I just finished The Sistine Secrets, by Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner, a controversial new book about hidden messages in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel artwork. The title, and especially the subtitle (Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages at the Heart of the Vatican), made me leery at first; I thought it might be another crazy Da Vinci Code-inspired work of fringe scholarship. But no - this is a serious and intelligent book, full of interesting observations about the great artist and his achievements.
Michelangelo did not get along with the pope who commissioned the ceiling fresco, Julius II. Over the door the pope would have used to enter the chapel, the artist painted the Hebrew prophet Zechariah with Julius' face, wearing the colors of Julius' family. Naturally the egotistical pope was pleased by this tribute. But Michelangelo didn't stop there. He painted two small angels ("putti") peering over the Julius figure's shoulder. If you look closely at one of the angels, you see that his thumb is inserted between his index and middle fingers. This is an obscene gesture called "giving the fig," comparable to giving someone the finger. So every time the pope proudly entered the chapel under his portrait, there would be an angel giving him the fig!
To prove this was not a coincidence, there's another reference to Julius in the chapel - one of the sybils (the Cumaean sybil, the oldest and ugliest one) is dressed in Julius's family colors. Again there are two putti nearby - and again, one of the putti is giving the fig to Julius's stand-in.
According to the authors, Michelangelo was steeped in Kabbalah and used Kabbalistic lore and symbols in the ceiling fresco. He even worked a couple of symbolically charged Hebrew letters into the design, so subtly that they would not be noticed. He put a yellow circle on the sleeve of Jesus' ancestor Aminadab, who stares accusingly at the viewer; the yellow circle was a design the authorities forced Jews to wear so they could be readily identified. Michelangelo also risked putting two men in traditional Jewish garb into the circle of the blessed in The Last Judgment, contradicting Catholic doctrine that Jews could rise no higher than purgatory.
He got away with all this because the ceiling is 65 feet high and the details are hard to see. The image of the two Jews in The Last Judgment is also high up, and murky. He was also aided by the frescos' sheer overcrowded detail, which distracts the eye from dangerous subtleties.
The authors point out that while Michelangelo named his other artworks, including The Last Judgment, he never named the ceiling fresco. Arguably this was because he wanted to suggest that the true meaning of the work was concealed.
Some of the authors' claims are less convincing, and the book would have benefited from a longer list of sources. Occasionally they just get things wrong, as when they say that the ancient Greek statue Laocoön was carved shortly after the Trojan War. (It was carved centuries later.) The book is sometimes repetitive and, at times, overly emphatic.
Nevertheless, The Sistine Secrets delivers on its promise: it gives us a new way of looking at - and appreciating - some of the world's most famous and familiar works of art.