Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Michelangelo’s Dilemma: What Do We See in Art? (Is There Truth in Art? Part 2)

It is not easy being an artist. Da Vinci. Michelangelo. Van Gogh. Hugo. Rizal. They all had problems, big and small. But as great artists, they had historically interesting problems. Let us take a look at Michelangelo.

In a previous article, we talked about how our favorite sculptor/painter/architect – hey, most architects are multi-media artists, too – had to deal with possibly the biggest patron in the world: the pope. In any language, that spells a lot of honor, fame, money and -- sorry to say this -- trouble. And not necessarily in that order. Hence, in the four years that he painted the Sistine Chapel, he said that he probably aged more than ten years. Was it the work? Yes, of course. Employer-employee issues? That, too.

Lying down on your back all day long to paint is not the best kind of work one can have. First of all, Mike (as we may call him) did not want to do the job as he was a sculptor and not a painter by training and disposition. Sculpting made one strong, sitting down or standing up and using one’s arm in vigorous motions and with a lot of resistance that builds muscles. But lying down and putting colored mortar delicately on a ceiling with only candles for light, not only dulls one’s eyes, it also prevents blood from circulating well. One gets really old. And crabby, when your patron peeps in every now and then and shouts to you from below, “Is it finished yet?”

Yes, they also shouted to (and sometimes at) each other – painter and pope – because they were quite a distance apart, at least 30 meters or about ten-storeys high. They had to or they would not have heard each other. Mike was up in the ceiling while Julius was on the ground craning his neck and trying to catch a glimpse of the ongoing work. The pope, of course, respected the artist’s abilities but still looked at him as an ordinary employee working for the Catholic Church of which he was supreme head. Mike, never got to finish (that is paint gold edgings over the paintings) because the pope impatiently demanded to see the work. Mike took down the scaffolds and refused to put them back when asked to put on the finishing touches.

But there was more to the physical and professional gap that separated artist and patron. There was the spiritual. Yes, spiritual, not religious, because they were of the same sect. There was something in the commission that was somehow helping Mike sustain his body and his spirit in spite of the daily abuse of physical pain and personal deprivation he had to go through. Four years painting on his back on a ceiling about the size of a basketball gym! That’s probably like being in prison for four years and being forced to lie down almost all day in a bunk a foot or two away from a ceiling. Call it torture or deprivation – the result is the same.

No, if you are not wise enough, you would go crazy or quit. Mike did quit a few times but came back to finish the work. If you are truly wise, like Mike was, you immerse yourself in the work and find meaning or transformation though the process. And as we said previously, he found out his work was not that of a mere chronicler of biblical stories but as a true searcher and, it follows, conveyor (hence, teacher) of divine truth. He finally saw God, like many philosophers before and after him, not just from the text of the Scriptures he read but from the spirit of the message of Him Who caused it to be written. The difference between a scientist who studies Nature and sees only atoms, cells and natural processes and an artist who studies God and Creation and sees supernatural life is direction or perspective of vision. The former looks in and sees more of matter while the latter looks beyond and sees more of life. Who do you think will find the greater truth?

When Mike first envisioned the creation of Adam for his panoramic fresco, he must have thought like an infant imagining how he might have come out of his mother’s womb into a world of great wonder. As a newborn baby slides through a woman’s portal of life, it has no strength or real being that we often assume is our legacy in life. It goes limp as it separates from its life-giver and source of sustenance. It feels initially lost and blind to whatever grand design it was meant to comprehend and accomplish in this vast earthly environment.

The muscle-sculpted Adam, in fact, looks like a big baby whose life is just about to begin, a lump of clay given mere form but not will and awareness. (Or in Mike’s medium, a mixture of cement and color given artistic life.) Adam blindly looks at God or behind Him where Eve is but a blurred vision. He can hardly recognize the hand of the One Who created him. Or lift his hand and finger high enough to touch His power so that he may have complete life, sight and understanding. But God, right before He grants abundant gift of life to Adam, extends His hand to perfect His work for him and the whole Universe.

Mike himself was now seeing the truth in the power of God to create, not just Adam and life but the whole universal reality. The “Creation of Adam”, right at the center of the chapel, is the very beginning of all that Mike would portray through his almost divine creative power as an artist. It seemed that he was trying to tell the world that his faith in the power of God to create Adam was but the culmination – or crown -- of His ability to create everything else: light, water, Sun, Moon and stars. The whole of human history (the entire painting’s theme) around Adam, therefore, merely serves witness to that originating Divine Power which Mike so magnificently portrayed. One Power uniting with one Creation. Only the human heart, through faith, can unravel such inevitable truth.

It was Mike, for all intents and purposes, who decided what he wanted to paint on the ceiling. Sure, the pope may have told him the basic idea of retelling the biblical epic in glowing fresco as if Heaven itself had projected the lives of those characters we merely read into visual forms and colors and high above the heads of those who can only see them but not touch them. Only Mike, with his hands and his spirit as if he were God himself, had that privilege as delegated creator.

It is easy then to understand the many instances when Mike and Pope Julius II argued about certain details of the frescoes. Whereas the pope envisioned to decorate his chapel with the best and grandest masterpiece ever made to perpetuate his influence as well as that of the church (aside from being head of a religious group, he was also the commander of the papal army – he fancied himself as a “Julius” Caesar -- and was more a politician than a theologian), Mike, like a true mystic, was searching for truth. Mike, therefore, benefited more from the relationship for it gave him the motivation to go into the introspective process of divining the essence of God and life.

To prove this hypothesis, for that is what this is mainly all about, we present the painting of the Last Judgment on the Sistine Chapel altar wall, a fresco done by Michelangelo for seven years long after he had finished the ceiling. His new patron was now Pope Clement VII who died before the painting was started and was replaced by Pope Paul III. It is well known that Mike had preliminary sketches (See this video) for this monumental scene but not as they were finally painted. In the sketch, we see Mary seemingly kneeling or crawling toward Jesus on His right side – the good side, of course. She seems in fear, as if pleading to Jesus to be sparing in judgment, as if it were her place to do so. The question is: Why did Mike end up putting Mary right beside Him on His seat? Does not Christ sit at the right hand of God? If Mary then sits at His right hand in Heaven and at the judgment, then that makes Mary equal to God – a clearly Catholic teaching. My belief is that Mike knew he was doctrinally correct when he sketched Mary like any among those who will be judged. Perhaps, Mike was even trying to show that Mary herself pleaded for her own soul, humbling herself before Jesus like everyone else. That, by all measures, is a sound, biblical point of view that endows Mike a clear and impartial grasp of spiritual realities.

What then caused Mike to change his fresco, if he really did it himself? Or, more precisely, who prevailed upon him to amend his original idea? Could Mary’s final figure have been a revision done by someone else? We cannot tell for sure without science’s help -- or that of the Vatican.

In investigating this hypothesis, we find out that some of the figures in the painting were actually revised later (fresco portions were scraped out and replaced with new fresco mixture) to remove the obscene nudity and latent carnality. As today, religious sensibilities then were pricked by artistic license and, in some cases, extreme experimentation. For instance, the figures of St. Bartholomew and St. Catherine were painted over with clothes to cover the frontal nudity and to eliminate the fact that the lady saint was looking at the male saint’s organ. It is judgment time and the holy children of God are still at it! Whether this naughtiness is true or not, Mike must have been trying to tell us something else less vulgar.

A chapel is a place for prayers; but as a model of the Universe, it is freely open to all and every thought and activity of humans. Ironically, in painting over lifeless, gray ceilings and walls inside a chapel, Mike succeeded in opening instead our minds to what truly happened and what was actually happening out there in the world and way above it. Our bodies are a gift from God and appreciating the wonder of this fact can be seen as acknowledging God’s power and can be, therefore, a form of worship. “I was fearfully and wonderfully made, and my heart knows it well,” King David wrote about his own body.

The common idea that chapels, convents or church buildings are sanctuaries built to keep away the world has all but lost its significance in our changing times. Did not Christ move and live among the peasants and the sinners where they were – the real world – and effectively showed that knowing and serving God required only an open and humble heart and spirit? Did He not teach that true worship was neither in Jerusalem’s temple nor in Samaria’s high places but in spirit and in truth? Our body is the very temple of God; what we do to it expresses our worship.

Likewise, the common perception that worship “requires” purity of thought is at best merely a way to brainwash people to a form of religion. Anyone who genuinely struggles through prayer knows that the devil forces his thoughts even in the most sacred or solemn moments. Women wearing shorts or tight clothing inside churches or in the streets, although they are generally clueless or care-less, provide Satan clear and living pictures (not static frescoes) with which to plant impure thoughts among men – and even among women. Besides, worship – what we define as a living offering – is a continuing, long journey through both darkness and light and not a series of pleasant trips around a paradise island on a clean cruise ship. A life of faith is not like going to a safe school to learn modules of lessons from expert teachers but a real trek through a thick forest full of beauty as well as dangers and the teacher is God Himself. Sistine Chapel was designed by the pope to be that cruise ship, but Mike turned it into the thick forest of reality.

Better to come before God with impure thoughts and begging Him to cleanse us completely than to pretend to be pious for an hour but immoral the rest of the time.

Artists tend to disturb people. In Mike’s case, that is an understatement. In fact, he intentionally and impishly positioned the door to hell so that the priest who celebrated mass faced the way into damnation. Perhaps, nothing expresses Mike’s personal view of those religious leaders then more harshly than that fact. He might have preferred that people turned away from chapels and their pre-programmed rites and defined iconography so that they can live real lives acceptable according to God’s standards and not to those of humans. For there are those who would rather worship outside of churches, buildings or rituals in obedience to Christ’s call to true worship (in spirit and in truth). A human painter like Mike can only paint a tiny part of God’s workmanship on a ceiling for God alone can paint His entire truth in the vast Universe. Have a real life, Christians!

Mike himself predicted that many people will look at his Last Judgment painting and discover so many hidden things. What we have said so far is but a tiny portion of what he was trying to present.

Mike, who was no longer as pressured and as harassed as before (he was standing now and not lying down), was in a better mood and even took certain liberties. He painted his face into the scene as the flayed body of St. Bartholomew. Was this his idea of “dying to the world” as a Christian? Or just a playful way of relieving work stress?

We will never prove beyond any doubt that Mike was pressured to edit his concept of Mary’s position. He was completely free to interpret it as a painter as much as the pope was as a theologian. As an artist, he did see himself higher than the pope while the pope, of course, saw himself higher than Mike. But whose thoughts have truly remained for us to see: the pope’s, the artist’s, their shared idea or that of God?

I believe that artists take too much liberties at times because they see, like many ordinary people, but a part of the truth. That is why whether we read only the Bible or teach it or paint its stories, we must make sure that we represent it as faithfully as we can. Art or artistic freedom is not an excuse for changing God’s essential truth. Yes, we can imagine things where the text is silent; but we should not pass them off as absolute truth. Factual, perhaps, but not necessarily true.

Still, it seems that Mike may have tried to use his freedom to stretch the truth toward how he saw it as much as he could. Thus, even if Mike did freely change his composition to make it what it is now, we doubt that it really represented what he understood to be a valid message of the gospel. The presence of the study sketch seems to support this view. The final scene may have been an accommodation he made either as a compliant Catholic or as an obedient employee of the Church.

Mike was a poet as well. He wrote several sonnets and in those poems he expressed the deep spirituality of one who had intelligence and the independent mind of a true searcher of truth. Like Galileo, perhaps, who turned his back on his discovery in order to keep the peace and to maintain his ability to do more work, might Mike also have compromised to continue working and doing what he needed to do which was to live reality according to the truth? For isn’t a commissioned art-work, after all, nothing but a work you do for someone who may not share your own beliefs? For as Galileo said, “The Earth moves just as well”, Mike could have also said, “Mary is not yet in Heaven after all”.

By the way, one of Mike’s vocal critics (Cardinal Baigio da Cesena, papal master of ceremonies) ended up being one of the painted nude figures consigned to hell (inescapably bound and bitten by serpents). It may not have been a kind Christian wish but a purely albeit sadistically artistic move. Mike had his own foibles definitely. He lived in a real world, not in an artistic vacuum like some artists do.

Art is full of mystery just like life. Yet, art can be also funny at times. And so is life. But all hidden things will be revealed eventually and the laughter of those who made fools of many will turn to crying when we all come face-to-face with the Great Judge.

Finally, we judge a painting and its painter to test ourselves whether we seek and live out the truth that they strive to show or we will forever be blind people seeing the painting and yet seeing only what we see or what we want to see and not what God ultimately wants us to see. Like the Pharisees who heard the parables of Jesus, do we hear but do not understand the meaning? Art can open our minds some more if we already have the truth in us. Most artists struggle to do so but there are artists and people around them who willfully close our minds from the truth. Beware of them.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So is truth. Do we see only art or do we see life also? Do we merely see life or do we see God as well? And so, do we use our eyes alone or do we also use our minds?

Only the Truth can give us clear sight and save us from condemnation.

(Painting above: Detail of "The Last Judgment" by Michelangelo.)