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23.5.05

The Michelangelo Code

Waldemar Januszczak, an art critic for the London Sunday Times, has an obsession with Michelangelo's greatest work, the ceiling of the Cappella Sistina. He has just made a television program presenting his theory about Michelangelo's ceiling frescoes, called The Michelangelo Code, which was broadcast on BBC 4 on May 21. I read two articles about this film but have not been able to watch it myself. First, from Waldemar Januszczak's own article in the London Sunday Times (The Sistine Chapel has a secret, May 8):

What connects the massacre of the Branch Davidians in Waco in 1993 with the birth of printing and Michelangelo and Jerusalem and the Sistine Chapel and that angry minor prophet who wrote book 38 of the Old Testament, Zechariah? It is not, I admit, the sort of question one asks oneself merrily every day. But it is what I forced myself to keep asking as I poked about for the best part of 20 years in the nether regions of civilisation, round and round the houses, in and out of libraries, through Rome, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and a place in Portugal called Evora, seeking to crack the lost code of the Sistine Chapel.
Michelangelo, Zechariah, Sistine Chapel ceilingHis theory hinges on the placement of the prophet Zechariah (another image), who is seemingly in an unimportant position, from the entrance that tourists use to enter the chapel. However, if you enter the place as the Pope does, the first image you would see is Zechariah, and Januszczak has rethought the chapel's decoration from that vantage point. What was the message Michelangelo might have been trying to send to his employer, the second della Rovere pope, Julius II? (The first pope from this family, Francesco della Rovere, when he was Pope Sixtus IV, named several of his relatives to the College of Cardinals, including the nephew who later become pope; he also built the Sistine Chapel and is its namesake.) What made Zechariah so important?
It was, of course, Zechariah who predicted the coming of a character called the Branch, who would rebuild the temple and prepare us for the end of the world. I’m not going to go into any sort of detail here about the Branch and his identity. It’s all in the film I have made about the chapel’s secret, but I was particularly delighted to track down the origins of the chapel’s funny shape — it has the basic outline of a treasure chest in a pirate movie — which was copied from an obscure Christian cartographer called Cosmas, whose chief claim to distinction is that he refused to accept that the earth was round. Cosmas insisted the earth was rectangular, and shaped, as it turned out, exactly like the Sistine Chapel. Am I saying that the popes who commissioned the ceiling and rigorously controlled its iconography were flat-earthers? You bet I am. And Michelangelo would certainly have painted what he was told to paint.
Januszczak's theory is that Julius II believed he was the Branch, a new messiah, predestined to do great things like knock down old St. Peter's, build the new one, put on armor, and lead an army into war to take back the papal territories. The Sistine Chapel, he says, is a coded message about what the Pope believed was his Biblically ordained destiny. Apparently, David Koresh of the Branch Davidians had the same delusion. Another article I read (Cracking the lost code, May 10) by Jim Gilchrist for The Scotsman has a more independent perspective:
Januszczak, now 50, started his investigation into the meaning of the frescoes some 20 years ago. Having had the chance to inspect the ceiling at close quarters from maintenance scaffolding he found the ceiling, close up, "quite scary, but what a sight ... like a football pitch of images stretching in all directions." However, the experience left him "feeling as if there was something going on in these paintings about which I’d never been told; as if, somehow, the chapel was famous for the wrong things". He came down from the scaffolding determined to crack the secret and, two decades on, he declares to camera: "I’ve done it, but I sometimes wish I hadn’t."
Is Januszczak cashing in on the last of buzz from The Da Vinci Code? He insists that he was at work on his theory long before the book was published:
"Dan Brown’s book is a load of nonsense; mine is fact. But - and it’s a big but - just because Dan Brown’s book is nonsense doesn’t mean to say that Catholics and popes and painters don’t think that way, and that these sorts of mysteries don’t go on. "The trick is to separate fact from fiction, but if Dan Brown has awakened an interest in Renaissance art, good on him. I’ll be eternally grateful."
Well, even without reading the book, I've been critical of The Da Vinci Code. Now that I've read it, I can say with full justification just how bad it is. I have found one review of the Januszczak film: Tom Adair, Strange feeling from the Sistine ceiling (The Scotsman, May 22). Surely, David Nishimura at Cronaca will be able to tell me what to think about this crazy theory from a learned, scientific point of view.

1 comment:

Dod said...

1) The Sistine Chapel was built in accordance with the proportions of Solomon's Temple, as described in the Old Testament..

2) It's thought that Zechariah's features are modelled on those of Julius II. The "Branch" is is branch of the oak, symbol of the della Rovere family, of which Julius was a member. No mystery. No "Code"