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Michelangelo & the Meaning of the New Year
Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Michelangelo & the Meaning of the New Year

5774 or 2014? The theological debate behind the artist’s masterpiece.


Of all the masterpieces created by Michelangelo surely none is more universally acclaimed than his fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel depicting the creation of Adam.

What most people don’t know, however, is the fascinating story behind Michelangelo’s choice of subject matter – a decision motivated by the artist’s disagreement with the Pope of his time that has relevance to this day as we welcome a new year on what is commonly called the secular calendar.

Together with most of the Western world, we will start dating our checks and our schedules with the indication that we have moved on from 2013 to 2014. As part of a much larger society’s way of noting the passage of time, I too simply have no choice, even though it doesn’t agree with my reckoning. For me it is now 5774 on the Hebrew calendar. And this discrepancy points to a profound difference of perspective about God and about the meaning of history.

Jews and Judaism are the ones who brought the concept of monotheism to the world. One God created the entire world and all those who inhabit it. The first human being was created in His image and all those who came after carry within them this mark of divinity.

The concept of universalism is intrinsic to the biblical story of creation.

Why did God begin the story of mankind by creating only one person? The Talmud answers so that no man should be able ever to say to his fellow man, “my father is greater than your father” (Sanhedrin 37a). We are all related. One father for all people on earth makes everyone brothers and sisters in the truest sense of the word. Adam was not just one man – he was every man. Christian and Jew, black and white, American and Asian – we are all created by God “in his image.” 

The concept of universalism is intrinsic to the biblical story of creation. And that is why Judaism maintains that the record of history must mark the beginning of time from the creation of Adam. It is humanity that gives meaning to creation.

Our calendar does not start counting years from the birth of Abraham, no matter how significant his life might be as our first patriarch. Nor do we claim that the past only becomes worthy of recognition from the time we became a people or even from the moment we received the Torah at Sinai. The year is now 5774. It is the number of years that frame the shared years of the human family.

But that is not the message of the calendar year 2014, whose meaning is steeped in a theological concept. 2014 chooses the birth of Jesus as the moment which offers all subsequent history meaning. By beginning the count of years with this event, there is a clear statement made: What happened before is insignificant.

Christianity replaced a Judaic calendar rooted in a universalistic vision with a particularistic view. Christianity for the longest time taught that salvation can only be achieved through acceptance of Jesus.

Michelangelo’s Defiance of the Church

And that’s where Michelangelo came into the picture.

It was in the early part of the 16th century that Pope Julius the second, wanting to leave an everlasting legacy of his papacy, commissioned Michelangelo to beautify the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. His instructions were clear. He told the prominent artist he wanted frescoes painted that would illustrate the illustrious lives of Jesus and Mary.

Michelangelo had other plans. To achieve them he had to employ a daring ruse. He accepted the task only on condition that no one be allowed to interfere with his work while it was still in progress. To ensure that no one was able to view what he was doing during the 4 ½ years it took to complete the entire project, he had a canvas placed underneath him as he worked on a 60-foot high scaffolding, ostensibly to prevent any dripping of paint to the floor.

Michelangelo completely disregarded the Pope’s orders. 95% of its themes were taken from the Jewish Bible.

When the time came for unveiling his masterpiece, the Pope was dismayed to see that Michelangelo had completely disregarded his orders. The Sistine Chapel ceiling has no Jesus or Mary, nor for that matter any New Testament figures. 95% of its themes are taken from the Jewish Bible, and 5% are pagan!

How Michelangelo was able to get away with his life in the aftermath of his open disobedience to a papal mandate is a fascinating story in its own right, which I develop at great length in the book I co-authored with Roy Doliner, The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican. What I want to clarify here is Michelangelo’s motivation.

As a young boy, Michelangelo was adopted by Lorenzo de Medici, probably the wealthiest man in the world at the time. Because of his obvious brilliance, Michelangelo was granted the same tutors as those who taught Lorenzo’s own sons. The most prominent of these tutors was Pico della Mirandola, recognized not only for his genius but for his commitment to universalistic ideas and ideals that were far from commonly accepted in his time. Pico acknowledged that many of his views were shaped by his study of Torah and Jewish texts, and these - as well as his great interest in Kabbalah - he passed on to Michelangelo.

Michelangelo’s commission had been to have the Sistine Chapel ceiling convey the same concept as the Christian calendar: history begins with Jesus. But Michelangelo could not allow the reality of mankind’s common beginning, the spirit of universalism that infuses the first chapter of Genesis, to be rendered mute in the most famous of the church’s chapels. And so Michelangelo dared to feature most prominently in his frescoes the stories of the opening chapters of the Bible, beginning with the creation of Adam.

That is how perhaps the most famous painting of Western art came into being. If Michelangelo had to choose the date for this year he would likely agree that 5774 is preferable to 2014.

December 28, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 41

(26) David Mann, January 17, 2014 11:14 AM

death operated only after the falling out between G-d and Adam

The Greek worldview (look up Lucretius in Wikipedia for instance) is that creation of more complex stuff just happens, that time and chance are necessary and sufficient. The Hebrew worldview (Genesis 1-3 for instance) is that complex stuff has to be created intentionally, that time is not necessary and chance is insufficient. Intelligent people argue for one or the other of these separate and distinct worldviews, and they use largely the same data. It does not matter if some scholar like Maimonides or some scientist like Schroeder or some politician like the Pope argues for the Greek worldview, because G-d has the Hebrew worldview,and His view is correct.
One vital part of the Hebrew worldview is that the world (creation) became broken when the relationship between G-d and Adam was broken. Before the rebellion G-d's opinion of creation was that it was "very good". After the rebellion there were thorns and death. This is the foundation for why Jews are committed to "fixing the world"--- it is a reflection of G-d's desire and plan for fixing the world. Read again those covenants that G-d makes in Genesis 3, join with G-d in fixing the world, and hope fervently for the Messiah, who will fully overcome the power of death, the last enemy to be overcome.
It is nice that science supports the Hebrew worldview (Pasteur made a good case against spontaneous generation), but it is wonderful that G-d plans to "fix the world", and invites us to help Him do it.

(25) Joel, January 5, 2014 7:56 PM

Moses with Horns

Fascinating article. However, before we all see Michelangelo as the founder of the B'Nai Brith and turn him into an Italian rabbi, let me point out that his depiction of Moses has horns, as all Jews have horns. Christianity didn't begin to view Jews as human beings until the European Enlightenment was well underway and the Roman Catholic Church did start to do the right thing until around 60 years ago, when they stopped branding us as Christ Killers.

Anonymous, January 6, 2014 8:17 PM

karan or keren (horns or rays),

The reason there were horns depicted has to do with a translation that would have been prevalent in Michelangelo's day (I am not denying anti-semitism existed then or now, but just as you would not have him be an Italian rabbi, remember that he would have been working from a translation himself..) Search the web; "horns on Moses" and you'll see the word for horns and rays (of light) are similar.

(24) Astronomer, January 4, 2014 3:36 AM

2 Calendars not Mutually Exclusive

One does not have to choose either the secular or Jewish calendar. They are equally valid because they measure two different things. The secular calendar is solar and based on the Earth's orbit around the Sun. The Jewish calendar is lunisolar, with months determined by the lunar cycles. At the same time, it is tied to the solar calendar through the requirement of Passover falling after the Vernal Equinox.

Neither the number 5774 nor 2014 has any significant meaning. Humanity has been on Earth far longer than 5774 years--more like 10,000. And the secular calendar is not Christian or based on a theological concept. It was created by Julius Caesar as the Julian calendar and later modified into the Gregorian calendar. The only reason that modification was done by a pope is that in the 16th century, few people could read, write, or calculate. Astronomy was just being revived in the west. It was actually a group of astronomers, not Pope Gregory, who came up with the changes that put the calendar back in synch with Earth's orbit around the Sun.

A calendar is not a dating system. Today, the number 2014 has little if any meaning. It does not accurately reflect anything historical or theological. Even the Jewish calendar needs a solar calendar that marks the solstices and equinoxes.

Those of us who celebrate New Year's Eve do so to recognize the beginning of a new year and the opportunities it presents. The number itself doesn't really mean anything; it's the hope of a new start that does.

Gerald Schroeder, January 6, 2014 4:37 PM

Humanity starts with the soul not the body

Homo sapiens have been around for 10's of thousands of years. According to Maimonides in The Guide for the Perplexed (1190) and also the Talmud (400). these beings had the same shape and the same intelligence of humans. Note that this commentary, culled for several verses in the Torah predates by centuries any archaeological evidence that might have made Maimonides bend the Bible to match the science.Those pre-Adam beings lacked the soul of humanity, the neshama. The creation of Adam described in Genesis 1:27, was not Adam's body. It was Adam's soul of humanity, the nesahama. So when a museum or a text book tells us that there were people 10's of thousands of years ago, inventing all sorts of tools and farming, the museum is 100% correct by its definition of a person which is a being that looks like us and has our brains. And with that description of a person, indeed they do appear and exist for vast periods before Biblical Adam. But the Bible's description of a person is slightly different. The Bible's description of a person is a being that looks like us and has our brains and has a neshama. The change with Adam was not physical. It was spiritual. For a descrtiption of the change, take a trip to the British Museum in London. Go to the Mesopotamina wing.These written on the wall is a description of the change in society that occurred immediately after the date of Biblical Adam. The museum does not mention God or neshama or Adam. It does give a date for the change, 5500 years ago, but gives no reason for the sudden strong change in society. The Bible tells us why: the neshama changed how people related one to the other.
Note the similarity for the museum's dating and the Biblical dating of this change.

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