Michelangelo's Secret Message of Divine Equality

Picture of Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Rabbi Benjamin Blech is a Professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and an internationally recognized educator, religious leader, and lecturer. He is the author of 19 highly acclaimed books with combined sales of over a half million copies. See his website rabbibenjaminblech.com

"As a young boy, Michelangelo was adopted by Lorenzo de Medici, probably the wealthiest man in the world at the time. Because of his obvious brilliance, Michelangelo was granted the same tutors as those who taught Lorenzo’s own sons. The most prominent of these tutors was Pico della Mirandola, recognized not only for his genius but for his commitment to universalistic ideas and ideals that were far from commonly accepted in his time. Pico acknowledged that many of his views were shaped by his study of Torah and Jewish texts, and these - as well as his great interest in Kabbalah - he passed on to Michelangelo."

Buy the Book

Jews and Judaism are the ones who brought the concept of monotheism to the world. One God created the entire world and all those who inhabit it. The first human being was created in His image and all those who came after carry within them this mark of divinity. Why did God begin the story of mankind by creating only one person? 

The Talmud answers so that no man should be able ever to say to his fellow man, “my father is greater than your father” (Sanhedrin 37a). We are all related. One father for all people on earth makes everyone brothers and sisters in the truest sense of the word. Adam was not just one man – he was every man. Christian and Jew, black and white, American and Asian – we are all created by God “in his image.” 

Our calendar does not start counting years from the birth of Abraham, no matter how significant his life might be as our first patriarch. Nor do we claim that the past only becomes worthy of recognition from the time we became a people or even from the moment we received the Torah at Sinai. The Jewish calendar marks the number of years that frame the shared years of the human family.

Christianity replaced a Judaic calendar rooted in a universalistic vision with a particularistic view, choosing the birth of Jesus as the moment which offers all subsequent history meaning. By beginning the count of years with this event, there is a clear statement made: What happened before is insignificant.

It was in the early part of the 16th century that Pope Julius the second, wanting to leave an everlasting legacy of his papacy, commissioned Michelangelo to beautify the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. His instructions were clear. He told the prominent artist he wanted frescoes painted that would illustrate the illustrious lives of Jesus and Mary.

Michelangelo had other plans. To achieve them he had to employ a daring ruse. He accepted the task only on condition that no one be allowed to interfere with his work while it was still in progress. To ensure that no one was able to view what he was doing during the 4 ½ years it took to complete the entire project, he had a canvas placed underneath him as he worked on a 60-foot high scaffolding, ostensibly to prevent any dripping of paint to the floor.

When the time came for unveiling his masterpiece, the Pope was dismayed to see that Michelangelo had completely disregarded his orders. The Sistine Chapel ceiling has no Jesus or Mary, nor for that matter any New Testament figures. 95% of its themes are taken from the Jewish Bible, and 5% are pagan!

In the 12,000 square feet of the world’s largest fresco, there was not a single Christian figure to be found. The only nod to the Gospels – and one of the ways Michelangelo managed to save both his life and the painting – was a barely-noticeable series of names of the Jewish ancestors of Jesus that do not even appear in chronological order.

How Michelangelo was able to get away with his life in the aftermath of his open disobedience to a papal mandate is a fascinating story in its own right, which I develop at great length in the book I co-authored with Roy Doliner, The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican. 

As a young boy, Michelangelo was adopted by Lorenzo de Medici, probably the wealthiest man in the world at the time. Because of his obvious brilliance, Michelangelo was granted the same tutors as those who taught Lorenzo’s own sons. The most prominent of these tutors was Pico della Mirandola, recognized not only for his genius but for his commitment to universalistic ideas and ideals that were far from commonly accepted in his time. Pico acknowledged that many of his views were shaped by his study of Torah and Jewish texts, and these – as well as his great interest in Kabbalah – he passed on to Michelangelo.

Michelangelo’s commission had been to have the Sistine Chapel ceiling convey the same concept as the Christian calendar: history begins with Jesus. But Michelangelo could not allow the reality of mankind’s common beginning, the spirit of universalism that infuses the first chapter of Genesis, to be rendered mute in the most famous of the church’s chapels. And so Michelangelo dared to feature most prominently in his frescoes the stories of the opening chapters of the Bible, beginning with the creation of Adam.

That is how perhaps the most famous painting of Western art came into being.

(Courtesy of Aish.com)

Buy the Book

Share It!

Get The Daily Elul Challenge In Your Inbox