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.
While scoring points for originality, “The Sistine Secrets” attracted criticism for lacking documentation or any sign that the authors had digested the vast bibliography on the subject. Apart from misunderstandings possibly due to the fact that neither were university-trained as art historians, Rabbi Blech and Doliner did not cite sources for their assertions. As a result, some art historians, including Barbara Wisch, were overlooked entirely in “The Sistine Secrets.” When this was pointed out, Rabbi Blech told The New York Jewish Week “That is an egotistical and envious response… It is rather brazen of [the book’s critics]. They have no idea what our level of scholarship is.” Perhaps the most powerful indirect refutation of the idea that Michelangelo hid subversive insults against the church in a vast church-sponsored masterwork came from the art historian Leo Steinberg (1920-2011). A noted specialist on Michelangelo, Steinberg pointed out when writing about a related matter “how profoundly Renaissance artists respected their subjects.”
Careri’s “Ancestral Torpor” adds depth and perspective to the understanding of Michelangelo’s ancestors of Jesus. He notes that one of the first writers to specifically identify the ancestors with modern Jewish history was Émile Zola, the fiery defender of the unjustly accused Captain Alfred Dreyfus during France’s notorious Dreyfus Affair. In 1896, when “L’Affaire” was well underway, Zola described the ancestors as “preoccupied mothers with beautiful naked children, men with faraway looks focused on the future, a punished race, weary and longing for its promised Savior.” In 1945, at the end of the Holocaust, the Hungarian-born Michelangelo specialist Charles de Tolnay also alluded to the ancestors’ historic fate as Jews, describing their “domestic life of nomadic humanity. All seem overburdened by great weariness; their spirits suffer the eternal anguish of people condemned to wandering, as if persecuted.”
Despite these sympathetic readings of the ancestors, the German Jewish art historian Edgar Wind dissented. In his “Religious Symbolism of Michelangelo: The Sistine Ceiling, Wind pointed to the artwork’s innately pejorative depiction of Jews as “attached to worldly goods.” Careri concludes that Michelangelo intended to illustrate “Jewish otherness” in relatively modest images of the ancestor figures:
“Compared to the heroic inspiration of the Prophets and Sibyls, the family of Ancestors seem all the more prosaically absorbed in their humble, repetitive lives… the work and other activities of Michelangelo’s Ancestors are not neutral but [intended as] negative, as distractions from the revelation of the divinity of Christ as proclaimed everywhere else in the Sistine Chapel frescos.”
Sometimes Careri offers dubious readings, as when he likens one hook-nosed figure in a group near the names “Asa—Jehoshaphat—Joram” to the “long necks and deformed noses seen in anti-Jewish engravings, found mostly in Northern Europe.” The man in question may just as easily have an aquiline or Roman nose, common enough in the Italy of Michelangelo’s time or today. Yet Careri convincingly describes Michelangelo’s Jews as representing the “power of inertia, offering resistance and delay to the process of reform” of the church. This means that countless tourists to the Sistine Chapel annually experience a hostile and antiquated view of Judaism. This is particularly ironic, given the longstanding devotion by Jewish art lovers to Michelangelo’s creations, as documented in Asher Biemann’s 2012 “Dreaming of Michelangelo: Jewish Variations on a Modern Theme” Still, articles such as Stephen Bertman’s 2009 “The Antisemitic Origin of Michelangelo’s Horned Moses” in Shofar should have given us an inkling that although Jews have admired Michelangelo over the centuries, the feeling was most likely not mutual.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.