The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican

The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican

by Benjamin Blech, Roy Doliner


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The Shocking Secrets of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Artwork

The recent cleaning of the Sistine Chapel frescoes removed layer after layer of centuries of accumulated tarnish and darkness. The Sistine Secrets endeavors to remove the centuries of prejudice, censorship, and ignorance that blind us to the truth about one of the world's most famous and beloved art treasures.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061469053
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/12/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 94,373
Product dimensions: 5.32(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.85(d)

About the Author

Rabbi Benjamin Blech is an internationally recognized educator, religious leader, author, and lecturer. A recipient of the American Educator of the Year Award, he has been a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University since 1966. He is the author of eleven books and has written for the New York Times, Newsweek, and Newsday. He lives in New York City.

Roy Doliner's studies span the spectrum of the humanities: languages, comparative religion, art history, Italian and Roman history, and Judaica (including Talmud, Midrash and Kabbalah). He is often called upon to act as a docent for scholars and international dignitaries to Rome and the Vatican Museums. He divides his time between Rome and New York City.

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The Sistine Secrets
Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican

Chapter One

What is the Sistine Chapel?

And let them build for Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.
—Exodus 25:8

On February 18, 1564, the Renaissance died in Rome.

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, known to all simply as Michelangelo, passed away at age eighty-nine in his frugal home in what is today Piazza Venezia. His body was prepared to be entombed inside the nearby Basilica of the Holy Apostles. Today, this church, Santissimi Apostoli, is an amalgam of many times and styles: its top floor is from the nineteenth century, the middle floor is seventeenth-century Baroque, and the ground floor is pure Renaissance from the second half of the fifteenth century. But what is most interesting about Michelangelo's intended burial place is that the original part of the church—the only part that existed in 1564—was designed by none other than Baccio Pontelli, the same man who planned the structure of the Sistine Chapel. The church where Michelangelo was supposed to be entombed is important for other reasons as well.

In a crypt beneath the ground-floor level of the church are the tombs of Saints James and Philip, two of the apostles going back to the life of Jesus. Deeper still, if we were allowed to dig beneath the crypt, we would soon come upon remains of ancient Imperial Rome, beneath that, Republican Rome, and finally, perhaps some of Bronze Age Rome.

This makes the church a metaphor for the entire Eternal City: a place of layer upon layer ofhistory, of accumulations of countless cultures, of confrontations between the sacred and the profane, the holy and the pagan—and of multiple hidden secrets.

To understand Rome is to recognize that it is a city swarming with secrets—more than three millennia of mysteries. And nowhere in Rome are there more secrets than in the Vatican.

The Vatican

The very name Vatican comes from a surprising source. It is neither Latin nor Greek, nor is it of biblical origin. In fact, the word we associate with the Church has a pagan origin. More than twenty-eight centuries ago, even before the legendary founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus, there was a people called the Etruscans. Much of what we think of as Roman culture and civilization actually comes from the Etruscans. Even though we are still trying to master their very difficult language, we already know a great deal about them. We know that, like the Hebrews and the Romans, the Etruscans did not bury their dead inside the walls of their cities. For that reason, on a hillside slope outside the confines of their ancient city in the area that was destined to become Rome, the Etruscans established a very large cemetery. The name of the pagan Etruscan goddess who guarded this necropolis, or city of the dead, was Vatika.

Vatika has several other related meanings in ancient Etruscan. It was the name of a bitter grape that grew wild on the slope, which the peasants made into what became infamous as one of the worst, cheapest wines in the ancient world. The name of this wine, which also referred to the slope where it was produced, was Vatika. It was also the name of a strange weed that grew on the graveyard slope. When chewed, it produced wild hallucinations, much like the effect of peyote mushrooms; thus, vatika represented what we would call today a cheap high. In this way, the word passed into Latin as a synonym for "prophetic vision."

Much later, the slope became the circus, or stadium, of the mad emperor Nero. It was here, according to Church tradition, that Saint Peter was executed, crucified upside down, and then buried nearby. This became the destination of so many pilgrims that the emperor Constantine, upon becoming half-Christian, founded a shrine on the spot, which the Romans continued to call the Vatican Slope. A century after Constantine, the popes started building the papal palace there.

What does "the Vatican" mean today? Because of its history, the name has a number of different connotations. It can refer to the Basilica of St. Peter; to the Apostolic Palace of the popes with more than fourteen hundred rooms; to the Vatican Museums complex with more than two thousand rooms; to the political/social/religious hierarchy that is considered the spiritual leadership of about one-fifth of the human race; or to the world's smallest official country of Città del Vaticano (Vatican City). It is indeed strange to consider that this tiniest country on earth, which could fit eight times over inside Central Park in New York City, contains within it the world's largest and costliest church, the world's largest and most luxurious palace, and one of the world's largest museums.

Replacing the Temple

Most fascinating of all, though, may well be a place within the ancient fortress walls of Vatican City whose symbolic meaning is unknown to almost all its visitors. Its theological significance can best be realized by noting that this Catholic effort was something explicitly forbidden to Jews. In the Talmud, the ancient holy commentaries of the greatest Jewish sages spanning more than five centuries, it is clearly legislated that no one may construct a functioning full-sized copy of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem in any location other than the Temple Mount itself (Tractate Megillah, 10a). This was decreed in order to avoid any possible bloody religious schisms, such as later happened in Christianity (Roman Catholicism; Eastern and Greek Orthodoxy; Protestantism—and their centuries of internecine warfare) and Islam (Sunni and Shi'ite, who are sadly still killing each other around the globe).

Six centuries ago, however, a Catholic architect who was not constrained by Talmudic laws did exactly that. He designed and built an incredible, full-sized copy of the inner sanctum, or the Holy of Holies, of King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem—right in the middle of Renaissance Rome. To get the measurements and proportions exactly correct, the architect studied the writings of the prophet Samuel in the Hebrew Bible, where Samuel describes the First Holy Temple, cubit by cubit (1 Kings 6:2). This massive reproduction of the heichal, or rear section of the First Temple, still exists today. It is called la Cappella Sistina—the Sistine Chapel. And this is where more than four million visitors a year come to view the incredible frescoes of Michelangelo and pay homage to a site sacred to Christianity.

The Sistine Secrets
Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican
. Copyright © by Benjamin Blech. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

Foreword     vii
Preface     xv
In the Beginning
What Is the Sistine Chapel?     3
The Lost Language of Art     23
A Rebel Is Born     41
A Very Special Education     46
Out of the Garden and into the World     74
As Fate Would Have It     104
A Private Tour of the Sistine Temple
Crossing the Threshold     129
The Vault of Heaven     137
The House of David     144
The Four Corners of the Universe     157
A Company of Prophets     168
The Middle Path     187
Parting Shots     213
Beyond the Ceiling
Back on the Scene     235
Secrets of The Last Judgment     248
Later Secrets     273
"A World Transfigured"     282
Conclusion: So, What Is the Sistine Chapel?     292
Acknowledgments     307
Notes     309
Bibliography     311
Illustration Credits     312
Index     313

What People are Saying About This

Enrico Bruschini

“Just as the work of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel changed forever the world of art, so will this book change forever the way to view and, above all, to understand the work of Michelangelo!”

Jonathan Harr

“This book of astounding revelations is built on careful scholarship, lucid exposition, and it is, above all, compelling reading.”

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Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 32 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a student of Michelangelo, here in the US and Italy, I was aware of many of the topics discussed in this book. However, there were also many that I had not known. This is an EXCELLENT book. I wanted to know more!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Blech and Dolinger approach the topic with a certain sincerity and innovation that should not be ignored. Certainly, their scholarship exposes an unexplored insight into the work of Michaelangelo. It is hard however to prove either way that Michaelangelo knew or didn't know about certain aspects of Jewish mysticism, or intentionally made certain statements that were ahead of his time. Nevertheless, Blech and Dolinger present a compelling argument and makes an important scholarly contribution into an already crowded field of research.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As an artist, The Sistine Secrets has given me a perspective into what it was like to live 500 years ago that actually makes me appreciate the time I am living in today! The book has opened my eyes to things I wasn¿t taught in school. It¿s time to re-write the art history books! I found the section on Michelangelo¿s education to be of great importance since it would inform his art making later in his life. He was taken under the wing of Lorenzo de¿ Medici when he saw his genius with a chisel and stone, and offered him a home at the de¿ Medici palace. Michelangelo learned along side Lorenzo¿s children from their master scholars: Angelo Ambrogini of Montepulciano also known as Poliziano, Marsilio Ficino and Count Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola. From them he learned the classics, Neo-Platonism, humanism, Kabala and the notion of creating a bridge between these ideologies that later influenced the Sistine ceiling. Artists are influenced by everything that surrounds them. Yes, they often have amazing imaginations and can think beyond the physical world, yet what they see and hear plays a big part in their work. Often, these influences find their way into their art even when they are not aware of it themselves ¿ it happens intuitively. Other times, it is a conscious effort to get one¿s agenda out into the world via the art. Artist¿s of all genres including novelists, musicians, playwrights and screenwriters put their concerns about the world into their work. They reflect the current status of affairs and suggest a better system beyond it. Another important factor to understand from the Sistine Secrets is that artists of Michelangelo¿s time were not allowed to sign their work! Because of this, artists like Raphael always found a way to put his portrait into his work as he did with his most important piece, the School of Athens. Michelangelo signed his work once on the Pieta and was sworn never to be so ¿vain¿ again. The vain ones were the patrons, often the Popes, who insisted that colors and emblems of their family crests could be visible in art with biblical themes. Not being able to sign a work goes against the individualistic philosophy of our time and no doubt must have made artists of Michelangelo¿s time feel like slaves to the system. I would have added personal ¿signatures¿ if given the chance. I¿m sure every true artist would, regardless of the pressure to do otherwise! The authors brilliantly spend about four pages explaining the official story the Vatican offers about the Sistine ceiling and then spends the rest of the book detailing a new interpretation. The research that no doubt was involved is phenomenal! They reference practically every book about the artist that came before and then put the pieces together like a puzzle along with what Michelangelo learned from the scholars of the de¿ Medici palace. It shows just how much Michelangelo planned and thought out what he was going to do - to leave a personal message in the heart of the Vatican, even if he was the only one besides his friends that knew it was there ... until now.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is insightful and well written. I recommend it to all.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A different look
Devil_llama on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
For someone who vowed I would never read anything on art appreciation or art history if only God would help me pass my humanities class, I must say I found this book extremely interesting and fun to read (of course, since i long since gave up God, I suppose he'll forgive me for breaking my promise, since I did indeed pass humanities). A hypothesis about the hidden messages Michaelangelo painted into the Sistine Chapel, in essence, some suggest, thumbing his nose at the Catholic hierarchy. This author suggests that the messages can be unraveled by looking into the Jewish Kabbalah, and explains exactly how he woudl interpret the various pictures in the chapel. Darn, now I have to find a book on the Kabbalah, and my list is just so long already! I highly recommend this book, though I do have some reservations about accepting his thesis without more research.
Niecierpek on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An absolutely fascinating, if controversial, analysis of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes. Blech and Doliner argue that Michelangelo held universalistic views not only embracing antiquity and humanistic approach, but also religious views that were in direct conflict with the views of the Catholic church of the time, and were based on Neo-Platonism, hermeneutics and Jewish Kabbalah. Michelangelo was a thoroughly Italian Renaissance figure with his primary love focused on the Antiquity and classical Greek and Roman art and deep religious convictions. But, he was also thoroughly fed up with the immorality, militarism and nepotism of the popes and the church, and everything points to the possiblity that he did not even remain Catholic, but became Protestant by the end of his life. Hence the Sistine ceiling paintings are full of anti-papal messages and devoid of even single New Testament reference or figure, and awash in Old Testament lore instead, very much with a Jewish Bible slant. Being a universalist, Michelangelo wanted to meld the pagan Greek and Roman heritage with the origins of the Christian religion and the New Testament. Some of these elements were well entrenched when he was doing his art, but the Jews were shunned. They were labelled the murderers of Christ for many centuries, denounced by the Church, and it was only in the twentieth century, and by the end of it, that the Church has somewhat let up on that stance. According to Blech, Michelangelo brought it upon himself to rehabilitate the Jews, especially that he saw what was happening in Rome at that time as an aberration of the original religious teachings, and preached Jewish Bible stories and interpretations as warnings. He couldn't do it openly- death would surely follow pretty quickly- so he secretly embedded it in his work. It seems that he got a lot of his knowledge from Neoplatonists of his time, some of whom were his teachers (e.g., Pico della Mirandola) when he was growing up at the Medici court in Florence.The book shows great scholarship of its author and his vast religious knowledge. I learned more about Michelangelo, papacy, Old Testament and Jewish Kabbalah from it than I probably would from separate sources on them.
tuh More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoy the history, Jewish thought, customs, and explanation about all of the paintings in the Sistine Chapel. A wonderful book. I had seen an interview with Benjamin Blech about the book which prompted me to order and read it. I am thankful that I did. Michaelangelo was a true grnius.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Presentation of the first half was so well done time didn't exist, from then to end Buonarroti and I have a single shared emotion.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Post symbols and how to do them!!! &#28961 Chinese letters&# 28949-&# 28980 Roman numerals&# 8535-&# 8565 Arrows&# 8592-&# 8689 All without spaces!!!!!
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