Michelangelo’s Theology of the Body

After walking through the innumerable rooms filled with sculptures and paintings, with tapestries and murals, with tourists and tour guides, of the Vatican Museums, you find yourself in a small corridor that leads to a small and seemingly insignificant door. Jaws drop as people walk through that threshold, because beyond it lies one of the most visited and admired places in the world: the Sistine Chapel. The Sistine Chapel contains some of the finest pieces of art you can imagine. On the walls you find paintings by Botticelli and Pinturicchio and tapestries designed by Rafael. However, the chapel is best known for Michelangelo’s breathtaking frescoes that adorn its ceiling and the altar wall.

These frescoes are some of the most, if not the most, well known works of art, yet few people are aware of how deeply imbued  with a Catholic understanding of the world they are.  For example, it somehow strikes the uninformed visitor as odd that most of the figures in these frescoes are completely naked. It seems to them that the last place you would encounter nudity would be in a church, especially in a Catholic church. Perhaps many Catholics feel the same way. In order to understand why these magnificent paintings are perfectly at home inside a Catholic church, we must turn to the Church’s teaching on the goodness of the body, and specifically to John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. John Paul II himself brought this to light when, in his homily during the celebration of the unveiling of the newly restored frescoes, he said:

It seems that Michelangelo, in his own way, allowed himself to be guided by the evocative words of the Book of Genesis which, as regards the creation of the human being, male and female, reveals: “The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame” (Gn 2:25). The Sistine Chapel is precisely – if one may say so – the sanctuary of the theology of the human body. In witnessing to the beauty of man created by God as male and female, it also expresses in a certain way, the hope of a world transfigured, the world inaugurated by the Risen Christ, and even before by Christ on Mount Tabor.

The sanctuary of the theology of the human body! But how can we speak of a “theology” of the human body? Is not the body precisely what keeps us away from God? Is not the body a prison that keeps us bound to this earth and separated from our heavenly destiny? You might believe that if you are a Platonist, or even if you are a Puritan, but not if you are a Catholic. There are many reasons why the Church teaches that the human body is good, but I will limit myself to three of them: 1) Man was created by God, in his image and likeness; 2) Humans occupy a special place in the order of the universe, namely, in human nature is united the spiritual and the material worlds; and 3) God took human nature upon Himself.

What makes Catholic art great is its ability to communicate in simple terms some of the most complicated theological truths. The purpose of Catholic art is not only to glorify God, but also to educate in the faith. In that sense, the artist must also be a teacher, and Michelangelo was a most excellent one. Let us look at these three theological truths in the light of the Sistine Chapel frescoes, where Michelangelo presents them with most masterful strokes:

“God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (Gn. 1:27). The body is good because it was created by God and he “found it very good” (Gn. 1:31). John Paul II tells us that when Genesis speaks of man being created in the divine image, it is not only speaking of the soul, but also of the body. By creating us male and female, God made us to reflect His Trinitarian nature. Man and woman are called to live in a community of persons, just like God is a community of persons. The three divine persons are one God, and in a similar fashion “man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body” (Gn. 2:24). The difficulty arises as to how you can represent this as being created in the image of God, since we do not know what God looks like. Michelangelo solves this problem by representing God in a human form but, at the same time, he presents Him in such a way that speaks of His being distinct from humans. In a few words, he anthropomorphizes Him enough to let us know that we are made in His image, but he de-anthropomorphizes Him enough for us to know that He is not a human. Look at the panel titled “The Creation of Adam:”

The Creation of Adam

The Creation of Adam

What do we see? Well, first we see that the creative action comes from God, not from man. It is man who is made in the image of God, not the other way around. It is God who is reaching out to touch Adam and bring him to life; it is God who communicates His likeness to Adam. How does Michelangelo point to the distinction of the human and the divine natures? He does so in a very straightforward way. Adam, as well as most of the humans in the chapel ceiling, is shown in his nakedness in order to express that one of the fundamental characteristics of man is that he has a body. God, on the other hand, is completely dressed, and in this Michelangelo is reminding us that, unlike man, God has no body. To further distinguish God from man, Michelangelo shows Him hovering above the earth, independent of the created universe. Adam and other human characters are always shown touching the earth. This does not mean that Michelangelo thought that God was literally an old man floating around in the clouds. The whole purpose of portraying Him this way was to make the reality of our likeness to Him evident, which does not mean that we are God. Simultaneously, it is teaching us that there is something about our physical existence, about our bodies themselves, that is also made in His image. And so, God keeps Eve under His arm, for it is in the spousal meaning of the human body that we are images of the Trinity.

The Creation of the Heavenly Bodies

The Creation of the Heavenly Bodies

“The Creation of Adam” also reveals to us the second theological truth that I mentioned. Adam, while firmly anchored in the materiality of the earth, is lifting his arm toward God, who is in heaven. The physical and the spiritual are brought together, for the nature of man is the union of both:

Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day (CCC, 364).

John Paul II tells us that, instead of saying that man has a body, it is more adequate to say that man is an embodied soul or a spiritualized body. He then adds that the body is meant to reveal the soul, the physical is meant to manifest the spiritual. Michelangelo expresses this reality by presenting  Adam changing physically. In the moment of creation, that is, before the Fall, Adam is shown in a state of physical perfection. He is painted in such a way that he satisfies the classical ideal of bodily perfection and beauty. In “Original Sin and the Banishment from the Garden of Eden,” this idea of the body making visible the reality of the soul is made explicit.

Original Sin and the Banishment from the Garden of Eden

Original Sin and the Banishment from the Garden of Eden

 

Before eating the forbidden fruit, both Adam and Eve are shown in the splendor of youth and physical beauty, for their souls remain free from sin. Afterwards, as the angel expels them from paradise, they are seen as old, hunched over, both their bodies and their souls now marred by the stain of original sin. What this tells us is simply that body and soul are so profoundly united that what affects one affects the other: Sin, though essentially a spiritual fault, has an effect on the physical world. The weakness of the flesh, the proclivity to sin arises not because the body and the physical world are bad (as the Manicheans would have us think) but because there is a spiritual disorder that manifests itself in the “rebellion” of the flesh. The body is to be submitted, through self-mastery and God’s grace, to the authority of reason and will. The physical is to be put once more at the service of the spiritual. Michelangelo shows this order restored in “The Last Judgment,” where the bodies of the saints are shown in their glorious state. The effect of the Fall is reverted and so the body is transformed to manifest this new condition of the soul.

The third theological truth has to do with the Incarnation and with what theologians call the hypostatic union. The hypostatic union is the term used to refer to Christ’s dual nature, His being both God and man:

The unique and altogether singular event of the Incarnation of the Son of God does not mean that Jesus Christ is part God and part man, nor does it imply that he is the result of a confused mixture of the divine and the human.  He became truly man while remaining truly God.  Jesus Christ is true God and true man (CCC, 464).

Michelangelo, fully aware of this truth, makes it evident to all in his portrayal of Christ in “The Last Judgment.”  Here his mastery of Catholic art is proved supreme, for if ever there has been a theological truth that is hard to explain, it is that of the nature of Christ. Yet, by looking at the image of Christ that Michelangelo painted, the notion seems almost intuitive. There are two things that are worthy of notice. First, there are Christ’s hand gestures, reminiscent of God the Father’s hand gestures in the creation scenes:

The Separation of the Land from the Sea

The Separation of the Land from the Sea

Through those hand gestures, God the Father “created the heavens and the earth” (Gn. 1:1) and history began. Through his hand gestures, Christ inaugurates the new heaven and the new earth and brings history to its end. I do not believe that this similarity is the product of coincidence. It seems to me that by explicitly making Christ’s gestures resemble those of the Father, Michelangelo intended to show the divine nature of Christ, His oneness with the Father, His sharing in the same divinity.

The Last Judgment

The Last Judgment

However, unlike the Father, who is entirely clothed, Christ is shown in nakedness. And what can this mean except that Christ is also man and that He shares a bodily existence with the rest of us? Remember Adam and his perfectly formed body during the creation scene? Remember how that body “lost” its perfection in the Fall? Look at Christ’s body displayed in glorious perfection. Sin and death have been defeated, Christ is the new Adam, His glorious body makes visible the invisible perfection of His human nature. Together with Him, all the saints of heaven are seen with new and perfected bodies, bodies which simply reveal the perfection of their souls after they have been judged worthy of the beatific vision.

The Sistine Chapel is also a witness to the continuity of Catholic teaching throughout the ages. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body was not new in the sense of teaching something that the Church had never believed, it simply made explicit what was already implicit in Michelangelo’s work and in the Catholic faith since the very beginning. “Ever ancient, ever new” certainly applies to these teachings, which someone like Michelangelo already knew, not in a clear cut manner but perhaps intuitively. They only had to be clearly stated and defined in our century, when the beauty, the goodness, and the dignity of the human body was no longer understood.

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