The Powerlessness of Art, MCP edition

Michelangelo’s powerful but ineffective Sybils in the Sistine Chapel.

Sam Wang gives Hillary Clinton a poll-based 70% probability of becoming US President, if the election were held tomorrow, and not after another six months of public exhibition of the ignorance, bigotry, vulgarity and vanity of Donald Trump. Ban Ki-Moon has picked Christina Figueres’ successor to lead the next round of UN climate negotiations: the even tougher Patricia Espinosa of Mexico. The Monstrous Regiment of Women is doing pretty well in many places.

Not everywhere, and especially not in the Vatican. Here is a sobering tale from the Sistine Chapel.

To do them justice, the Vatican conservators have an impossible job in handling the 6 million visitors a year to see a place designed for 200. Buying tickets online avoids the kilometer-long queue outside, but then you join a throng passing through one gallery after another like cycad leaves propelled peristaltically along a brontosaur gut. It wrecks any chance of properly enjoying Raphael’s Stanze, highbrow courtly art intended for leisurely conversaziones of a dozen worldly cardinals. The Sistine Chapel still works. It’s a large public space, intended for collective rituals. Michelangelo’s ceiling and Last Judgement are Big Art, intended to wow viewers at sixty feet, and they do. Even the officious guards saying Silencio! far louder than the tourists they are hushing did not put me off (though it did Lu).

My takeaway was the Sibyls. The ceiling is architecturally complex and was not designed for frescos, so Michelangelo had a lot of distinct spaces to cover. Here is the overall scheme:

The prophets and sibyls are a sequence. The total is seven to five, but since Jonah and Zechariah are by themselves at the ends, the side walls have five each, and male prophets and female sibyls alternate. Michelangelo won a free hand on the design from Pope Julius II, with loose backstop supervision from the Curia, if any. There was no committee second-guessing him. So why did Michelangelo pick prophets? And why did he put the female sibyls in visual equality with the male prophets?

The Hebrew prophets are, in an orthodox Christian view, held to have foretold Jesus as the Messiah. In the case of Jonah - a satirical fiction in the third person - it was Jonah’s three days in the belly of the “whale” that were imaginatively supposed to prefigure Christ’s death and resurrection. The Sibyls were even more fancifully claimed, very late in the day, to have prophesied His coming. However, their powerful images are not constructed as a theological puzzle piece for insiders, and they are not as far as I can see organically connected to the Creation and Flood narrative of the central ceiling panels.

My pennyworth is WYSIWYG. These images are simply a bold reminder of the power of prophecy, as a gift from God to both men and women.

Without tipping over into heresy, it’s hard to think of a more uncomfortable message to Popes and cardinals. The Hebrew prophets were normally individuals outside the Temple priesthood - Isaiah may be the exception. Amos described himself as a simple farmer. They often castigated the priesthood. Prophecy is outside clerical control, in ancient Judah and modern Italy; and routinely embarrassing, as with the three shepherd children of Fatima. Five years after Michelangelo finished the ceiling, a German prophet (he was a monk) broke the unity of the Latin church with his 95 theses.

The Sibyls add a feminist angle not present in the Tanakh. There’s a warrior-shaman in Deborah, a wily queen in Esther, a good wife in Rachel, an anonymous mistress in the Song of Solomon, but not IIRC a recognised prophet. Michelangelo goes much further in making his Sibyls full equals in spacing and in force with the men. They are women, old, young and middle-aged, of God-given spiritual authority. Women.

They have looked down for 500 years on the 49 conclaves of cardinals meeting to elect a new Pope, once a decade on average. Consider the electoral process, which must be the most inefficient ever devised by suspicious and nit-picking minds. Wikipedia:

The scrutiny phase of the election is as follows: The cardinal electors proceed, in order of precedence, to take their completed ballots (which bear only the name of the individual voted for) to the altar, where the Scrutineers stand. Before casting the ballot, each cardinal elector takes a Latin oath, which translates to: “I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.” If any cardinal elector is in the Chapel, but cannot proceed to the altar due to infirmity, the last Scrutineer may go to him and take his ballot after the oath is recited. If any cardinal elector is by reason of infirmity confined to his room, the Infirmarii go to their rooms with ballot papers and a box. Any such sick cardinals take the oath and then complete the ballot papers. When the Infirmarii return to the Chapel, the ballots are counted to ensure that their number matches with the number of ill cardinals; thereafter, they are deposited in the appropriate receptacle. This oath is taken by all cardinals as they cast their ballots. If no one is chosen on the first scrutiny, then a second scrutiny immediately follows. A total of four scrutinies are taken each day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon.

This rigmarole goes on, and on, until there is a two-thirds majority. The cardinals can’t communicate with the outside world. There is only so much praying and plotting you can do in the day, and sudoku looks bad. They must be bored out of their minds. So they have  p l e n t y  of time to look at the stunning art around and above them, and think about the messages it is sending them.

Judging by the policies of the Catholic Church towards its women members, the sibyls have had precisely zero effect in 49 tries. For those who wish great art to have a social impact, it’s a dispiriting lesson.

The problem is, I suggest, that Michelangelo was 500 years ahead of his time, and the clock is still running. A message can only be received by a primed auditor, reader or viewer. Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa has in contrast been accessible from Day 1. Men and women think about sex a lot; Catholics also think about religious experience. A sculpture that brings the two together is instantly comprehensible. The message has been rejected, but I doubt if it has been badly misunderstood. Picasso’s Guernica has been similarly understood from the beginning. Simon Schama tells the story that before Colin Powell gave a press conference after his false testimony to the UN Security Council on Iraqi WMDs, the tapestry copy of the painting hanging in the press room was removed: it revealed the truth about what the US government was planning.

The message that women may have spiritual authority has had no purchase in the minds of the princes of the Catholic Church. Michelangelo’s supreme art has washed off the Teflon of orthodox and institutional misogny.

Pope Francis at least recognizes the humanity and goodness of women, and he is having to deal with an increasing number of women political leaders. There is no sign of structural change.

My wish list? It’s pointless, but here goes. The college of cardinals is an ancient institution, but it’s an administrative device not a theological plank like the priesthood. It has changed over the centuries. For the first millennium of the Church there were cardinal-deacons as well as cardinal-priests and bishops. A reforming pope could reintroduce a class of non-priestly cardinals (perhaps under some other name) that could allow distinguished Catholic women to take part in the conclave. They could be theologians or Mother Superiors of religious orders. Even a handful of women in the conclave would change the atmosphere, and allow the muzzled Sybils to speak.

Why, the princes of the Catholic church might even remember that when the embryo of their institution could have fitted into two buses, it was composed like this (Acts 1.13-15, NIV):

… When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.
In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers and sisters …”

Here the magnificent Sybils are. To keep the page size manageable, I leave the seven prophets as links.

Above the altar:
South side:
Jeremiah (a self-portrait)
Persian Sibyl:

Erythraean Sibyl:

Above the west door:

North side:
Delphic Sibyl:

Cumaean Sibyl:

Libyan Sibyl:

*      *      *      *      *

Postscript 1
If Michelangelo was such a feminist, why didn’t he go with the far more accessible and better documented Marys?
1. He had settled on the Old Testament, the life of Christ being well represented by the existing murals. The Marys would not fit in.
2. Painting a strong Mary was theologically fraught. See the history of Piero Della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto. At the very least, it would attract close clerical scrutiny and crimp his freedom.
3. He wasn’t a feminist in the modern sense. There weren’t any in 1508. Nobody advocated equal rights for women in any field. But being gay freed him from seeing women as sex objects or breeding stock. Genius allowed him to imagine them - prophetically - as wise and powerful.

Postscript 2
His work in the Sistine Chapel did lead Michelangelo into one controversy. This was a ludicrous and prurient complaint about the mother-naked figures in the huge Last Judgement behind the altar. Eventually the Curia hired a hack to paint over the genitalia.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

14 thoughts on “The Powerlessness of Art, MCP edition”

  1. Just noting that the first six months' "public exhibition of the ignorance, bigotry, vulgarity and vanity of Donald Trump" led to him securing the nomination of a major party, after practically everyone had predicted he'd be an utter failure.

    I have no idea who's going to win this election, but I do wish that people who've already demonstrated their LACK of 'leet' prediction skills would just refrain.

    Well, no, I guess I'll say one more thing: In a democracy, if you declare widespread public opinion to be ignorance and bigotry, and actually convince a large segment of the political structure to agree with you, you're going to end up with winners who just don't care what you think. That's kind of the point of democracy: The people get to decide what views win, not the academics.

    1. I was just paraphrasing Trump's defeated rivals. What they have said is true, even if by some satanic miracle Trump wins the election, cf. the Reichstag in 1933. BTW, not that it matters, I don't recall ever predicting Trump would not win the nomination. I don't have enough empathy for American conservatives to have a useful predictive take. Nor it seems did conservative American intellectuals.

      Though I did use it as a lead-in, I'm not going to allow any more comments on the American election in this thread. There are plenty of more appropriate places.

    2. Can I just sneak in one more? Technically, Wimberley was describing Trump, *not* the people voting for him, some significant but unknowably sized chunk of whom … and we can hope it is sizable? or do we not hope that? it's hard to know these days … picked out the one legitimate point made by Trump, that which is based on trade and its effects. I certainly prefer to think that is behind most of the support, and not the, um, other stuff. But I agree we will be talking about this for a while longer.

      Meanwhile, beautiful post!!! I love this Pope. I hope he lives to be 100.

      1. The compliment gets you the pass. But no more from anybody, please. [Update: That is, on the election. Comments welcome on God, sex, feminism, patriarchy and art, a fair range of topics.]

  2. (I'm assuming that "no more from anybody" does not restrict comments on the point of the original post. If I'm wrong, I apologize, and please delete this response.) I've been puzzling over this since you brought it up. I would not so quickly excuse Michelangelo's decision to use pagan figures. Deborah was a judge, not just a warrior-shaman; Huldah was a prophet, as was Miriam, Moses' sister. Well, that's three. In the New Testament, Anna and the daughters of Philip.
    It seems to me that the use of pagan figures places the powerful females well outside the pale as far as being taken seriously by the cardinals. Perhaps looking at Deborah on the ceiling might have rattled a particularly thoughtful cardinal (but probably not). But there's nothing in a Sybil to make a Christian churchman think, "Look at that wise woman on the ceiling! You know, we really do need more of that sort of thing around here."
    Whether it is relevant that most of the Sybils don't really look like women at all but rather epicene, I don't know. (the Delphic is an exception, but the Erythraean has the face of a young man (I think I'm seeing brow ridges), and the Cumaean has the face of an old woman but the biceps and wrists of a middle-aged male).
    Finally, I come down to the fact that, even if the cardinals saw in the images a set of powerful and wise female prophets, it's not a failure of art that the idea of including women failed to pierce their skulls. After all, Christian and Jewish scholars have been reading the stories of Deborah the judge and strategist and Huldah the expert on the Scriptures for a good long time, and Christians have been reading about female leaders of churches, and it doesn't seem to have occurred to either group that the ranks of rabbis and priests could benefit from the participation of women until rather recently, and that was the result of external cultural changes.
    (Again, I apologize if you intended to cut off discussion of this post entirely-in that case, please delete this comment. And thank you for a very interesting mental exercise and the chance to consider some artistic issues I hadn't thought of.)

    1. I doubt that's what he meant, and your comment is a valuable one. I like this post because there's no way I had time to notice these figures while I was in the stampeding herd of people who were fortunate enough even to spend a few minutes there. The whole experience made me a bit angry - didn't someone on this site think the Vatican should spin off all that art into a foundation? (Which wouldn't solve the crowding issue of course.) I don't have an opinion yet, but, it all did make me think of the Church's not-great WWII period. We can't look back and say, it was better to have preserved all this. You can't be a church and say that. At least, I don't see how. But maybe I am seeing an issue where there isn't one.

    2. Your comment is most welcome and very much what I was hoping for.

      Michelangelo came at the end of the high Renaissance, when intellectuals and churchmen were still trying to merge the heritages of Christianity and indirectly Judaism with those of Greece and Rome. IMHO the weakness in his back-story is not that the Sybils are pagan, it's that the alleged prophecies of Christ (matching those of his seven Hebrew prophets) are basically fiction. He surely could not have fitted Deborah and Miriam into that eschatological frame.

      Aren't many of Michelangelo's women muscular? The Medici tombs in Florence, at least one Madonna. Even the Mary of the Pietà sculpture in St. Peter's, with a girlish face, is broad-shouldered.

      1. I am no art expert, but aren't all of Michelangelo's figures fairly well muscled? Even the putti look like they've been putting in rather a lot of time in the celestial weight rooms (although also, evidently, at the celestial dessert table). But, as I can recall, his women usually do look like women. However, as to the point of the original posting, it's an intriguing idea. I wish I shared your optimism about the Roman prelates ever getting the point-this or any other-about the potential for female spiritual authority.

  3. You have a more careful and discerning eye than I do, James.

    For me, the takeaway from the Sistine Chapel is the Last Judgment. It is a brilliant painting of a horrifying scene, that makes me wonder how anyone can reconcile the notion of a loving Jesus with what is depicted. It makes me glad that, as a non-Christian, I have no obligation to do so.

    1. I share your feelings about the subject and perhaps for that reason did not pay much attention to the painting.

      The beautiful treatment of the same theme by Rogier van der Weyden in the Hospices de Beaune (well worth visiting, even if you and I can’t afford the wine) sits at the end of what was originally a hospital ward. The beds are in alcoves along the side, so the dying patients had a clear line of sight to a representation of what they expected to happen to their souls pretty soon.

      1. Sam,

        Before we get to that issue, we have to decide whether what is being meted out is in fact justice. I myself do not think it is. I think it is hard to imagine greater injustice than consigning souls to Hell for failing to adhere to Christian (or…..) belief. Compare our attitude towards governments that imprison or torture political dissidents.

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