Michelangelo and Mormonism

KC KernMormon 19 Comments

The Sistine ChapelMichelangelo, one of most prominent figures of the Renaissance’s A-List, is famous for his sculptures and his frescoes, nearly all of which depicted religious themes.  The ceiling and walls of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican are possibly his most well known and celebrated works (perhaps rivaled only by The David.)  Commissioned by and under the close supervision of Pope Julius II, Michelangelo was essentially acting as an agent of the Catholic Church.  What I find most interesting though, is that when we carefully look at his art, we find depictions and representations of things that are *not* part of the theological tenants of Catholicism, but are in fact congruent with certain teachings and beliefs of Mormonism.

The first and most obvious thing is the corporeal depiction of God.  The ethereal and bodiless nature of God had long since been accepted as true Catholic Doctrine since the council of Nicaea, yet Michelangelo shows us a physical bearded man surrounded by children.  While Mormon doctrine does suggest divine attributes that transcend the bounds of physical and biological scopes, a fundamental tenant of the faith is that God possesses a physical and resurrected body.  Also, in the “Creation of Adam” panel, we see a woman under God’s left arm, who we very well may assume is Eve, “on deck” to be created herself.  The way this is presented strongly implies the concept of a pre-existence; that Eve existed in a non-earthly state before her physical creation.

Several scholars have noted that the shape of the cloth behind God and his entourage is a very accurate silhouette of the human brain.  Mormons might easily draw the connection, “the Glory of God is Intelligence (D&C 93: 36),” an idea that certainly would not fare well with the Catholic church of the era. (Galileo?)

Going backwards one panel, we can examine the creation of the universe.  God the Father is prominently featured commanding the elements to organize, perhaps in a “Let there be light” moment.  Joining him on his right is a young child, who is very likely a depiction of the antemortal Christ.  If this is true, then Michelangelo is telling us that Christ had a collaborative role in the creation.  This idea finds support in Mormon teachings (as well as Biblical support) but does not jive well with many doctrinal proposals of Catholicism and Protestant Christianity, who conjecture that spirits are created at conception, and have no premortal existence.

If we look closely at the face depicted between God and Christ, it seems that the painting job is not finished.  There seems to be no top of the head, and facial detail is in large part lacking.  It has however, been suggested that this face is the same face as Adam’s:

If this is true, most temple going Mormons should immediately catch the significance of having God, Jesus and Adam, a.k.a. Elohim, Jehovah, and Michael, jointly involved in the creative process.

If we look at the wall, where the magnificent “Last Judgment” scene is, we see a depiction of the bodily resurrection:

Mormons would typically be comfortable with the way the resurrection is shown here, but I can image that a few Catholics and evangelicals might be squeamish.

I suppose this doesn’t prove anything, really.  Michelangelo never made any prophetic claims, so no corroborative conclusions could be made if his version of these events match up with those of prophets who were informed through revelation.  However, it does make one wonder, if Michelangelo was really a product of his time and culture, where did he get these ideas from?  It would seem quite unlikely that he got them from the Pope, but who knows, the Pope may have been more independently inspired than we give him credit for!  Or perhaps Michelangelo himself was tuned in to a spiritual frequency that gave him some kind of inspiration  and enlightenment.

To be fair, there is much depicted in the Sistine Chapel that is completely at odds with Mormon teachings, like angels with wings, etc.  In fact, Michelangelo felt compelled to use his last ceiling panel to feature “The Drunkenness of Noah,” a very unflattering and embarrassing episode in a prophet’s life, the likes of which most Mormons would rather just keep buried in the dusty unread pages of the Old Testament.

No matter what, most people will agree that the art of the Sistine Chapel has untold cultural and historical value.  It stands at a testament to the strength of the European Church of the time, and illustrates the power and timeless nature of the Biblical narrative.  And given the way that many of the stories are portrayed, Mormons should be able to get added enjoyment from it.

Comments 19

  1. You mention some of the interpretations of the paintings as outside of the tenants of Catholicism. I wonder too, as you asked, “if Michelangelo was really a product of his time and culture, where did he get these ideas from?” What other influences might have reached Michelangelo for him to portray these ideas? Are they part of the popular religious traditions passed among the people, but not sanctioned by the church? Is the idea of a pre-mortal life present among the religious tradition of the masses during Michelangelo’s day and before? What about an embodied God? The Nicean Creed was a thousand years old by this time, but I wonder what the people of the day really believed?

    You also mention angels with wings as contrary to the LDS understanding of angelic beings. While I agree with the statement, imagery of angels with wings and similar beings is present in Biblical scripture and is thoroughly familiar to those of us raised within the Western Christian religious tradition. So, in the same manner that winged angels are not part of our system of doctrine but are part of our general religious tradition, I wonder how familiar the interpretations you give might have been to Michelangelo’s contemporary population though not part of sanctioned Catholic doctrine.

    I based my questions on the assumption that your interpretations are generally accurate. I don’t know if they are, but they seem plausible.

    And I think it’s important to remember, as you point out, that none of this proves anything. We can find ideas consistent with LDS belief (or, some might say truth) across many traditions. I enjoy learning about and considering these types of “evidences.” I’m not sure they do much substantially for my testimony, but, no doubt, the ideas bring comfort and reassurance, which isn’t a bad thing as long as we maintain some perspective.

    The Noah panel is perplexing. Without context it’s hard to immediately see the point. Is there some traditional moral associated with this story? In any case, it definitely adds texture.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing. I apologize for the historically uninformed questions, but this really is interesting to think about.

  2. Seeing as how it’s gay day here in Mormon-ville; what with the letter being read over the pulpit at sundry California chuches, you should perhaps think twice about posting this. The Sistine chapel is one of the most homoerotic masterpieces evah…look at how many, uh, you know, uh, manly men show up, rather than what might be expected (random bits of the gospels, perhaps?) Not to mention, the likeness between the (truly beautiful) Adam and the (truly beautiful) Christ could be due to the sainted Buonarroti using the same model, rather than some deep galactic meaning.

    Moral of the story (morel, if you’re a mushroom fan), some things are just coincidences.

    I suggest you post this in six months.

  3. Really fascinating stuff. I wrote a paper once, which, in part, analyzed the possible influence of homosexuality in Michelangelo’s work. It was actually a lot of fun to research as some of the possibilities became more apparent.

    Just one quibble, the Catholics to whom I have spoken DO believe that Christ played a role in the creation. And Catholics do believe that Christ had an ante-mortal existence (some times they even use the word “pre-existence” in this context).

  4. Djinn – the homoeroticism is also because this artistic period was obsessed with the perfection of human form expressed in Greek art, another culture with open homosexuality, yet not equal marriage rights even among the Gods (even Zeus was fond of young boys, but frankly, of whom was he not fond?).

    The Noah story is the long-standing justification of viewing the African race (Egyptians technically) as inferior. Ham looked on his father Noah’s nakedness while Shem and Japheth covered him. Some hypothesized that Ham wanted to view Noah’s garments without becoming worthy to receive his own. Doubtless a disappointment. But that’s some old folklore anyway. I remember as a kid that I always found it more disturbing that Noah would be drunk, but now that I’ve been on long car trips with my own kids I’m more prone to cut him some slack.

    I often find that European religious art doesn’t match RC dogma even in RC cathedrals. It’s always interesting to me, and I often wonder if some is due to contemporary folk doctrine, some of which may date back to early Christianity. It’s also easy to imagine heretical notions being added to art surrepticiously. The artist doesn’t have to explain himself because of the medium.

  5. Ahhhh, Michalangelo Buonarotti Simoni had a thing for boyzzz; was ‘twell known at the time; covered up after his death, he even had his very own (can I say this?) fag hag. The pictures referred to here, male pulchritude front and center, did dovetail with greek ideals, but hey, so did the artist.

  6. My current awareness of the Sistine Chapel is due to a Humanities class I recently completed. The professor explained that the Greek and Roman definition for beauty was “man” (ie humanity.) The Renaissance was a return back to the ideals of the ancients, so it makes sense that they also celebrate the human form as the quintessential expression of beauty. I am aware of some claims that many renaissance figures were of mixed sexualities, but I think the claims that all these works are simply depictions of homoerotic orgies is little more than 21st century biases projected on what was originally meant to be a supreme example of divine and humanistic beauty. If the same thing were painted today by Simon Dewey or Greg Olsen, surely there would be an outrage, but I feel safe in compartmentalizing my preconceptions when delving into historic art.

    As for the Noah story, I think it’s more of an acknowledgment of the humanity of prophets, and a statement perhaps expressing the wonder of how God can accomplish great things through his frail and flawed children.

    Regarding religious tradition vs actual doctrine, I think Mormons (especially regarding art) are just as prone to fall into this trap. The obvious example that comes to mind are the pieces of art depicting the translation of the Book of Mormon, most all of which are at odds with the historical record. I could imagine that Michelangelo referred to his more broad, traditional notions than to doctrinal cues from Pope.

  7. “I remember as a kid that I always found it more disturbing that Noah would be drunk, but now that I’ve been on long car trips with my own kids I’m more prone to cut him some slack.”

    Is there a Niblet nomination in the works for this comment? It just might be my favorite “real life commentary” ever.

  8. Art so rich in symbolism is bound to find some connection with any belief system. To make some cosmic truth link between Michelangelo and Mormonism is a real stretch.

    But, any excuse to marvel at his work is worthwhile.

  9. My intent with this was not to establish was not to establish any kind of “cosmic truth link.”

    Most will agree that art is open to interpretation, and interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. What I wanted to point out was that Mormons have the background and theological framework to enable them to interpret and appreciate Michelangelo in a unique way.

  10. I am an art historian, and although I am no expert on Michelangelo, I do know a little about the scholarly dialogue surrounding his works. Most of the observations that have been posted I have seen commented on by a scholars (although some of the comments bring out popular speculation–there happen to be a lot of myths surrounding most famous artists). I just wanted to note a couple of things about the Renaissance understanding of deity. First, it is important to note that this was before the Council of Trent, so Catholic doctrine was not quite so standardized as we understand it to be now. Secondly, Michelangelo and many other Renaissance artists were heavily influenced by Neoplatonic thought (see, for example, Pico della Mirandola’s On the Dignity of Man), and often intellectual debate was favored over religious orthodoxy at the time. Of course, with the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation such dialogue was no longer encouraged. An interesting anecdote: Michelangelo painted all the figures nude in Last Judgment fresco (because, as has been noted already, nudity was seen in the Neoplatonic light of representing man as God’s highest and most noble creation). However, shortly before Michelangelo’s death he had to suffer the humiliation of having his figures covered by “the trouser painter” because Neoplatonic thought was already out of vogue, and the church’s views had changed.

    It’s interesting when we put Michelangelo’s works into their historical context. And it has always been amazing to me how much Neoplatonic thought elevated humanity and reversed medieval perceptions of man as degraded as a result of Adam’s fall.

  11. The BFA art history emphasis of my degree is in the Italian Renaissance. I liked what Kiersten (11) had to say re: Neoplatonism. However, in a philosophically evolutionary advance to Neoplatonism, it was Humanism that really framed much of the Renaissance thought and cultural advancements. Where Neoplatonism really saw the spiritual and material as opposites, the latter hindering the former, it was Humanism, and even Christian Humanism, that saw mankind’s spiritual nature fulfilled, or a significant core, anyway, in the material. Artists and thinkers like Michaelangelo Buonarroti, did not believe in a corporeal Father God, yet in the nude human figure they saw the most divine shadow — imago dei.

    Much of what KC is seeing in the Sistine ceiling frescoes as preexistent human spirits — and types of later Mormon spiritual thought — are not; they are angels and cherubim. The halo, for example, in early eras of Christian art was a decorative disc signifying divine light and Saintly living. By the proto-Renaissaince it had simplified to a golden disc. By the mid-Renaissance it had become a circle rendered in perspective with the natural world. By the high Renaissance it had disappeared altogether or significantly diminished in emphasis as to have functionally disappeared. Ultimately, the divine emblem of the halo was not a decorative motif apart from the natural word but altogether in tune and manifest completely in mere beauty and art of the form of the natural world itself. Similarly, we see the wings of angel and cherubim take a similar course from the decorative, to the functional, to ultimate disappearance. (Of course, both of these expressions of the divine would later reappear.)


    Also as others have observed, the Greek and Roman cultural influence on the Renaissance also saw many of the educated, wealthy and aristocratic embrace pederastic practices — which made their way into the ideals and expression of art, sculpture and literature. It doesn’t quite encompass the teacher-student and father-son angle of pederasty to merely describe this institution, of which Leonardo and Michelangelo both practiced, among many others, as homosexuality. The latter term is almost exclusively these days is perceived in greater culture framed as sexual and copulative behaviors. Certainly by today’s sexual mores these pederastic relationships are often viewed as repugnant in the liberalization of “paedophilia” and homoeroticism, yet these relationships also speak to unique expressions of fidelity, love, fraternity, maturation, and male socio-economic rites of passage, that are often overlooked.

  12. Michelangelo may have been initiated into the mystery schools of his day, where much of this knowledge lingered. (In much the same way as the speculation about Leonardo da Vinci goes in such works a “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” or “The Da Vinci Code”, etc.)

    In “Morals and Dogma” by Albert Pike, a book bestowed upon Masons of the Scottish Rite following initiation into the 14th degree, during its examination of Kabalah, it talks at one point about the Heavenly Mother as companion to God the Father prior to creation (p. 763). There is even some suggestion in “Morals and Dogma” that Adam is the Ancient of Days and the Father of creation (p. 758; this would be contrary to modern Mormon understanding where Eloheim is “The Father” rather than “the grand council of gods and goddesses”).


    Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith
    Section Four 1839-42, p. 157-158

    The Prophet on Priesthood

    The Priesthood was first given to Adam; he obtained the First Presidency, and held the keys of it from generation to generation. He obtained it in the Creation, before the world was formed, as in Genesis 1:26, 27, 28. He had dominion given him over every living creature. He is Michael the Archangel, spoken of in the Scriptures. Then to Noah, who is Gabriel: he stands next in authority to Adam in the Priesthood; he was called of God to this office, and was the father of all living in this day, and to him was given the dominion. These men held keys first on earth, and then in heaven.

    Priesthood Everlasting

    The Priesthood is an everlasting principle, and existed with God from eternity, and will to eternity, without beginning of days or end of years. The keys have to be brought from heaven whenever the Gospel is sent. When they are revealed from heaven, it is by Adam’s authority.

    Adam the Oldest Man

    Daniel in his seventh chapter speaks of the Ancient of days; he means the oldest man, our Father Adam, Michael, he will call his children together and hold a council with them to prepare them for the coming of the Son of Man. He (Adam) is the father of the human family, and presides over the spirits of all men, and all that have had the keys must stand before him in this grand council. This may take place before some of us leave this stage of action. The Son of Man stands before him, and there is given him glory and dominion. Adam delivers up his stewardship to Christ, that which was delivered to him as holding the keys of the universe, but retains his standing as head of the human family.

    The Spirit of Man

    The spirit of man is not a created being; it existed from eternity, and will exist to eternity. Anything created cannot be eternal; and earth, water, etc., had their existence in an elementary state, from eternity. Our Savior speaks of children and says, Their angels always stand before my Father. The Father called all spirits before Him at the creation of man, and organized them. He (Adam) is the head, and was told to multiply. The keys were first given to him, and by him to others. He will have to give an account of his stewardship, and they to him.

  13. As any artist of his stature, Michelangelo’s artwork would touch people at many different levels. I can see and agree with KC Kern’s concepts. Having said that I can also see that much of the commentary is also true. The great thing about “good” art is the viewer can take away from it their own meaning. It is a visual experience and sometimes the use of words to describe that experience are impossible. I my opinion “right” and ‘wrong” don’t apply, on an individual level, concerning the appreciation of a great piece of art. Art history is like any history, it depends on who is telling the story and their interpretation of that culture.

  14. Cool work, Bryce. Although, without the dimness, crowds and annoying “no photo! no photo!” from the guards, the experience just isn’t the same! 🙂

  15. This blog got me looking more closely and with a different set of eyes at the Sistine Chapel. In the Last Judgment panel there is single women with the Christ figure inside the circle of people. Who is she? Mary Magdalene? Shades of the Da Vinci Code.

  16. Larry,

    That is Mary, mother of Jesus, next to the Christ the Judge figure. She is commonly portrayed in Italian Renaissance paintings in red and blue robes with white head covering. Interestingly, rather that triumphant with Christ she looks like she is cowering to His power — definitely subordinate. The fingers almost appear to be the blessing sign, but are turned away from Jesus. The hands look weakened and less resolute and confident. This definitely was not a common way that the Virgin was portrayed. There are your shades and nuances to go and explore… 😉

  17. I’m not sure why you think that Michelangelo’s depiction of the resurrection of the dead as problematic for Catholics. Catholics believe in the resurrection of the body. It is a part of the Apostle’s Creed, the baptismal creed that catechumens’ (as well as parents and godparents) must confess before being baptized. It is why Catholics at various periods were not permitted to practice cremation. Even today, if a Catholic is cremated, they are not permitted to have their ashes scattered; the ashes must be kept together and entombed. Why? It is because this practice testifies and signifies a faith in the resurrection of the body.

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