May 2, 2008 -- For centuries, people have traveled to Rome to visit the Sistine Chapel to stare up at Michelangelo's stunning ceiling.
To most, the frescoes represent familiar stories from the Old Testament -- "the Creation of Adam," "the Temptation of Eve" -- and define the way many imagine these characters, even if they've never set foot in the chapel. But there are those who look at the 500-year-old frescoes and see something different.
"[The ceiling] has so many layers of meaning upon meaning, and most of it, if not all of it, is from the Jewish tradition," said Roy Doliner, a Vatican tour guide.
He and Rabbi Benjamin Blech, associate professor of the Talmud, Yeshiva University, have written a book, "The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican."
They say that Michelangelo embedded powerful and even dangerous messages in the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, that he encoded these messages using his knowledge of mystic Jewish texts and that he intended some images as insults to the pope.
Kabbalah the Key?
The authors think that Michelangelo would have been exposed to Jewish teachings in Florence, while living in Lorenzo de Medici's household.
Medici was the powerful leader of Florence, and used his influence to bring many great thinkers and artists to his city. Some of them studied the Zohar, a book at the center of a form of Jewish mysticism called Kabbalah.
According to Doliner and Blech, Kabbalah is the key to cracking the code of many of Michelangelo's hidden messages. But their first clue didn't come from an art historian. Rather, it came from a tourist from Indiana who looked up at the famous panel of "The Creation of Adam," and was reminded of something else.
"In the late 1970s, a surgeon went into the Sistine Chapel, took a look at this [fresco]. He said to himself, wait, this is Anatomy 101.… This is actually a cross-section of the brain, the right hand side of the brain," Blech said.
"Now, what's interesting is in Kabbalah we have different kinds of wisdom," said Doliner. "The right side of the human brain in Kabbalah means wisdom -- chokhma." God is appearing from the right side of the brain in that fresco.
Experts agree that Michelangelo would have learned about many different philosophies that captivated 15th century Florence, including Kabbalah, but they don't believe that Kabbalah motivated the iconography on the ceiling.
"One of the great desires of the Renaissance was to reconcile the great religions, the great knowledges of the world, and bring them together and realize that there's sort of underlying wisdom behind all of them," said Michelangelo scholar William Wallace, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
Wallace suggests that there are reasons for the brain image in Christian theology.
"After all, God is all-knowing," he said. "So in a sense a brain is an appropriate way to suggest the greatness of God … although one of my students in class said it that looked like a stomach."
Doliner and Blech are not the first to see Kabbalistic imagery on the ceiling. In 1986, Jane Schuyler, an art historian and professor at York College, CUNY, published an article about the beautiful woman under God's arm in the "Creation of Adam" panel. Many assume this character is a preview of Eve, but Schuyler thinks this mystery woman could represent Shekhinah, God's female beloved from Kabbalah.
Liz Lev, an art historian at Duquesne University in Rome, says the authors are focusing too closely on the details and missing the big picture.
"If we stop looking for secret hidden meaning … [the 'Creation of Adam' panel] is showing us probably the most inspiring image of what it means to be a human being. We see an activation of the potential of man."
Many Influences, Many Interpretations
How about the fresco of Adam, Eve and the serpent in the garden? Most depictions of the Garden of Eden show an apple tree, but not on the Sistine ceiling. Blech and Doliner believe Michelangelo was inspired by Jewish texts that say the forbidden fruit is actually a fig.
"I think this is one of these powerful proofs that not only did Michelangelo know Jewish texts, but he felt it important to incorporate the ideas of these texts into some of these frescoes," said Blech.
Perhaps Michelangelo was inspired by another artist. Almost a century before Michelangelo finished the ceiling, another great fresco painter named Masolino da Panicale painted Adam and Eve beneath a fig tree in the Brancacci chapel in Michelangelo's hometown Florence.
Schuyler found a different reference to Jewish mysticism in the temptation panel and published her findings in an article titled "Michelangelo's Serpent With Two Tails." She believes the serpent is really Lilith, Adam's first wife. She points out that Adam and this female serpent look like twins, which is how Lilith is described in Kabbalah.
The authors take Michelangelo's purported interest in Jewish tradition one step further and claim that Michelangelo painted the figures from the Old Testament to urge the church to embrace the Jewish community.
A cleaning of the frescoes in the 1980s revealed details that had been obscured for centuries. Doliner and Blech believe that some are secret messages. They point to the yellow circle on Aminidab, who Christians believe is an ancestor of Christ.
"This is one of the most important indications of Michelangelo's true feelings about the Jews, and a major idea he wanted to get across throughout the entire chapel," said Blech.
The yellow marking is also known as the badge of shame, which Jews were required to wear by law. It dates back 300 years before Michelangelo's day, and can be likened to the yellow Star of David from Nazi Germany.
The authors interpret this image as a condemnation of the church's attitude toward the Jewish community. Doliner says the artist was asking: "This is one of the ancestors of Christ, the Lord of your religion. And this is how you treat the people of your Lord?"
Other experts, such as Barbara Wisch, an art historian at SUNY Cortland, believe that Michelangelo was simply echoing the anti-Semitism of his day and that he painted the badge of shame on Aminidab to mark him as an outsider.
Wisch acknowledges that it is hard to know exactly how Michelangelo felt about the Jews because he rarely mentioned them in his writing, but said, "By marking one ancestor with the contemporary Jewish badge, it's as if time is telescoped and he is marked as being a Jew, with all the stereotypes and evil, wicked connotations that go with being a Jew."
'Statements' or 'Jokes'?
Although some art historians support the authors' observations, they draw different conclusions. Lev insists that one can't "separate the painting of the chapel and this great vision of man, from the context in which it was painted, which is of course a Christian context -- the pope, this court, the New Testament and Christ."
Blech points out that none of the figures on the ceiling are Christian, suggesting that Michelangelo was straying from traditional Catholic iconography.
"By emphasizing only Old Testament figures in the entire ceiling … what he was trying to say was why we have ignored our true roots."
But not all of the figures are from the Old Testament. Next to the Jewish prophets, Michelangelo painted five pagan sibyls from ancient Greek mythology. Scholars in Renaissance Italy were looking outside the Christian world to bolster their theology. Even in the papal court, theologians were exploring other philosophical and religious traditions.
Despite the unorthodox influences, which he acknowledges could be reflected in the panels' details, Wallace says Michelangelo was a devout Christian.
"Michelangelo does nothing but become more and more profoundly Christian all through his life," Wallace said. "However, this is the moment of exposure to the world of pagan antiquity … which is not in any way contradictory, but complimentary to a Christian theology."
Arnold Nesselrath, curator of the Vatican Museums, dismisses the Kabbalah references.
"Well, we have all to remember that this is the palace chapel, the main chapel of the Vatican palace, and whatever Michelangelo is painting here had to be discussed with the pope and his advisers."
The authors of "The Sistine Secrets" claim that Michelangelo was furious at Pope Julius II, who commissioned the work. Michelangelo was a sculptor, not a painter, and was angry to put his sculpture career on hold to paint frescoes. They say that anger caused the artist to paint hidden references to the corruption of the papacy of his time.
"All these things upset Michelangelo very much. My own personal feeling is that Michelangelo had to get this off his chest," Blech said.
Monsignor Timothy Verdon, art historian at Stanford University, Florence, said, "It's a bit hard to think that Michelangelo could have been deeply concerned with great questions of church reform."
However, scholars agree that the patron and artist had a rocky relationship.
Michelangelo's earliest biographers reported that he threw planks down from the scaffold when the pope tried to sneak a peek at the unfinished ceiling. They also wrote that Julius beat Michelangelo in public. But Wallace believes he would have gotten over it.
"[Michelangelo's] enormously ambitious," Wallace said. "The pope is giving him an opportunity to create one of the greatest works of art of all time."
He concedes that Michelangelo was resistant and even resentful at the start of the project, but does not believe these feelings continued after he began to paint. His patron was the head of the church and "that's plenty to keep you working."
But the authors contend that there are insults in plain sight. They point to the fresco of the Prophet Zachariah, which they believe is a likeness of the pope. Could Michelangelo have been so angry with Julius that he would paint an obscene hand gesture into this panel? Blech says one of the putti is doing the Renaissance equivalent of giving the pope's portrait "the finger."
"There's no doubt about it," he said. "This little putti, this beautiful little angel, is giving the finger not to Zachariah, but to Pope Julius."
He says that the ceiling is full of insults and that the hand gesture is seen again in the fresco of the Cumaean sibyl.
"It happens a second time," he said. "Twice, that's a statement."
But scholars are skeptical.
"I would call them jokes … but we should never make a joke the center of interpretation," said Wallace.
Lev does not see the gesture at all.
"You do not see what they purport you see," Lev said. "It is something that could be, with a lot of imagination and some ill will, perceived as a rude gesture. But really it could also be one Putto caressing the cheek of another Putto."
Scholars may disagree about Michelangelo's messages in the ceiling, but it's hard to argue with the ceiling as a masterpiece.
"It's one of the greatest works of mankind that was ever produced, and it's one of the greatest treasures of art," said Nesselrath.