Lent … Look Up!

March 23, 2015

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Weimar Altarpiece, 1553-55 (The City Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Weimar, Germany)

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Weimar Altarpiece, 1553-55
(The City Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Weimar, Germany)

I feel the need for a big dose of theology today. Lucas Cranach the Elder will do it. In fact, where do we start?

This painting could be a visual treatise on the doctrine of salvation—with a Reformation emphasis on salvation by grace for all who believe. Very simply, John the Baptist (the third man from the right) points up to the crucified Christ to indicate that one only needs to look up to Christ to be saved. That’s grace. This simple message is repeated and expanded throughout the rest of the image.

Cranach-Weimar-det1In the background, for example, the scene with all the tents shows the story from the Old Testament (Numbers 21) when God’s people spoke against God and he rebuked them by sending poisonous snakes. Moses called out to God on their behalf and God told him to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole so anyone who was bitten could look up to it and live. He did and they were. In other words, they could be saved by merely looking up to the symbol of God’s power and grace. It’s an Old Testament prefiguration of the crucifixion—when Christ is put up on a pole and people are saved by looking to him. Here, that connection is made obvious because both John the Baptist and Moses point up—LOOK UP and LIVE!

Others look up in the background. Right beside all the tents is the scene from the gospel of Luke when an angel appeared to the shepherds after Jesus was born and told them, “Today … a Savior has been born to you!” Instead of announcing the Messiah’s birth to religious folk who would seem to be the most deserving, God chose to tell those who would appear to be the least deserving of all. Grace again.

Back to the foreground, John the Baptist not only gestures up, but also points downward to the sheep. This references the gospel story when John saw Jesus coming and declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” It’s an astonishing thing to claim. When sin became a prominent aspect of human nature (it didn’t take long), God instituted a religious practice that included sacrificing animals to acknowledge one’s wrong-doing and “cover it,” at least temporarily. Because sin is perpetual, the sacrifices were too. But John seemed to know immediately that Jesus would become an ultimate sacrifice—just like the animals, he would die, but this sacrifice would be complete, permanent, and inclusive. In Christian theology, one only has to accept his sacrifice in order for it to be the ultimate sacrifice. Thus, LOOK UP and be forgiven … be saved.

Cranach-Weimar-det2Cranach seems to want to emphasis that we are saved by grace and not by simply being good, for he tucks a counter example behind the cross. There we see a nearly naked man, who symbolizes humanity, being chased into hell (the flames) by Satan (the monstrous figure) and Death (the skeleton). He’s destined to burn not because he’s been bad, exactly, but because he has tried so hard to live by the law (here upheld by members of the clergy and Moses himself). The point: If you seek salvation by being a good person, it just ain’t gonna work because no matter how hard you try, you’re going to screw up, which, according to the law, means death. Try to live by the law, you’re going to die by the law.

The alternative? Look up to Christ. If you do, you will not only be saved from eternal damnation, but you will witness victory over sin and death. That’s the resurrected Christ on the left trampling Death and Sin. Needless to say, you want to be on his side.

Up to this point, the bits of iconography are pretty standard. But then we get to the two men on the right.

Cranach-Weimar-det3The one on the outside is none other than Martin Luther. He points to an open book which has three biblical passages from his own German translation of the Bible—I John 1:7b, Hebrews 4:16, and John 3:14-15)—which point to the various themes of the painting and underscore the main point. Believe that Christ’s sacrifice saves you and it will.

The man with the white beard is Lucas Cranach the Elder himself. Apparently, the painting was finished by Lucas Cranach the Younger, so I’m not sure if this should be considered a self-portrait or a commemorative portrait. Either way, the important thing is the stream of blood that gushes from Jesus’ side and splashes on top of Cranach’s head. While somewhat gruesome, Cranach testifies here that he has allowed the blood of Christ to “cleanse him from all sin” (I John 1:7). His faith has saved him.

Interesting … he doesn’t actually look up to Christ, even though that seems to be such an important message in this painting. Instead, he looks out at us directly. Making eye contact, it is almost as if he is pleading with the viewer to take all of this seriously, maybe even follow his example. Look up, believe, and be saved.

I’m Protestant by habit, so the churches I’ve gone to don’t have crucifixes, they have empty crosses. I was told that this (a) prevents us from idolatry (no praying to a craved god, even if it is Jesus) and (b) allows us to celebrate the empty cross, the risen Christ. Okay, fine. But I am a little jealous of my Catholic friends who can practice looking up to the crucified Christ every time they go to church. That seems important.

Maybe I’ll head over to Saint Al’s this week.

 

Sistine Chapel … Look Up

September 3, 2012

Michelangelo, The Bronze Serpent, 1508-1512
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

Last corner. I don’t think I’ve ever really looked at this corner of the Sistine Chapel. It’s so dramatic!

The panel depicts a story from the Old Testament. The Israelites were out in the desert and they did something to tick God off (again). To punish them, he sent a swarm of poisonous snakes. The people cried out to Moses and Moses interceded (again). God told him to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole, and whoever looked at the sculpture would be saved.

Michelangelo is very literal in his interpretation of this story. Snakes fly through the air to attack the mass of people on the right. They coil, constrict, and bite. There’s no hope for these victims as they struggle and succumb. Meanwhile, the crowd on the left gaze up at the golden serpent in the middle. They look mesmerized.

I like the way Michelangelo contrasts the bronze snake wrapped around the pole with the green snake coiled around its victim right below—it’s so similar, even down to the tip of the tail around the poor guy’s ankle. Yet the contrast is stark. The bottom serpent is the agent of death, the top one is the agent of life.

But that sculpted snake is more than a miraculous cure or a protective shield, it is a symbol of God’s grace and mercy. The Israelites deserved to be punished, but God is offering a way out and all the people have to do is look up–to put their trust in the power of that piece of metal.

Of course, that story has long been understood as a parallel to the New Testament story of salvation. Christ, too, was lifted up on a pole of sorts when he was crucified, and we, too, can be saved by simply looking to the cross. All we have to do is believe and we will be spared the punishment that is due because of all our disobedience.

Michelangelo makes the choice pretty clear. We can writhe in agony as we get what we deserve, or we can look up and be mesmerized by the mercy and grace of God. Hmm … that’s a tough one.

Here’s the thing that strikes me about the four corners of the Sistine Chapel. We see four Old Testament stories: David killing Goliath, Judith beheading Holofernes, Esther orchestrating the death of Haman, and the bronze serpent—all stories of unexpected salvation for the Israelites. In each, they seemed doomed. In each, God provided a way out. And (importantly) in each, salvation came through believing in God’s desire to save. David, Judith, and Esther all believed that God was on their side, that God wanted the Israelites to live on. They acted on that belief, just like the Israelites who looked up at a sculpture of a snake in order to live.

So what does it mean for us? Not sure. I would like to act based on certain beliefs like these OT heroes did. But what do I believe? And what action does it require? My convictions seem rather general and lackluster. I think I need to listen a bit harder to what God might be telling me. Where is the battle line? Where are the stakes high and action called for? If you have any ideas, I’m listening.

 

This week, I’m looking at another corner of the Sistine Chapel. This fresco shows three scenes from the Old Testament story of Esther. It’s a confusing panel, but it also packs a punch.

The story of Esther is a bit like a soap opera. Being quite the beauty, Esther was picked by Xerxes, the king of Persia, to be his next wife after he executed the previous one. Not long after, Esther’s cousin Mordecai, discovered a plot to kill the king. He told Esther, Esther told the king, and the assassins were caught. Kudos to Mordecai. Things got dicey, though, when Xerxes issued a decree that everyone should bow down to a high-ranking official named Haman and Mordecai refused because he would only bow to God. That hacked Haman off and, in revenge, he convinced the king issue another decree to kill all the Jews. What Xerxes didn’t know was that Esther, his lovely queen, was a Jew herself. And so the plot thickens. Mordecai convinced Esther that she had to intervene for the sake of her people, but to do so would mean risking her own life. She did muster up her courage to approach the king, and after a long string of dramatic events, he ordered Haman to be executed. All was well.

Michelangelo, Crucifixion of Haman, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

There seems to be some uncertainty about what exactly Michelangelo has depicted here. On the far left side, Mordecai is conferring with Esther, possibly telling her about Haman’s plot. On the far right side, we see King Xerxes in bed with Esther at his side. This could show the episode when Xerxes had some restless nights during which a scribe read to him from the annals and he realized he had never properly honored Mordecai for saving his life. That sort of fits, but the way he sternly points towards the crucified man on the other side of the door suggests that he is ordering Haman’s execution instead. Esther cowers by his bedside, clearly a little nervous that she might meet the same fate as his previous wife for overstepping her bounds.

This brings us to the most important part of the panel. At the middle of the panel, in an amazing demonstration of Michelangelo’s skill with foreshortening and anatomy, we see Haman striped naked and strung up on a tree. But here’s the thing … the biblical story says he was hung on a gallows, not crucified on a tree. What gives?

As usual, Michelangelo takes some liberties with the story to make a bigger point. There are several theories about this, but I am intrigued by the idea that Michelangelo is making a connection between Haman and Christ.

On the one hand, it seems so wrong to compare an evil, conniving character like Haman to Christ, but there is at least one important parallel. Jews have long seen the death of Haman as a moment of salvation of the Jewish people, just as the death of Christ was the salvific event for all humanity. In this way, Haman is an anti-type for Christ. He is everything evil; Christ is everything good. Yet, both of their deaths meant a whole group of people received new life.

Michelangelo makes this connection between the two, but he also underscores the difference between them. He twists Haman’s body so that he appears to be squirming in pain. He is not the noble figure surrendered on the cross, like Christ is usually depicted, but a despicable criminal dying a much-deserved death. No mercy here.

While the theological messages may be interesting, at the moment I am drawn to the way Michelangelo paints Esther as she addresses Xerxes on his bed. The whites of her eyes glow as she hides behind the other guy and glances cautiously in the direction of Xerxes’s gesture. Here is a woman who is more than a little nervous. Honestly, that’s kind of nice to see in a heroine. She’s not the icon of courage and resolve, but of apprehension and even hesitation. Still, she does the right thing.

Way to go, Esther. We don’t all have to be confident or eager, but would we all be more inclined to find the courage to do the right thing anyway.

Michelangelo, Judith and Holofernes, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

In one corner of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo painted the story of Judith and Holofernes. If David is the unexpected boy hero (his story is in another corner), then Judith is the big female hero. She’s got it, all right.

The story is found in the book of Judith, which is not in Protestant Bibles, so it’s less familiar than some other stories. Once again, the Israelites are at war, this time with the Assyrians, and are not doing so well. Judith decides to take matters into her own hands and ingratiates herself with the enemy. Holofernes, the general of the Assyrian army, takes the bait and invites the alluring Judith to his tent. He proceeds to get drunk, and when he passes out, she cuts off his head and carries it away in basket. When the body is discovered, the Assyrians freak out and abandon their position, and the Israelites carry the day.

During the Renaissance, this story was quite popular–perhaps because it involved war, murder, and a beautiful woman, but probably because it offered a stellar counterpoint to the story of David and Goliath. Just like with David, we have an unlikely hero who single-handedly pulls off a total victory when the Israelite army seems tied up in knots. And here again, a mighty adversary loses his head.

So what’s Michelangelo’s spin on this story?

Instead of the climax, we see the denouement. Judith and her maidservant are sneaking off with the head (on a platter, this time). Judith looks over her shoulder at Holofernes as if she expects him to come chasing after her. What’s odd is that it does seem like he is still writhing on his bed like a snake that has just been decapitated. Fitting, I think.

I appreciate that Michelangelo depicts both men in the scene as physically big and muscular, but also incapacitated. Their strength is worthless to them. Meanwhile the women are shown in action, their bodies mirroring each other in order to double the effect. Their strength is in their boldness (note the vibrancy of the colors) and also their gracefulness (it almost looks like they’re dancing). Some people have claimed that Michelangelo was misogynistic, but I think this is a nod to the strength of women.

I’m glad that the Bible (or the extra-biblical texts) record the stories of women like this, and I’m even more glad that artists have chosen those stories for the walls of such hallowed places. It’s good for us, no?

Michelangelo, David and Goliath, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

Up in one of the corners of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo painted a scene from the story of David and Goliath. He had already depicted the story in stone with impressive results. Before, he showed a strong and determined (and naked) David right before the battle (see my post on that one). This time out, David seems like a scrappy young kid in the act of slaying a giant. I like it.

You’ll remember the story. The Israelites are embroiled in a war with the Philistines. The latter would like to end it once and for all in a one-on-one fight between the best warriors from each army. The Philistines have a giant named Goliath; the Israelites have … well … nobody—at least no one that seems able to defeat this guy. Then David comes along. He’s a teenager (either pious or just plain cocky) and he is astonished that the Israelites have so little faith in God. He volunteers and with only a slingshot defeats his mighty foe.

Most interpretations of the story imply that Goliath fell over dead when the rock from David’s slingshot hit his head, but Michelangelo puts a more dramatic spin on it by suggesting that the rock only knocked Goliath down. He shows a tension-filled moment when the huge Goliath stirs and starts to rise again. Will David have time to strike before Goliath throws him off?

The composition adds to the drama. Michelangelo incorporates lots of diagonals—like the sides of the tent, David’s leg combined with Goliath’s right arm, and (most prominently) the line created by the other three arms. The latter is accentuated by the blade of the sword which arcs back. This creates a sense of movement. You can practically feel the swoosh of David’s arm as he swings his arm around.

Yes, of course, David wins. We don’t need to see blood spurting or a head held high to know what happens here. This is the triumph of the little guy, but we must remember that the point of the story is that the victory was actually God’s. This is not a fair match-up (look how small David looks!), so God had to orchestrate the battle so David came out on top (literally, here).

And that’s the point, right? We are all scrawny little teenagers facing our own personal giants. It’s nice to imagine that the fight could be over with one rock out of a slingshot, but I like that this image suggests that our battles might not be so easy. Instead, we need to take on that giant with confidence, determination, and a fair bit of chutzpah. No fear. No hesitation. It’s a pep-talk in paint.

Does it work?

Michelangelo, Jonah, 1508-1512
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo also painted a number of prophets—those Old Testament men (all men in this case) who warned people that they better shape up, or else. His painting of Jonah has always intrigued me, so this week I want to take a closer look.

First, the story. Jonah was told by God to go prophesy against the city of Nineveh, but Jonah thought that the Ninevites were so evil that they didn’t deserve a warning about the impending wrath of God, so he actually got on a boat headed the opposite direction. Nice try, Jonah. An unusual and beastly storm arose and the sailors figured out that it was Jonah’s fault, so as a last resort to try to save the ship, they threw him overboard. Famously, Jonah was then swallowed by a whale (or big fish, depending on the translation), and while inside its belly, Jonah prayed to God. Three days later he was spit out. Having learned his lesson, he headed to Nineveh and told the people to repent, and (much to his dismay) they did. He was so hacked off by this that he actually went off and pouted about it, but God would have none of it and not-so-subtly reminded Jonah that mercy is the bottom line—for the Ninevites and for him.

Roman Sarcophagus, 3rd century
(Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Denmark)

This has been a popular story since the early days of Christian art. From ancient Rome, we find scenes from Jonah on the sarcophagi and in the catacombs, probably because the story represented the whole idea of the resurrection. Just as Jonah was “dead” for three days in the whale and then got a new life, so the men and women interred in the sarcophagi and the catacombs were destined to live a new life beyond their graves. And so, there are lots of images of Jonah getting vomited out of a fish’s mouth, along with some scenes of him preaching and pouting. The funny thing is that the iconography didn’t change much over the next 1,200 years—over and over again, we see the same scenes.

Never one to follow tradition, Michelangelo took a completely different approach in the Sistine Chapel. Here we have a portrait of the prophet. We do see symbols for his identity—the big fish and the vine—but this is not a vignette from his life. Instead, it captures his character, his disposition.

He leans way back and looks up. It seems like he’s actually looking into another panel on the ceiling—the one that shows God separating the light from darkness. And it makes sense—the God that commanded him to go warn the Ninevites is the God of creation, after all. But clearly, this command has thrown Jonah off balance. With his shoulders so far back and his feet dangling, he looks like he could tip over backward. And, as if to underscore his inner conflict, Jonah seems to point in opposite directions. You want me to go where? You want me to do what?

Michelangelo has hit the nail on the head here. Jonah is not one of those steady Old Testament prophets who unflinchingly spoke the word of God. No. He was a reluctant prophet. He let his own opinions outweigh the call of God. And Michelangelo depicts this hesitancy, this unsteadiness. He’s squirming. He doesn’t want to go.

And yet, it’s clear that God is going to win here. Jonah seems a little trapped and powerless. There’s no where to run to. There’s no where to hide. He will end up going where God wants him to go.

Once again, I’m grateful to Michelangelo for putting a new spin on things. We get a more honest, more human depiction of this Old Testament hero. And, we get a sense of the power of God as well. How often do we think we know better than God? How often do we blatantly move in a direction against the call of God? It’s good to know that God can and will steer us back in the right direction and he can and will remind us that we don’t know everything. I’m just glad that it usually doesn’t involve a big fish.

 

Last week, I spent some time thinking more about Michelangelo’s image of the Flood on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. This week, I’m considering the other two scenes from the life of Noah: the Sacrifice of Noah and the Drunkenness of Noah.

Picking up the story where we left off: The rain stops and the floodwaters slowly recede. Eventually, the ark finds some dry land and everybody can get out. The first thing that Noah does is build an altar and offer a sacrifice to God in thanksgiving for saving them. So far, so good. But then, Noah makes some wine with the grapes he harvests from the new vines and drinks a little too much. He passes out naked. His youngest son, Ham, discovers him and tell his brothers, who cover him up while shielding their own eyes. When Noah wakes up and finds out what happened, he curses Ham, presumably because he gossiped about his father’s state rather than concealing it. The other two sons are blessed for their discretion. There you have it.

Michelangelo, Sacrifice of Noah, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

In Michelangelo’s depiction of it, the sacrifice is a family affair. While Noah, his wife, and daughter-in-law tend the fire on top of the altar and two sons work on the fire beneath (one is bringing a huge log), three others prepare the first offering of two rams.

As I’ve noticed so often in the ceiling frescoes, Michelangelo uses bodies and gestures to add considerable dynamism to the composition. Here, figures bend, crouch, twist, reach, pull, lean. The most important gesture is Noah’s, of course. He points up in reinforce the message that God was the one who saved them.

Again, so far, so good. But Noah isn’t perfect.

Michelangelo, Drunkenness of Noah, 1508-1512
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

The next panel has two parts. In the background on the left, we see a glimpse of Noah tilling the soil, presumably about to plant those first vines. The foreground, then, shows a passed-out Noah being covered by his sons. I find it curious that none of them are actually looking at their naked father (Ham only points here), when we as the viewers are encouraged to take a nice long look. We are implicated. We are the ones who are doing the disgraceful thing. We ought to feel a bit guilty, but do we? Me? Not so much.

What I find to be particularly compelling about this panel is, in fact, Noah’s body. It so clearly echoes the position of Adam’s body in the scene of his creation found toward the middle of the ceiling. Why did Michelangelo paint these two men so similarly?

With Adam, I think the posture communicates both the dignity and passivity of humanity (see my post on that), so it seems like we are being reminded of that here. And it makes sense because Noah is a new Adam, of sorts. God is starting over with Noah. But just like with the first one, this patriarch may be noble (God did call him righteous) but he is also weak (get some self-control, Noah). Michelangelo communicates this tension by idealizing his aging body and then making it slump over.

So, this is pessimistic way to end the narrative. It’s as if Michelangelo is pointing out that the Flood didn’t really accomplish much. Humanity is fallen, and wiping out the worst ones of the bunch is not going to change that essential fact.

Still, there is optimism here. Michelangelo, ever the product of Renaissance humanism, does paint a beautiful body, and thus suggests that God’s creation is fundamentally good (there was a belief in the correspondence between physical appearance and moral rectitude). Furthermore, two of the sons do the right thing and here even Ham diverts his eyes, as if to indicate that noble acts are still possible.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to pull from this in terms of my own life. I think it may be enough to have some new theological insights about the narrative. Human beings are a mess of contradictions. I guess I’m just glad God hasn’t chosen to wipe us out again. His mercy prevails.

Michelangelo, The Flood, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

When you walk in the Sistine Chapel and look up, the first three scenes you’ll see on the ceiling tell the story of Noah (honestly, they are rather crowded scenes with relatively small figures, so you’ll need opera glasses). Michelangelo chose to paint the Flood, the Sacrifice of Noah, and the Drunkenness of Noah, which are some unusual choices and so worthy of some deeper consideration.

The first part of the story is relatively well-known. Sometime after Adam and Eve are kicked out of the Garden of Eden, humanity has largely turned away from God. Fed up with it all, God decides to wipe everybody out with a massive flood, but chooses to save the one man he finds to be righteous—Noah. He tells Noah to build an ark and fill it with his immediate family and pairs of animals. When the rains come, the ark becomes a floating shelter.

Michelangelo paints the moment when the flood is rising and people are trying to save themselves. It’s a sobering scene. A husband carries his wife on his back up the hill, a mother tries to save her two babies, a father hoists his adult son onto the rock, couples hold each other. These are supposed to be the people who are evil through and through, but that’s not the impression we get here. Instead, we see people who love each other—they are mothers, fathers, innocent children. Are they really that bad?

And so, Michelangelo forces us to consider the most difficult part of this story: the fact that God killed lots of people. It’s easy to picture the people as despicable, horrible, and no-good (a whole society of criminals, say) and overlook just how alarming this divine act really was. Was everyone really that bad? The Bible says that “every inclination of their hearts was only evil all the time.” Really? It seems like such an absolute statement has to be hyperbole. I think Michelangelo agrees with me here. He seems to suggest that the real picture had to be more complicated than that. But the problem is that he doesn’t offer any answers to this theological question. Ugh.

What I think he does do is pose a different question: Are you any different from them? Each one of us is pretty bad, after all—maybe we haven’t murdered someone, but we all have ugly thoughts, immoral desires, and impure motivations, which is what these people were accused of. Would I have been deemed righteous like Noah? Mmmm … probably not. So, I would have been facing the same fate at the rest.

I guess this makes Michelangelo’s panel a morality tale. The message? Shape up, because you too will be judged. You can’t rely on being “good enough.” Pursue righteousness. Get rid of those inclinations toward evil. Be good.

Where’s grace in all this? Noah. He could not have been completely righteous, right? He simply “walked faithfully with God,” which prompted God to extend grace to him in the form of a lifeboat. We don’t need to be pure in order to be saved, we just need to walk faithfully (with earnestness and integrity) with God. Then, Christ becomes our lifeboat.

In the painting, three guys are getting pulled onto the ark. They can’t be Noah’s sons, because there are already at least four men on board. This seems to be Michelangelo’s way of depicting grace. When the waters started to rise, these three didn’t simply look for higher ground or find a little boat for themselves (both of which are logical actions in those circumstances), they turned toward the thing that will really save them. They finally believed Noah’s warnings. They believed God. And so, they too are saved. If that’s not grace, I don’t know what is.

Michelangelo, scenes of Creation, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

As you walk from the west door to the front altar in the Sistine Chapel, the scenes on the main panels of the ceiling go backwards in time. You start with scenes from the story of Noah, then comes the scenes dealing with Adam and Eve, and finally you see these three scenes of creation. Michelangelo actually painted the ceiling in this reverse chronological order, so here in these later images, we see some of his most dynamic and gutsy compositions.

The bottom (first) panel depicts the separation of light and darkness on the first day of creation. In the next panel, the third and fourth days are combined, so we see the creation of dry land and vegetation on the left and the creation of the sun and moon on the right. The top panel shows us the second day, when God separated the waters, although some assert that this could also show the fifth day when God filled the waters with living creatures.

One thing is immediately apparent: this not the usual way creation was depicted in art. Here we have a God who may have the grey beard, but is anything but an old man. His body is muscular and energetic. He flies through the air, twisting and turning, reaching and pointing. His authority over the universe is expressed in his powerful and commanding presence in space.

This approach solves a big representational problem. In the biblical account of creation, God speaks the universe into being. He says, “Let there be light,” and light appears in the darkness. He says, “Let there be plants,” and green things emerge from the new soil. But how do you paint that kind of speech act? Michelangelo doesn’t even try. Instead, he translates that speech into gesture. The force of God’s creative power is expressed in the force of his gestures. He points, pushes, raises a hand, and the universe is compelled to follow his command.

What I love about these paintings is the way they reach past the literal account of the creation found in Genesis 1, and get to the heart of the narrative—that is, God’s marvelous creative power. The story underscores the extent of God’s creative act (there was nothing, now there is everything), but also the simplicity of God’s power (he only spoke, but those words were enough to make the universe and everything in it). These paintings communicate that quiet but absolute authority.

I suppose that should make me nervous, but it actually is comforting, probably because I believe that God is good. The God that wields such power is not capricious or violent or maniacal. And so I breathe easier knowing that God has got everything under control, even when things seem to be falling apart.

Perhaps this is why, when I look at these paintings, my eye tends to gravitate towards the figure in the middle of the center panel—the one below the sun. He looks up at God with an expression of awe and admiration. On my better days, I feel like him. He is very aware of the great power and authority of God. And so he seems just slightly nervous, as if he’s not quite sure what to expect next, but he wants to keep close. His eyes are wide open. His eyes are fixed upon God.

Again … on my better days.

Michelangelo, The Fall of Man and Expulsion from Eden, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

Looking up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, just slightly past the midway point, is this two-part scene. On the left is Michelangelo’s depiction of the Fall of Humanity and on the right the Expulsion from Eden. Here we have a tight narrative in which Adam and Eve’s actions on the left lead inexorably to the event on the right. No turning back.

The story is found in the book of Genesis, right after the story(s) of Creation. God has told Adam and Eve that they can eat anything in the Garden of Eden, except for the fruit of one tree. For a while it seems like they are fine with that, until the Serpent comes along and convinces Eve that she should eat it and then she turns around and convinces Adam he should too. Bad idea. They immediately feel guilty and try to avoid God when he comes looking for them. When God eventually confronts them, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the Serpent, but all three get punished. Among other things, Adam and Eve get kicked out of paradise. And, because of their disobedience, now every human being is prone to disobeying God—that’s the “Fall of Humanity.

Michelangelo puts his own little spin on the text, which has some theological implications. Notice how both Adam and Eve reach for the fruit. Eve has to twist around and reach behind her to take fruit from the Serpent (yes, the Serpent has a female torso … don’t get me started). The awkwardness of her gesture is heightened by the dead tree branch that follows the same line. For his part, Adam grips the tree and seems to pull it towards himself in order to get what he’s after. In this way, Michelangelo underscores how both are complicit in the Fall, but he seems to suggest that while Eve was passively receptive to the Serpent’s manipulation, Adam’s disobedience was assertive and willful. He’s going to take what God has forbidden.

Of course, the story doesn’t stop there. Our eye moves to the other side of the painting by following all those parallel and arching arms over to the angel at the top and then further to the pained faces of Adam and Eve. My, how things have changed.

The two look so young and innocent on the left, now they look old and gruesome. Sin has clearly taken its toll. Michelangelo has depicted the new state of their souls—that is, guilt-ridden and depraved—in their physical bodies. Their faces are weathered and wrinkled, their hair has become disheveled and stringy, and Eve covers her naked torso as she cowers and turns away. Adam also turns away, but it looks like he is trying to straight-arm the angel who is driving them out of Eden. If his posture is feebly defensive, the angel’s is forceful and aggressive, as if Michelangelo wants the angel to embody the anger of God.

I am struck by how incisively Michelangelo conveys the effects of sin here. First, he shows how sin has made us into despicable creatures. We are no longer the humans that God originally created us to be, for sin has eroded the innocence and dignity that characterized humanity before the Fall. At the same time, Michelangelo also portrays the shame and deep regret we sometimes feel when we become deeply aware of our sin and its consequences. I personally relate to Eve. I, too, have wanted to curl up in a little ball and hide because I have screwed up. Agh, what have I done!?!?

There’s not really any good news in this panel. Adam and Eve are left in this regrettable state. God is no where to be seen. There is no hint of any plan that God might have to reconcile with these two, or with humanity in general. Michelangelo leaves us with a pit in our stomach. While I would like a glimpse of hope, perhaps it’s better this way. It makes us live with this stark reality for a while.

Then, we start looking around for a sign of God’s grace. Don’t worry, it’s there.