Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel demonstrate that the human body is created for love
by Columbia Staff
The Sistine Chapel’s 12,000-square-foot painted ceiling, depicting the drama of creation and salvation history, took four years to complete and was finished on All Saints’ Day in the year 1512. The fresco on the chapel’s back wall depicting the Last Judgment was painted nearly three decades later. These great works by the Renaissance master Michelangelo were inspired by both the art of the ancient Greeks and by Christian revelation.
During the pontificate of Blessed John Paul II, Michelangelo’s frescos were restored, and the images now shine in their original, vibrant colors. During the restorations, many of the braghe, or loincloths, that had been added during controversies about the paintings’ nude images were removed. John Paul II recognized that to regard these images as obscene would be contrary to the intention of the artist and to the genuine meaning that the works expressed.
In 1981, in his catechesis on the theology of the body, the pope stated that, unlike pornography, these works of classical art “lead the viewer through the body to the whole personal mystery of man. In contact with such works, we do not feel pushed by their content toward ‘looking with desire,’ as the Sermon on the Mount puts it; in some way we learn the spousal meaning of the body, which corresponds to and provides the measure for ‘purity of heart.’”
Upon the completion of the restorations, John Paul II delivered a homily in the Sistine Chapel on Easter Friday 1994 in which he called the chapel “the sanctuary of the theology of the body,” adding that “it expresses in a certain way the hope of a world transfigured, the world inaugurated by the risen Christ.” In the painting of the Last Judgment, he said, “we stand before the glory of Christ’s humanity. … As the only Mediator between God and men, from the Sistine Chapel Christ expresses in himself the whole mystery of the visibility of the Invisible.”
These themes in Michelangelo’s work were recently explored in an audiovisual presentation called “A Body for Glory,” part of a multilingual, multifaceted exhibition at World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid. The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family presented the cultural and catechetical event, titled “Called to Love,” with support from the Vatican Museums and the Knights of Columbus. In the guided one-hour journey through the exhibit space, visitors also reflected on key questions about human identity and experience and on John Paul II’s pastoral work with families. For more information, visit calledtolove.com.
The following reflections excerpted from the “A Body for Glory” presentation were written by Father José Granados, vice president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Lateran University in Rome, and Elizabeth Lev, who teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus.
CALLED TO LOVE, MADE FOR GLORY
What is the body? How can we interpret its desires and inclinations? What is its language, and how can we understand what it says?
Christianity helps to give a response to these questions, revealing to us the destiny of the body. As Michelangelo has shown us in the Sistine Chapel, and as John Paul II has taught us in his catecheses on human love, the body is made for glory, for the fullness of love, in the image of the risen body of Christ. …
It was this Christian vision of the body that inspired the masterpieces painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. And to realize this new synthesis, the great artist found inspiration in the way the Greeks considered the body, transforming this Greek vision in a way that could express what is specific to Christian faith: a body loved by God, created for love.
THE CREATION OF ADAM: ORIGINAL SOLITUDE
In the body of Adam, Michelangelo has shown us his idea of perfection. But there is an important difference between the body of Adam and the Greek Apollo, because this Adam’s body is not self-sufficient, is not a perfection closed in on itself, but points to the Creator, to the One who gives it life. Their fingers touch so that they ignite the spark of creative energy. Our body reveals to us that we have our origin in Another; it reveals to us that we are children.
ADAM AND EVE, TEMPTATION AND FALL
Before the fall, the bodies of Adam and Eve are harmoniously intertwined, complementing each other. Their union leads them to walk together toward the Creator.
How different their bodies are after sin: deformed and heavy bodies, full of wrinkles! To sin is to separate oneself from God, the Father and the source of all that is good. Because the body is the primary witness to the Creator, his first gift, the sinner rejects the language of the body and therefore sees it as a burden and a prison. Now they are no longer harmonious bodies; they clash with each other, transformed into instruments of egoistic domination. “Adam, do you remember? In the beginning He asked, ‘Where are you?’ / And you answered, ‘I hid myself from You because I was naked’” (John Paul II, Roman Triptych).
THE RISEN CHRIST
For his Christ, Michelangelo took the head of Apollo as his model. Doing so, he showed the divinity of Christ. But Michelangelo did not adopt the body of Apollo, because it is distant, aloof, untouchable. Michelangelo preferred the Belvedere Torso as a model. In this fragment of a Greek statue, discovered in the time of Michelangelo, we find a body full of movement and energy, a body we can feel from within, a body that communicates life and love.
This is not a vengeful Christ, but a Christ whose dynamism sets the whole scene in motion. We can see in it what John Paul II has said: the body is given to us as a task; it is given to us to be formed. We are called to integrate its affections with true love for the other, to guide its energies toward work and communion. This is what Jesus has done in his body and what he now wishes to communicate to us.
The human body conceals a mystery, which Michelangelo wanted to represent in the Sistine Chapel, this “sanctuary of the theology of the body” as John Paul II called it. The body is neither a prison from which to escape, nor a barrier to overcome. In the body, life is opened to greatness because in it we receive a singular gift. The Sistine Chapel invites us to turn our eyes to the heights, to the Origin from whom this gift comes. Michelangelo wondered at the body made by the Creator, who imprints in the body the beauty of his image.