The paintings are seen as though the spectator were standing directly in front of them. (The only possible exception to this is the final panel of God dividing chaos where the head and, to a lesser degree, the body, are seen from below.) The psychic apprehension of the panels is necessarily ambiguous; they are above and so partake of the visionary. They are firmly on the wall and so partake of immediate experience. Since they are firmly supported by the complex but unambiguous ordering of the lateral figures and the architecture, they are held before the worshiper for contemplation in the deepest meaning of that word.
The contemplation is dynamic since the worshiper is forced down the length of the Chapel to see each panel in its wholeness; each has its own point of view. This ancient pilgrimage comes to a stop only at the altar where the priest elevates the host to receive the divine inspiration and sees God in a similar position bringing the first order out of chaos.
The Prophets and the Sibyls
While the histories in their reciprocal movement, entrance to altar and back, provide the principal axis of meaning, they are not the most immediately impressive part of the Chapel. As almost any visitor to the Chapel can testify, the first, overwhelming, impression is that of the gigantic representations of the prophets and the sibyls. These figures must be characterized in themselves and in their function within the whole scheme.
It is not simply their size that is so impressive, it is the overwhelming coherence and eloquence of their forms and attitudes. To understand the full significance of this coherence and eloquence, it is important to see Michelangelo in his place as a Florentine artist.
No work of art is understood merely by tracing its intellectual or stylistic precedents; Michelangelo cannot be explained by locating his origins. Despite the appellation "divine" that his contemporaries awarded him, he was not superhuman, creating out of nothing. He was a Florentine.
The great achievement of Florentine art was not simply its famous naturalism but its coherence of gesture as determined by an inner emotional state and the requirements of the narrative. For Giotto, who first established the principle, the narrative is central. Every gesture defines the place and the role of the figure in the narrative. The gesture is not simply seen and recorded from the outside. It is determined by the manner of participation of the figure in the narrative. Thus the gesture, the expressive action of both hands and bodies, simultaneously defines the human significance of the story and the manner of participation of each person in it. By thus locating the represented figures within the event, Giotto defines their personality. Since the figures have three dimensionality and ponderous weight, the response to them is not merely intellectual understanding in the mode of pedagogy but empathetic participation. The spectators, who are less spectators than worshipers if they approach the paintings properly, experience the fullness of the story in their bodies. Since the narrative is the sacred story, it trains the worshiper's body to the action of the narrative and, by that, trains the soul of the worshiper to the meaning of the action.
It is not possible, in such a psychology as this, to make a distinction between body and soul or to define the human in terms of a distinction between spirit and matter.
This principle, once articulated by Giotto, became the inspiriting force of the Florentine enterprise, which developed it, explored it, worked out the various techniques necessary to its full realization. That task was nearly complete when Michelangelo came to his maturity. With him, the Florentine tradition is not simply brought to completion but modulates into a new mode.
Each prophet and sibyl is firmly centered within the gravitational ordering of a heavy, massive body. Each develops outward from that center with an energy of movement that is coherent and controlled. The emotional range manifested in the figures is great; act and attitude set out the particular emotion and, in each case, act and attitude are wholly consistent with intelligence and will. The figures posses the kind of unity and coherence that cannot be described in dualistic terminology such as body and soul, or body and spirit.Those things we refer to by such terms are fused into single, undifferentiated acts and attitudes. They are manifestations of human wholeness and completeness.
The prophets and sibyls represent humanity in its fullness. They not only have the coherence of act and attitude proceeding from a unified organism, they make manifest the distinctiveness of form and personality of separate human beings. They are, in the fullest sense of the word, individuals. They may be the perfection of humanity but they are not idealizations of humanity. On this point alone the Neoplatonic interpretation of the Chapel must fall, for these dominant figures do not suggest the imprisonment of the spirit in matter or any sense of contradiction between body and soul. As nearly as possible with twelve figures, the full range of specifically human character and personality is set out, male and female, beauty and ugliness, passion and despair, reflection and action, youth and age. Each is consistent and individual in appearance, in status, in act.
The act is fully motivated as drama and as expression; Michelangelo was heir to the whole of the preceding Florentine tradition. In contrast to most of the Florentine tradition, he does not specify the drama. In no sense are the prophets and the sibyls part of a story. Were they parts of a story, the story would, by definition, contain them and distract part of attention to other issues. As it is, attention concentrates solely on what they are, as revealed by what they do. Since what they do is clearly motivated, the imagination is free to explore possibilities. This is good, so long as no single possibility assumes control of the figure and distracts attention from the full range of its humanity.
It is important to stress this individuality. Platonic or Neoplatonic interpretations of Michelangelo's work must assume some idealization of form, since, in the Platonic hierarchy of ascent, the idea is more important than the immediate actuality of the individual; the individual is merely an imperfect copy of the idea. Michelangelo's figures are not ideal in this sense. They are precisely delineated in both form and personality. At the same time, they do not appear to inhabit the world of our ordinariness. Their world is not the world of pure, Platonic forms, but the perfection of what they are individually.
These figures have their place in both the program and the Chapel. Programatically, they are those who, before the rule of grace, foretold the coming of grace. They are, therefore, humanity under grace, in-formed by the reality they foretold, the fusion of nature and grace. Their foreknowledge of the Christ determines their presence and role in the program. Therefore, they are the most nearly explicit Christological elements on the ceiling. We can assume that their coherence of organism and act is a result of their relation to the Christ.
We need to take special note of the figure of Jonah, at the end above the altar. He is the one most intimately related to the Christ; his three days in the belly of the sea monster correspond to Jesus's three days in the tomb. He is, therefore, a "type" of Christ. He is the only one of the twelve figures who is aware of the events in the histories above.
In the ordering of the painting, these (and the ignudi) are the only figures that appear to exist within the actual space of the Chapel itself. In the hierarchy of levels of reality, Michelangelo begins with the surface of the wall, which he articulates by the painted architecture; the architecture comes forward from the wall without denying it. All the elements of the ceiling, except the prophets and the sibyls, are placed by the fictive architecture, either behind it (the histories), attached to it, or within its interstices. The prophets and the sibyls are the largest and most impressive figures of the ceiling; while they are closely related to the architecture by their thrones, they come forward into the space of the Chapel. They are, in effect, the fulfillment of ourselves.
The Ignudi and the Putti
There is no convincing iconographical interpretation of the ignudi. We have no choice but to take them simply as they are.
First and most obviously, they are the consummate beauty of the human, in their youth and their magnificent strength and energy. More significantly, their action is only partly motivated by will or controlled by intelligence. They are alert and alive, therefore they posses both intelligence and will, but their bodily movements are determined more by their natural energies than by intelligence or will. They perform their assigned functions, holding the garlands and the bands supporting the medallions, but they do so with actions wholly out of proportion to the necessities of the task, actions unrelated to any determined state of emotion and thought. Since they are human and not inert, the ignudi have expressions but, despite the maturity of their bodies, the expressions are responses to, determined by, their physical being and act. In short, the ignudi are the pure natural vitalities of the human outside both the law and grace. They lack the decisive human element, a moral consciousness. Despite the potential implicit in their bodily energy, there is in them no particular sense of intentional potentiality, of action into the future.
Like the prophets and the sibyls, the appear to be within the space of the Chapel, our own space. They are not other than ourselves. They are one mode of human experience. They are also singularly beautiful. This is not a word the Anglo-Saxon mind easily applies to males but it comes naturally to the Italian imagination without necessarily having an erotic dimension. For Michelangelo, the idea of beauty goes deeper: it is part of the infinite energy and the creativity of God. The numinous, the holy one himself, is the terrible mystery, the fearful majesty, the daunting and terrifying awfulness of the infinite energy, the overwhelming and remorseless pressure of an energy beyond imagining, all of which is at the same time the most desirable of all things, the ultimately attractive and fascinating, the overwhelming beauty that is, at the same time, the ultimate in the aweful.
This is all known elsewhere. It is a beauty terrible as an army with banners. Rilke, himself not at all a Christian, said,
Since beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we can hardly endure,
and we admire it so because it serenely disdains
to destroy us. (Rilke 1939: 20. Translation slightly altered.)
This principle becomes peculiarly relevant in considering the most beautiful male figure in the Chapel, the Christ of the Last Judgment.
Although beauty is not necessarily erotic, these figures are undeniably erotic and most pressingly raise the issue of the erotic in Michelangelo. In the Introduction, I set out what I judge to be the essential principle: the presence of either male or female eroticism does not cause the great work of art but is part of the materials and the conditions of his work. Clearly, he felt the erotic attraction of the male body intensely. At the same time, he recognized and reproduced the erotic attraction of the female body and the chapel paintings are not fully understood unless this, too, is accepted. But the nude male body is his primary artistic instrument.
The erotic is one of the most powerful of the natural vitalities. Whatever repressed desires and fantasies Michelangelo may have felt in painting such wonderful figures, he transformed them into these impressive representations of natural vitality. He thereby accents a singular problem in the psychology of criticism.
Female eroticism has been a constant element in art very nearly from the beginning. Generally, we accept it casually since the artists are men and it is, therefore, considered appropriate. There is no reason male eroticism should not equally be present in art. There have been no women artists who have explored it and when Michelangelo does, the question of his personal interests intrudes. Perhaps if we understood properly what he was doing we would be better equipped to understand that great artists were not simply creating fantasy figures when they painted the female nude. Titian's Venuses are not only erotic display but profound essays on the erotic dimension of the human personality.
The question is more complicated than simply erotic attraction, for some of these representations have a quality that cannot be evaded. There is no exact word for it. "Hermaphrodite" has a specific anatomical reference that is clearly inappropriate. "Androgyne" carries connotations of the neuter, which is between the male and the female and, in this sense, Michelangelo's figures are not androgynous. "Epicene" is often or usually a derogatory term, reflecting an attitude, particularly among men, that the genders should not overlap.
Not all Michelangelo's figures are epicene in this sense; since we can presume he knew what he was doing, we should pay attention when they are.
This quality takes two forms. In male figures, as in some ignudi, his earlier sculpture of the "Dying Slave", and others, the bodies can be powerfully masculine, but posture, attitude and gesture are decidedly feminine. In female figures, faces and attitudes can be feminine but the muscular structure is masculine.
Michelangelo drew from life, and models in his day were male. Sometimes, notably in the case of the Libyan Sibyl, the preparatory drawing is clearly male, the painting clearly and beautifully female. At other times, notably in the "Night" of the Medici Chapel, he hardly modified the final figure but identified it as female by attaching breasts; it is female but with less female eroticism, which is not so appropriate for this figure.
In both male and female figures we have, in the Sistine Chapel paintings, a unique and highly important achievement. There is no more glorious display of male beauty and male eroticism than the ignudi, which at the same time, represent vitality that is less than or something other than the fully developed human. Equally, and all the more strange from a man who grew up and lived in a predominantly male world and is thought to have been misogynist, nowhere in art is there a nobler presentation of the vital beauty and erotic energy of women.
Nowhere in art is there anything to equal the sense of the male in the female, the female in the male. The preponderance of male forms should not obscure the whole achievement that is so important in the understanding of the Chapel: male and female are equal, coordinate, parts of each other. The female figures as much as the male have both a distinctiveness of form and a fullness of personality.
Of the figures, the next level is taken up with the putti below the supports of the painted cornice and below the thrones of the prophets and the sibyls. The first are painted as marble statues although with the full energy of living forms. The second are painted as bodies. They, too, have no sense of intelligence or will. In form, they range from a simple child-like chubbiness to the monstrous and the deformed. In expression, they range from the neutral to the gross. Their attitudes are often suggestively sexual or cruel. They, too, are natural vitalities but below and outside the realm of beauty determined by the ignudi.
There is a tone of the demonic about them, hearkening back to the strange Cantoria of Donatello. Again it is important to see Michelangelo's work in the Florentine context, this time considering the role of the putto.
The putto does not go back to Giotto but to the beginning of the Renaissance as such. It is part of the heritage from ancient Rome, where it had various symbolic references in the context of delightful decoration. The putto was primarily Eros (Cupid) and was taken over by Renaissance artists as Eros but also it began to blend with the cherub and affect the representation of religious subjects. Always the putto is a delightfully ornamental figure. Except with Donatello.
Donatello's use of putti may be original with him and was not a general part of the Florentine tradition but Florentine art was comprehensive and attended to the terrible natural vitalities and to the demonic. Donatello's putti on the Cantoria are not evil. They are simply the most natural vitalities almost out of control and so are frightening in the way that all natural vitality can be both exhilarating and frightening. Clearly, they deeply affected Michelangelo's imagination.
The ignudi and the putti can be treated together because they belong together, but they are different. They are two aspects of human life and they demonstrate the profundity of Michelangelo's analysis of the human condition. The moral life is the infusion of rational principle and divine command into a natural life that is wholly physical and instinctive. That natural life can be beautiful and desirable; it can be gross and evil. It has, inescapably, an erotic dimension. The putti carry with them the symbolic role of the classical Eros, the psychic charge that finds it appropriate to embody the erotic not only in the body of the mature female Aphrodite but in the unrestrained activity of the intelligent and prematurely mature baby.
In his use of the female figures, Michelangelo is profoundly respectful of their femaleness, which means, necessarily, that they have considerable erotic authority but he does not use them for his explicit statement of the erotic energies in human life. He uses the male figure to place the erotic energy of the human body within the presentation of the natural vitalities.
The key term is "embody", to give body to, these natural vitalities. The basic principle is that distinctively Christian principle of the incarnation, which normally refers to the presence of the divine in a human body in the person of Jesus. If the incarnation is to function as a theological principle, it must also be ontological; body and soul, flesh and spirit, are not two different things but one interacting whole; experiences within one are equally experiences within the other. The wholeness of human life is made up of all its elements; the putti and the ignudi are as much aspects of ourselves as the prophets and the sibyls.
At the risk of redundancy, this issue must be stressed, for it represents one of the profoundest of Michelangelo's contributions to psychology and anthropology. There is a dualism in human life that is much deeper, more fundamental, than the philosopher's dualism between spirit and matter. We are, inescapably, animals, parts of nature. We are, inescapably, something other than animals, separate from nature. It is not a simple dualism between the human and the animal for, inescapably, the human is made up of the animal and the rational-moral that is inseparable in its workings from the animal. The two are inescapably parts of each other.
The ignudi are the furthest extensions of the natural dimension of the human but they are not abstract symbols of that naturalness. They are extensions of a common dimension of historical experience; there are people who very nearly live their lives within the natural vitalities of the body. The ignudi are abstract symbols, however, when compared with the prophets and the sibyls, who embody the fullest extent of the natural vitalities under the control of the intelligent moral will. For Michelangelo, human life is both. Being human is an achievement, not a gift.
In the hands of a lesser artist, this statement of the natural vitalities would easily have gotten out of control and dominated the painting. Michelangelo places them in a context, both compositional and intellectual, that does not compromise their terrible, beautiful, energy and yet, finally, keeps them in their appointed place. The means for that control will be discussed a little later.
The Lunettes and the Spandrels
The figures in the spandrels and the lunettes are placed more within the real architecture of the Chapel than the painted architecture.
It is already evident that the cleaning of the lunettes is going to create a major problem of interpretation. All the paintings in the chapel have appeared subdued and low key in color. The spandrels and the lunettes were the darkest of all, leading de Tolnay to say they occupied "the sphere of shadow and death" (de Tolnay, 1949: 77). In truth, they were simply filthy. Now it can be seen that their backgrounds are quite light and the clothing is in extraordinarily brilliant colors. The limits set for this argument do not require a full account of the color. They provide, therefore, the transition between the world of the ceiling and our own world, as the ignudi provide the transition between the histories and the sides. As the lowest figures in the painting, they are closest to us and in form and attitude they are most like ourselves. While they were filthy, they hardly counted in the visual apprehension of the chapel. In size, they are smaller than the prophets and sibyls but now, cleaned and seen in their brilliance of colors, they register with great force. They are not incidental, tossed off when, as some suggest, Michelangelo was weary of the job. They are more nearly ourselves in our ordinary world. Therefore, they are essential to the meaning of the chapel.
Except for the brilliance of color, which lifts them out of the ordinary, their forms wholly lack the terribilitą that so characterizes Michelangelo's work. In form and proportion, the figures are as nearly within the range of the ordinarily human as Michelangelo ever gets. (This suggests that when he makes his superhuman figures he was not merely surrendering to his fantasy life but that he knew what he was doing.) The men are simply men, the women are women. There is even a winsome charm in the elegantly coiffured woman contemplating her image in the mirror or the lovely young woman combing her hair; Michelangelo was not so ignorant of the ways of women as some suggest. There is a dry wit on occasion. See, for example, the young man reading with his leg stuck straight out in front of him in an attitude of relaxed and oblivious comfort.
While the figures in the lunettes show a wide range of emotional response, the figures in the spandrels show lassitude, isolation ("alienation"), fear, despair, inertness, a paralysis of intention and will. All the figures are fully human in form and attitude and their movements are within the range of intelligence and will but not with the magnificent coherence of intelligence and will in expressive act that characterizes the prophets and sibyls; both intelligence and will are manifested within the limited range available to most of us, even to being frustrated and paralyzed.
These figures are the ancestors of Christ. They are the chain of connection between the realm of law and the realm of grace, but there is, in their function, neither intention nor foreknowledge. In fullness of humanity they are the equal of the prophets and the sibyls but they represent a humanity wholly immersed in the fatalities of history and institutions.
The corner spandrels (pendentives) are the explicit statement of the salvational purpose of the ceiling program and the most nearly explicit reference to the Christological scheme of the Chapel. The victories of David over Goliath, of Judith over Holofernes, show the protection of the faithful people from the enemy. The Brazen Serpent in the Wilderness shows the unfaithfulness of the faithful people and their redemption by the grace of God. Significantly, the Hanging of Haman is altered to the crucifixion of Haman, paralleling the cross the brazen serpent hangs from and introducing the principal instrument of Christ's passion.
The transverse sections of the Chapel are thus given over to a presentation of the full range of human life in its particularity, its actuality, the natural energies, both good and evil, the fatal processes of history, and the full realization of human possibility under Christ. This is the psychology of the ceiling but the psychology is a condition of the presentation, not its purpose, which is ultimately theological. Appropriately, the narrative panels in the center contain the most complex account of the psychology in its transition to theology.
Within the paintings of the center, the action and the being of bodies is unambiguous. Each figure is fully capable of purposeful moral action.
The three panels nearest the door make entirely clear the nature of human action within the province of human will in rebellion against God. The largest painting shows the Flood. The Drunkenness of Noah appears above the door. On the other side of the Flood is a painting difficult to identify. It represents a sacrifice and is generally called the Sacrifice of Noah, although his sacrifice should follow and not precede the flood. The three represent the fall into history and time.
The three central panels record the origin of humanity and the defining human acts. The Creation of Adam makes clear that human will is a gift from God. It is not the initial creation of Adam but its final stage. Adam is physically exactly what the ignudi are but he is receiving what they lack, a moral consciousness. The Creation of Eve shows that will used in the initial act of adoration.
The analysis of the fall has particular use in this argument. Michelangelo makes the scene unmistakably sexual. In form and attitude, Eve is the most erotic of Michelangelo's female figures and one of the most beautiful. Her body is voluptuous and she is half lying in an erotic position. This cannot be left to bare statement, else it would appear that Michelangelo is subscribing to the tradition that makes sexual sins the most heinous of them all, an un-Biblical (and un-Dantean) notion. A much deeper mythical and symbolic (therefore psychological) action is involved.
The modern inclination to de-mythologize ancient myths and thereby make them palatable to modern tastes, would have it that it is not the eating of the fruit that is at issue but the disobedience to God's command. This clearly contradicts the Biblical story, which emphasizes the eating itself and the consequent knowledge of good and evil, the prerogative of God alone in a paradisical world. Sex is, of all human acts, the most made up of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, flesh and spirit. Biblical knowledge is not an intellectual act but a physical, carnal, participation. To participate in sexuality is to know good and evil.
Steinberg has contributed significantly to the seeing of this figure. Eve's right hand, dangling between the two figures, is unmistakably pointing to her genitals and womb. Also, she is pointing, oddly, with her middle finger, the instrument of the modern "finger" as sexual insult. It is not merely that sex is her destiny; she is the mother of the human race and the type of Mary who is the second Eve, the mother of the Christ who is the new redeeming Adam. (Steinberg 1980: 439-443) Against the instinctive resistance of taste and a different moral code, the juxtaposition of Adam's genitals and Eve's face is, perhaps, not accidental. Part of Michelangelo's greatness is his ability to deal with the most basic, elemental, human experiences as among the processes of humanity, even or especially in the process of redemption.
The snake is one of the most multivalent of symbols. It is a female symbol. Michelangelo's serpent has the upper body of a beautiful, voluptuous woman. Minos in the lower corner of the Last Judgment has the mouth of a serpent holding his genitals. The serpent is also a phallic symbol; Eve is placed, voluptuously, between the serpent and Adam's genitals. This is a full realization in the language of painting of the knowledge of good and evil that is and requires the expulsion into despair of the right half of the panel.
Beyond is only the mighty acts of God ordering the whole of creation. First, there is the representation of God hovering over the waters, then the doubled figures of God creating the sun and the moon and finally, above the altar, God separating light from darkness.
This program contains a double movement. From the entrance to the altar, the movement is from the sordid evil of man through the complexities of human action to the solitude of the creator God. From the altar to the entrance, the movement is from the great acts of creation leading to the magnificence of the human in all its potentiality and then the fall into history and time. This can be seen best in the juxtaposition of Adam and Noah, in so much the same position. Adam is resting on the earth, lightly above it. Noah is sinking back into the earth and, on the side, is shown digging into it.
This is an outline of the program; it is less than an outline of the whole purpose of the chapel. That purpose can be identified only by determining how the painting works, how it determines the relation to the spectator.
The Christ of the Ceiling
This account does not treat the iconographical subtleties of the ceiling; it proposes only its principal theological-psychological framework. At the same time, if the analysis is sound, its implications are fundamental: it is not at all probable that this, the most corporeal, the most somatic, of paintings can be rightly understood as illustrating a philosophical program in the fashion of artists of totally different temperament and purpose. Rather the formal structure requires participation in the total action of the ceiling and, by that participation, it effects a discipline and a transformation of the responding flesh and, by way of flesh, which is also spirit, effects a transformation of the soul.
In this, Michelangelo is the culmination of a major element in the Florentine enterprise. Apprehending a painting such as Giotto's requires an empathetic participation not simply with the mind and the feelings but with the responding body, disciplined to the order of the sacred story by the character of the response. This principle is inescapably ingredient to Michelangelo's style. The participation requires contemplation but the contemplation is not simply passive and receptive. The double movement of the perceptual experience is also a double movement of consciousness. The worshiper is within and outside the action of the painting. The painting is within the world of the spectator and outside it. It is an act that requires a commitment, first of the responding organism and then the responsive soul.
The experience is intensely Christocentric. Christ is present on the ceiling only by implication through the unknowing ancestors, the anticipation of the salvational process in the spandrels and the powerful commitment under grace of the prophets and sibyls who know in the wholeness of their bodies the creativity of life under grace. He is present by anticipation in the child under the left arm of the God creating Adam. But the redemptive Christ is the center of both meaning and purpose.
"Redemption" on the ceiling is not understood sacrificially; that was the function of the Mass below. Rather it is transformative. The full somatic experience of the ceiling compels the participation of the whole body in the complex action of the ceiling and, therefore, transforms the soul.
As it stood with the completion of the ceiling, the Chapel contained parallel processes. On the floor there is the ancient procession from the entrance to the altar, from this world to the essential link with the next. On the ceiling, there is the procession from the sordidness of the human condition to the initiating creativity of God. The pilgrim's progress culminates in the sacrifice of the Mass that is equated with the origin of all things.
This program is complete; not only complete but whole. As nearly as possible, Michelangelo has fused the whole of human life into the vision of a single mighty work. Participation in it requires both contemplation and action, an awareness of the whole of human experience, its majesty and its squalor, hope and despair, its demonic energy and its moral will, its maleness and femaleness, youth and age, ugliness and beauty, all. Dominating everything is the extraordinary exuberance of the figures, their superhuman beauty and energy which is not merely an attribute of the human but a manifestation of the glory of the lord.
Michelangelo could not anticipate the assignment of the end wall. Nevertheless, the wall was there. It contained two paintings belonging to the earlier cycles, Perugino's Assumption, and two lunettes, part of Michelangelo's own ceiling. It was an inchoate gap between the act of the Mass and the act of God. All things return to God their maker and the unbreakable link between the human and the divine is the sacrifice of the Mass. Originally, the link required an act of the imagination to leap the gap. The wall provided the opportunity for making the link explicit.
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