Are Michelangelo's Drawings Anti-Semitic?

Agonizing and Ecstatic Portrayals of Jews in Master's Work

Painting on the Ceiling: Michelangelo’s famed ceiling paintings were produced in the Vatican between 1508 and 1512. At left, a character wears the yellow badge that Jews were made to wear in Renaissance Italy.
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Painting on the Ceiling: Michelangelo’s famed ceiling paintings were produced in the Vatican between 1508 and 1512. At left, a character wears the yellow badge that Jews were made to wear in Renaissance Italy.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published July 28, 2014, issue of August 01, 2014.

Ancestral Torpor: Jews and Christians in the Sistine Chapel
By Giovanni Careri
Editions de l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, 325 pages, $36

The American Jewish writer Irving Stone (born Tannenbaum) aptly titled his 1961 novel about Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings “The Agony and the Ecstasy.” For centuries, ecstatic tourists have admired the Renaissance masterwork painted in the Vatican between 1508 and 1512, where Jews are shown in a state of agony.

Among the over 300 figures included in Michelangelo’s ceiling are dozens of so-called ancestors of Jesus — Jews occupied with domestic tasks such as reading, writing, combing their hair, stitching clothes, and tending children. They stand in contrast to the heroic, energetic figures of sibyls and angels in Last Judgment scenes painted elsewhere in the ceiling. These ancestors were listed in the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke, and although Michelangelo printed their names in his compositions, these names cannot be attached to specific people. Thus, the Sistine Chapel ceiling includes names such as Achim, Eliud, Aminadab, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Joram, Azor, Sadoch and more, without indicating to which portraits they correspond.

“Ancestral Torpor: Jews and Christians in the Sistine Chapel” by the Paris-based social scientist Giovanni Careri, argues that these ambiguous figures symbolically fit into Michelangelo’s plan for the ceiling: and the news is not good for the Jews.

In his carefully documented study, Careri follows the lead of Barbara Wisch, professor emerita of art history at SUNY Cortland, who in a landmark article in 2003 described the ceiling as a “glorious cosmic drama that indicted the Jews anew” for not converting to Catholicism or accepting Jesus as the Messiah. Wisch focused on one Jewish figure shown next to the name Aminadab. This character sits idle and anxious, with a circular yellow badge on his cape, a well-known label forced upon Jews in Renaissance Italy. “The badge stitched a constructed Otherness — negative stereotypes of Jewishness — into the very fabric of [the figure’s] being,” Wisch comments. She adds that the figure is:

“portrayed with a grimacing expression, which had become a visual topos of Jewishness. He sits with hands crossed between his legs, evoking a bound barbarian captive from Roman triumphal monuments… He is the only male figure on the ceiling to wear earrings… European men at this time did not adorn themselves in this manner. A pierced ear also marked a Hebrew slave who refused freedom, preferring to serve his master forever.”

To these observations, Careri adds more details, spotting two yellow armbands worn by two female Jewish figures elsewhere in the ceiling. He also offers an overview, as he explained to an interviewer in May, in which he states that Michelangelo “wanted to crystallize in the Jew the emblem of heaviness of the flesh and exclusion from the spiritual world.” Jewish figures are shown as torpid, sluggish and inert because according to Catholic doctrine, they were “unable to access the truth of revelation.” While Michelangelo was not a fervent Christian, he adopted enough church dogma to leave its lasting message in his huge artistic achievement.

These findings contrast with those found in the 2008 book, “The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican” by Rabbi Benjamin Blech, professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University, and Roy Doliner, a Vatican tour guide. A few years after Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” Rabbi Blech and Doliner offered their own deciphering of Michelangelo, claiming that the ceiling reflects hidden messages from “Judaic texts and kabbalistic training that conflicted with approved Christian doctrine.” They even alleged that one vignette includes a figure giving the finger to Pope Julius II, who commissioned Michelangelo’s artwork, and to the Catholic hierarchy that he governed.

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