Michelangelo’s genius included the ability to synthesize the elements of his burgeoning Renaissance world into profound artistic statements. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-1512) combines his own Christian worldview and the pagan Platonic worldview so popular among the intellectual elite of Rome. The subject is his version of Simple Reality, the ascent of humanity from unconscious ignorance, through transformation to Transcendence.
William Fleming gives us the description of the Christian version. “In this return to God, the soul in its bodily prison gradually becomes aware of God and moves from finiteness to infinity, from material bondage to spiritual freedom.”[i] The Christian version of the ascent of man is not simple or easy. “Immortality is not the reward for a passive and pious existence but the ultimate achievement of a tremendous effort of the soul struggling out of the darkness of ignorance into the blinding light of truth.”[ii] This achievement, of course, had to take place within the context of the Church with the help of the Church hierarchy and often for a price. This was the story of P-B salvation and Michelangelo told the story dramatically with stunning eloquence.
He depicts unconscious humanity in eight spandrels running parallel on the 132-foot-long edges of the painting. “The eight spandrels tell the dismal tale of humanity without vision, who, as St. Luke says, ‘sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,’ awaiting the light that will come when the Savior is born.”[iii] In P-A, of course, the savior is our own inner wisdom and we don’t have to wait for salvation.
Michelangelo mixes the Platonic worldview with the Christian when he adds to the second parallel band the seven Hebrew prophets alternating with five pagan sibyls. Like the mystics and other intuitive sources who provided the insights contained in the Simple Reality Project, these prophets and “seers” help provide inspiration for the realization of P-A (salvation).
In the next band surrounding the central panels we find the ignudi or nude youths which in Platonic theory, personify the rational faculties of the sibyls and prophets which empower humanity to bridge the gap between heaven and earth. Humanity had not yet grasped the reality that reason (“rational faculties”) was not capable of the insight necessary for Transcendence. We suffer with the same ignorance today which makes the main body of the ceiling so touching and painful to view even though it was conceived and rendered 500 years ago.
Moving on to the first of the nine central panels which taken in reverse shows a drunken Noah trying to escape his despair having realized the futility of life when expressed as the pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power. “After the picture of Noah as the prisoner of his own base nature [false self], the next panel pictures the Deluge, which shows the plight of man when beset by the elemental forces of nature beyond his control.”[iv] The Fall of Man and Expulsion from Paradise completes humanity’s choice of P-B by turning away from their true nature. Adam and Eve choose to rely on their false-self survival strategies and by doing so are “self-banished” from paradise (P-A). This version of “The Fall” is in harmony with the Platonic/Christian synthesis of a sinful humanity suffering the punishment of life within P-B.
The third panel, and the last five, chronicle the relationship between God and his Creation. Viewing the sequence of panels in reverse we can see that the challenge for humanity is to move back toward the transcendent worldview of Oneness ending with the first/final panel of God Dividing the Light from Darkness where “the climax and the realm of pure being are attained. Here is clarity coming out of chaos, order from the void, existence from nothingness, the idea from unconsciousness.”[v] Here we see the Implicate Order expressed as pure and eternal energy.
Meanwhile, “the conception of God has progressed from the patriarchal human figure of the Creation of Eve to that of a cosmic spirit in the intervening panels, and how He is seen as a swirling abstraction in the realm of pure being. The Neo-Platonic objective of the union of the soul with God has been achieved by the gradual progress from the bondage of the spandrels, through the prophetic visions of the seers, and finally by ascending the ladder of the histories into the pure light of knowledge, to the point of dissolution into the freedom of infinity.”[vi]
This masterpiece, which would not have been painted if Michelangelo had not been forced to do so by the power of the Pope, nevertheless reveals his profound ability to demonstrate the experience of creating beauty in the flow of the present moment. “In the words of Pico della Mirandola, man ‘withdraws into the center of his own oneness, his spirit made one with God.’”[vii] An apt description of the paradigm shift that is depicted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling and one that remains available to all of us.
[i] Fleming, William. Art, Music and Ideas. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. 1970, page 185.
[iv] Ibid., page 186.
[v] Ibid., page 187.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.