Tag Archives: Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling

Born in Florence at the beginning of the Italian Renaissance on March 6, 1475 when “Mercury and Venus were in the house of Jupiter,” [1] Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni seemed destined to become a famous in the arts. And as fortune had it, he was able to study at the famed Garden of San Marco started by the famous patron of the arts, Lorenzo de’ Medici.[2] Michelangelo’s skill as a sculptor soon became apparent with him creating “two extraordinary bas-reliefs, the Madonna of the Steps and the Battle of the Centaurs”[3] by the age of fifteen or sixteen as noted by Thomas Cahill. However it wasn’t sculpting that would propel him into the realm of the uber famous, but rather it would be his skill with a paint brush that would set him apart. The canvas for his art, as the fates would have it, was a box-shaped chapel in Rome whose foundation was laid a mere two years before his birth.[4]

The journey from sculptor to painter was not an easy one for Michelangelo. Rather it was a journey full of political upheavals, family drama, personal rivalry, and four long years perched on a scaffold bend backward staring at a ceiling. In his book Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, Ross King weaves these complex issues together into a single story showing how Pope Julius II pushed Michelangelo beyond his comfort zone and into the history books.

Like most people I had heard about Michelangelo’s paintings on the vault of the Sistine Chapel and even seen replicates of famed Creation of Adam fresco. However my knowledge of these amazing paintings did not extent beyond simply recognizing their existence in the world. King’s book was a ray of sunlight into the darkness of my ignorance, bringing with it the understanding that the context surrounding the creation of a piece of art is just as important as the piece itself. This realization may sound simple as it is a common method of exegesis for literature, especially the Scriptures. Yet I must admit that before reading King’s book I had never considered studying the cultural and history context of a piece of art.

Though it was not the topic of the book, King did provide some crucial information about the cultural and political context of the Protestant Reformation. Pope Julius II steadfast focus on recovering control over the Papal States, for example, was new information previously unknown to me. Similar to some of the cardinals of the day, I was “thunderstruck” that the “vicar of Christ” would personally “lead an army into battle.” [5] Add sexual misdeeds to this tragedy misinterpretation of the role of the church in the world and it is no small wonder that Martin Luther would say that “Rome was the seat of the devil and the pope worse than the Ottoman sultan.”[6]

In closing I have to admit that while Ross King’s book Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling was outside my typical reading patterns, it proved itself to be a valuable text. Ross King does a great job painting a picture of why Michelangelo is considered one of the great Renaissance painters and sculptors. Somehow this gentleman managed to capture the “expressive possibilities of the human form” [7] in a way that no one else had ever done before while working in an unfamiliar medium in the midst of a city full of political upheaval and human indecency. Writer and Episcopal priest Ian Cron once stated that “artists help people to see or hear beyond the immediate to the eternal.”[8] Perhaps this is why Sir Joshua Reynolds described Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel as “the language of the Gods”[9]

End Notes

[1] Ross King. Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling (New York: Walker & Company, 2003), 1.

[2] Ross King. Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, 2.

[3] Thomas Cahill. Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2013), 111.

[4] “Sistine Chapel,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed December 19, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sistine_Chapel&oldid=810499765.

[5] Ross King. Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, 34.

[6] Ross King. Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceilingg, 217.

[7] Ross King. Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, 299.

[8] Ian Morgan Cron. Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2013), 110.

[9] Ross King. Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, 313.

Heretics and Heroes

A look back over history shows that there are certain periods in time during which innovation and cultural change dramatically increases. The book Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World is the sixth volume of Thomas Cahill’s The Hinges of History series in which the events of these critical periods of western history are documented and retold. Heretics and Heroes focuses on the cultural and religious upheaval in Europe during the sixteenth century.

Divided into seven sections with a prelude, introduction, intermission, and postlude, the book highlights various innovative ideas and concepts that arose during the Italian Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation.  Woven throughout the text is a nod towards the “centuries-long game of philosophical tennis”[1] being played out behind the events themselves. This game, as Cahill outlines in his prelude, is between the Platonic-Augustinian and Aristotelian-Thomistic schools of thought on how reality is perceived. During the time period covered by Heretics and Heroes the Platonic-Augustinian view of reality (i.e. that the “phenomena of our world…leads us to the absolute realities…[of] Beauty, Truth, Justice, Unity…and…Goodness” [2]) becomes the dominate view over and against the Aristotelian-Thomistic view (i.e. that “there is no world of Forms beyond the world we know and see” [3]).

Though it may seem unlikely, the motivation for both the master artists of the Renaissance and the leaders of the Germany Reformation can be found in the newly rediscovered drive to know and understand the absolute realities behind what we see and hear. The artists followed a blend of Platonic philosophy and Medieval Christianity that saw the “human flesh [as] a fine thing” [4]; hence their desire to create humanity at its best. The preachers of the Reformation, on the other hand, used this desire to fuel their pursuit of Truth over and above the realities of church and political power and the weight of tradition. Martin Luther’s statement at the Diet of Worms in 1521 is the clearest example of this desire for Truth as he dismisses the “authority of…popes or council by themselves” in favor of the intangible authority of “Scriptures and…plain reason.”[5]

In unveiling the joint motivation for the Renaissance and Reformation movements, Cahill opened my eyes to a previously unknown subset of European history. As an avid reader and lover of history, I have read multiple books about the Reformation and the events leading up to and following this movement. However none of these books connected the Reformation events to the Renaissance or the rise of Platonic-Augustinian philosophy. Accordingly I am grateful for Cahill’s blending of these movements has it has provided me with yet another part of the “mechanism of our functioning contemporary selves.”[6]

In a very practically manner, I can see myself paying more attention to the art around me and the meaning being conveyed through the art. Prior to reading Cahill’s Heretics and Heroes book I had never paid attention to the deeper cultural and philosophical context and meaning of an art piece. Rather I would just see the picture itself without looking any deeper. Now, however, I am curious as what other secrets are lurking behind the canvases and sculptures of the Renaissance and other time periods.

End Notes

[1] Thomas Cahill. Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2013), 7.

[2] Thomas Cahill. Heretics and Heroes, 5.

[3] Thomas Cahill. Heretics and Heroes, 6.

[4] Thomas Cahill. Heretics and Heroes 105.

[5] Thomas Cahill. Heretics and Heroes, 182.

[6] Thomas Cahill. Heretics and Heroes, 305.