Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling is respected, world-over, as a masterpiece; a triumph of artistic genius – and rightly. Stand below his 12,000ft of frescoes for just one breath and you’ll be hard-pressed to ever doubt mankind’s creative potential again. The Sistine Chapel ceiling is an astonishing work, and 500 years haven’t diminished its triumph a bit.
A breadth of reverence for Michelangelo’s masterpiece is no new phenomenon; his contemporary and rival, Raphael (whom there was no love lost between), thought so highly of his work on the Sistine Chapel that he incorporated Michelangelo into his painting, The School of Athens – which you’ll also find in the Vatican Museums. Look to the bottom left of The School, and you’ll see Michelangelo, paper on table and pencil in hand, alongside classical luminaries like Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates.
Raphael must have been quite the big man to put aside his pride and include Michelangelo, but it’d be unwise to underestimate how revelatory Michelangelo’s contemporaries found his Sistine Chapel ceiling. In his Lives of the Artists, Vasari summarized how revolutionary Michelangelo’s frescoes were to a Renaissance audience:
This ceiling is a true beacon of our art, and it has brought such enlightenment to painting that it illuminated a world which for hundreds of years had been in the state of darkness.
Vasari, Michelangelo’s contemporary, saw him as the painter who brought light to the world. Over 200 years later, Goethe remarked that even nature looked wan in comparison with his Sistine Chapel frescoes. In general, Michelangelo’s frescoes receive universal acclaim, and have done for 500 years.
Divine Androgyny in Michelangelo
However, a dissenting chorus has risen in the new millennium. The main criticism? Michelangelo’s women. Jill Burke, lecturer at Edinburgh college of art, ran a masterclass on Michelangelo called ‘Men with Breasts’, to bust the ahistorical criticisms continuously levelled at him by history of art students. Most critique Michelangelo’s female figures and attribute their androgyny to his general ineptitude with women – perhaps because of his homosexuality.
Look closer, and you’ll find Michelangelo was not averse to women. Not only did he write poetry in honor of his female lover, Vittoria Colonna (unconsummated or otherwise, his affections for her were distinctly amorous), but his muscular female figures are intentionally androgynous.
In the Renaissance, androgyny was commonly considered the most attractive state for men and women. Mario Equicola, Renaissance humanist, wrote in 1525 that ‘the effeminate male and the manly female are graceful in almost every aspect’ – a view commonly held by his peers. You’ll find many examples of perfected androgynous figures in Renaissance art. Take Donatello’s David, who stands leaning, leg forward, with a hand on his hip and a soft, round little belly – like a young woman. Michelangelo’s insistence on perfect, hyper-idealized androgyny in his Sistine Chapel frescoes may be a reason why his peers found the work so illuminating and revelatory.
Androgyny was desirable – but more than that; androgyny was Godly. According to the Book of Matthew, in heaven, there will be no husbands and wives. Human beings will then be as angels – that is, androgynous and asexual. Jesus is both identified as the savior of mankind and the lamb of the world: he embodies masculine associations of leadership and feminine associations with passivity. God himself was often thought of as having an androgynous aspect, in line with both Platonic and Cabalist interpretations of the Old Testament. Both were fashionable among the intellectual Renaissance milieu that Michelangelo moved within.
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Sophia: Divine Wisdom, God’s Female Companion
The women that Michelangelo portrays on the Sistine Chapel ceiling consistently appear as unions of masculine and feminine characteristics. His female figures have the muscularity of men, with broad necks, but also breasts, wide eyes, round lips. You can’t miss Michelangelo’s Eve and the Five Sibyls – but there’s one woman on the Sistine Chapel ceiling who’s often overlooked. In The Creation of Adam, next to God, under his arm and holding his arm, is a beautiful young woman, her gaze fixed intently on Adam – and likelihood is, that woman isn’t Eve.
We can see that the female figure in The Creation of Eve is not an exact likeness for the female figure pictured here. According to the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, before God created mankind, before the separation of light and darkness, God made himself a companion, who was always personified as female: Sophia, Divine Wisdom.
Proverbs 8, Sophia herself speaks. She tells of how she was beside God, ‘when he prepared the heavens… when he established the clouds above, when he strengthened the deep.’ During the creation of heaven and earth, she was God’s ‘daily delight’, and her delight was ‘the sons of men’.
Why would Michelangelo include Sophia in his Creation of Adam? Not only was Sophia God’s companion, alongside him for all his acts of creation but, according to Proverbs, she held a special significance for mankind. Mankind can only access the kingdom of heaven by finding Wisdom, for in her is life, and in life, the Lord, as Christian theology has it.
As an artist, Divine Wisdom would have been a particularly compelling theme for Michelangelo. In the Renaissance, artists were commonly considered representatives of the divine, creative capacity on earth – and Divine Wisdom is an essential component of sublime artistry. Michelangelo himself was nicknamed ‘The Divine Michelangelo’.
Sophia’s story doesn’t end with the Old Testament, and Michelangelo, an avid reader, would have known it. Following Corinthians, Church Fathers began to refer to Christ as the ‘Wisdom of God’. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Constantine dedicated a church in Constantinople to Christ, as Divine Wisdom personified. In the New Testament, Sophia, Divine Wisdom, is incorporated into the figure of Christ, to save mankind. When Michelangelo placed Sophia beside God in The Creation of Adam, he demonstrates God’s divine androgyny, creative capacity, and foreshadows the coming of Christ – which explains the aesthetics of his incredibly muscular female figures. In the Sistine Chapel, the holy has both male and female aspects: androgyny is Godliness. That’s why Michelangelo places Sophia beside God and that’s why his women look a lot like ‘men with breasts’.
Now you know – and next time you look at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, you’ll see The Creation of Adam with fresh eyes. If you want the best possible experience of the Sistine Chapel, why not join one of our Closed-Door Sistine Chapel tours? We’ll take you to an empty Sistine Chapel, with only your expert, local guide, and a group that never exceeds 15 persons. You’ll get to take your time and stand alone under The Creation of Adam, to experience Michelangelo’s masterpiece – and his astonishing, sophisticated thinking – in perfect peace and harmony.