I suspect that most of you, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, will have heard of the Da Vinci Code. Less well known but just as interesting is the theory that Da Vinci’s fellow genius Michelangelo threaded a similar ‘code’ through his artistic works. This code presupposes that Michelangelo’s most famous creation, the Sistine Chapel, is actually the site of the greatest subversive act in art history. This theory hinges on the placement of the prophet Zechariah, who is seemingly in an unimportant position, from the entrance that tourists use to enter the chapel. However, if you enter the place as the Pope does, the first image you would see is Zechariah, and this has caused conspiracy theorists and art critics all over the world to rethink the chapel’s decoration from that vantage point. What was the message Michelangelo might have been trying to send to his employer, the second della Rovere pope, Julius II? What made Zechariah so important?
Michelangelo was an Italian Renaissance sculptor, painter, architect, poet and engineer who exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art. Despite making few forays beyond the arts, his versatility in the disciplines he took up was of such a high order that he is often considered a contender for the title of the archetypal Renaissance man. Despite his own low opinion of painting, Michelangelo is perhaps best known for creating two of the most influential works in fresco in the history of Western art: the scenes from Genesis on the ceiling and The Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. An epic feat in every sense of the word, the painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel took four years for Michelangelo to complete and has been acknowledged ever since as a landmark in High Renaissance Art. Central to the ceiling decoration are nine scenes from the Book of Genesis of which the Creation of Adam is the best known, having an iconic standing equalled only by Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the hands of God and Adam being reproduced in countless imitations. Whilst it is awesome enough just as a work of art, the many theories concerning the true meaning of the decoration of the Sistine Chapel make fascinating reading.
First there is the fact that, if you look really closely, it appears that Michelangelo has painted the figures of God, his angels and even the soon-to-be-created Eve under his arm in such a way as to form a nearly perfect cross-section of the human brain. Even complex components within the brain, such as the cerebellum, optic chiasm and pituitary gland can all be found in the fresco. The green sash running down the spinal column/figure-holding-God-up, also follows the path of the vertebral artery perfectly. Michelangelo was an expert in anatomy and was well known for painting corpses in order to improve the way that he portrayed the naked human body (now that’s dedication to your art!). It is not entirely clear, however, why Michelangelo would have stuck the actual shape of a human brain into what he must have known would be a widely viewed work. Perhaps the artist was trying to suggest that God was inside the human brain – we will never really know.
Going back to Zechariah, he was a minor prophet who wrote Book 38 of the Old Testament and predicted the coming of a character called the Branch, who would rebuild the temple of St Peter and prepare us for the end of the world. The theory concerning Zechariah as he relates to the Sistine Chapel fresco is this: that Pope Julius II (who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling) believed he was the Branch, a new messiah, predestined to do great things like knock down old St. Peter’s, build the new one, put on armor, and lead an army into war to take back the papal territories. The Sistine Chapel is thus believed to be a coded message about what the Pope thought was his Biblically ordained destiny – Michelangelo was simply doing what he was told to do by his client.
Other theories about the fresco cast Michelangelo in a somewhat more subversive light, suggesting that his work is packed full of symbols of Jewish mysticism or kabbalah. What is known for certain is that for a time Michelangelo lived with a politician in Florence named Lorenzo de’ Medici, who was similarly interested in Jewish mysticism. In kabbalah, the Hebrew letter gimel symbolizes g’vurah, or justice and punishment and it is reproduced perfectly next to the Sistine Chapel’s depiction of David slaying Goliath. Returning to the ‘brain’ theory again, in the Sistine Chapel God appears to be inhabiting the right side of the brain (the left having been cut away to reveal it), which represents kabbalah chokhma, or wisdom. This has led some to suggest that Michelangelo was surreptitiously urging the church to embrace the Jewish community, and there are signs of that – for instance, nearly every Christian depiction of the Garden of Eden has shown the forbidden fruit as an apple, but in Jewish texts it is described as a fig. Sure enough, Michelangelo painted a fig tree into the fresco.
Of course, there is one other theory about the Michelangelo code – that it was all just a joke by a bored genius who had simply got tired of spending four years painting one subject, even if it was the Sistine Chapel!