Never mind the Da Vinci Code -- what about Michelangelo's secret messages? On the 500th anniversary of the artist's first climb up the ladder in 1508 to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, a new book claims he embedded subversive messages in his spectacular frescoes -- not only Jewish, Kabbalistic and pagan symbols but also insults directed at Pope Julius II, who commissioned the work, and references to his own sexuality.And it will probably be a Major Motion Picture soon, if past history of this sort of thing is any indication. Dan Brown is probably kicking himself for not doing a Michaelangelo tie-in back when he still had the chance.
First published in an English version in May by Harper One, "The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican," coauthored by Vatican docent Roy Doliner and Rabbi Benjamin Blech, is already in its second edition in Italy. It will be translated into 16 languages and released in the coming months in Spain, Portugal, France, Poland, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.
It takes a special kind of arrogance, characteristic of the modern mind, to decide that an artist who lived hundreds of years ago buried a secret message so carefully and so skillfully that his own contemporaries and everyone since then was completely blind to it, and that it took you, you yourself, the first ever to come along who was intelligent and complex and thoughtful and worthy enough, to discover the master's message. Sadly, this arrogance, which is as foolish as it is blind, is all too prevalent in our modern age.
Because it's not possible for us to travel back in time and spend time with contemporaries of Michaelangelo, and ask them what they think of this latest theory. None of them, and none of those patrons of the arts who lived just after he did, ever wrote anything like what the authors of this new book did, after all; and if we could go back in time to present these theories it is quite likely that the contemporary witnesses would shrug, and laugh, and dismiss them out of hand.
Which, interestingly enough, is an argument in favor of apostolic Churches.
I don't mean to harm the sensibilities of any of my Protestant readers, but just consider a moment. In some ways, don't many of the forms of Protestantism depend on just the same sort of thing--perhaps not an arrogance, not in the spiritual sense, but still a conviction that Christianity has had it all wrong from very near the beginning? Isn't there still a kind of insistence that the Master's true meaning has been covered over by the extraneous paint of ritual, or carefully kept hidden by a conspiracy of the ordained, eager to keep their own power? Were not many of the founders of Protestant branches of Christianity saying, in effect, "See! I can tell you the true meaning of the Master, His secret message that has been hidden."
And we can't get into a time machine to speak directly to Saint Peter or the other Apostles, and ask them which of the many people to say this since their time has been right. We can't ask them to clarify the hidden meanings or interpretations that led the original Protestant leaders and thinkers to conclude that Rome had gotten it all wrong, and was now teaching error--we can't ask anyone who was a living witness to Christ's life and ministry on Earth, or who lived just after His death and resurrection, whether they can identify in any particular sect of the Protestant world the one true Christian Church.
But if we believe in the idea of apostolic succession, we don't have to. We can trust that those ordained by Saint Peter and the other Apostles kept the faith entire and intact, and handed it on thus to those who followed, in that unbroken line from their day to ours.
I am sure that the modern mind will continue to play the "find the hidden meaning" game with all sorts of antiquities: art, music, literature, and the like. The modern mind plays this game with Christianity, too; I have been assured recently that the Bible really does approve of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, and only a bigoted interpretation could possibly see otherwise. But Christ did not establish His Church to be a secret, a hidden catacomb of meaning only accessible to the few; nor did He intend for His Church to be a den of relativism, where "Christian" means whatever one wants it to mean. He gave us His Church to shine as a clear, steady light of truth against the tendency of men to think that they, and they alone, know what is really true; He gave us the Apostles, and their successors who trace their line of ordination back unbroken to Saint Peter and the others, so that we know that we are practicing the same faith as they did, and may remain undisturbed by those who claim to have discovered, upon shaking the Bible vigorously one day in prayer, that Christians went wrong in the year 34 A.D. and have never gotten Christianity right since then.