Church Fathers Letter M: Michelangelo

Church Fathers Letter M: Michelangelo

Psalm 96

by Daniel Harrell

Psalm 96 is a song about a new song; a new song about God doing a new thing. “He is coming to judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with truth,” we sang, but God’s judgment, rather than associated with punishment, is all about setting everything right. God’s kingdom comes and his will is finally done on earth as it is in heaven. Up to this point, the peoples of earth had languished in a marred existence of their own making, submitting to the folly of idols and to the whims of injustice. But here the Lord exerts his honor and majesty, his strength and beauty, thereby crumbling idols and upending injustice. The entire creation responds with praise. And so do we. Whenever we worship we join in that praise, not as observers, but as participants in a new creation already blooming. To worship is to get a taste of all that our faith hopes for.

Based on last Sunday’s sermon about Maximus the Confessor, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer this morning with words that likely reflect what Jesus actually taught his disciples. “Debtors and debts” underscore our obligation to forgive as we’ve been forgiven by God. “Deliverance from trial” and “rescue from the evil one” plead that we not end up like Judas, succumbing to the designs of Satan when our faith is tested.

There’s another word that Jesus prayed in the Lord’s Prayer that is also different from what is customarily prayed, and it is particularly apropos this morning. “Give us this day our daily bread” is often thought of as a petition for daily sustenance, for just enough to get by. But in fact the word is what’s known as a hapax legomenon, (Greek for “saying something one time”). The unusual word Jesus uses for daily in the Lord’s Prayer shows up nowhere else in the New Testament, causing scholars to conclude that he must have meant something more than just bread for the day. And indeed he did. As the note in your pew Bible indicates, daily bread can also be translated bread for tomorrow. Jesus is not suggesting we get greedy here, praying that we get what we need tomorrow now. But using bread as a metaphor for life, Jesus encourages us to ask for a future that is already ours, for a taste of the new creation promised by God. “Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness for they will be satisfied,” Jesus said. “Seek first the kingdom of God and it’s righteousness, and you will get everything else.” A prayer for “tomorrow’s bread” is like the rest of the Lord’s Prayer: it’s a prayer for a preview of heaven on earth.

Worship is that preview of heaven, that glimpse of eternity, that moment when our cares and worries suspend, our hopes reignite and our faith reassures. Worship employs song and sermon to do this, as well as a gathered community (which is why worship doesn’t so work online). Historically, worship has also employed art–sculpture, painting, stained glass and architecture–to reflect what the Psalmist sings as “beauty in his sanctuary,” sacred space filled with the glory of God. Ultimately God’s sanctuary is creation itself, but in Old Testament times God’s sanctuary was also the tabernacle and Temple, a visible presence of God that accompanied Israel through the desert and then settled with them once they reached their promised land. Regrettably, God’s people took advantage of his presence, treating his Temple as a cover for their sinful behavior (the same way Christians have been known to justify bad behavior by just turning up at church on Sunday).

Refusing to put up with such presumptuousness, the Lord eventually abandoned the Temple and let it be destroyed. A lesser replacement was built later on, but God never really returned; not until Jesus himself showed up in John’s gospel, and only then to announce the Temple’s final doom. Buildings would no longer house the presence of the Lord. He would make his home inside his people’s hearts–hearts born again, “renaissanced” if you will, by the Holy Spirit of the resurrected Jesus.

However the church, adopted heirs of God’s promises and possessed by the Spirit, has never been able to resist the urge to build buildings anyway. For the medieval church, the urge to build wasn’t for just any church building, but for a replica of the Temple itself, complete with its own Holy of Holies audaciously reserved solely as the Pope’s private hang out with God. This inner sanctum was called the Sistine Chapel, arrogantly named for Pope Sixtus IV who built it. It’s a long story, and one intimately tied to this morning’s last Church Father starting with the Letter M: Michelangelo Buonarroti, one of the greatest artists in human history.

Michelangelo was born in 1475, the same year that ground broke for the Sistine Chapel’s construction. His parents had hoped he’d get a real job, but eventually relented when it was clear their son just wanted to be an artist. They shipped him to Florence, a small little city, yet one that would prove a magnet for a creativity and brilliance that kindled a new birth of human flourishing, a renaissance of art, science and philosophy. The influential Florentine Medici family, recognizing Michelangelo’s talent, served as his patron. Inevitably, Michelangelo’s unrivaled work attracted the Pope’s attention, who then tried to assassinate the head of the Medici family in the Sistine Chapel in a power grab like a scene out of The Godfather. But that’s another story too. It would be a later Pope, Julius II, known as Il Papa Terrible (The Terrible Pope) who would commission (some would say coerce) Michelangelo to paint the Chapel ceilings.

Despite the circumstances, Michelangelo possessed both extraordinary visual memory, which today we would call photographic, along with extraordinary emotional tenacity that fueled his passion as an artist and his long-suffering as a romantic. His singular talent not only manifest his passions, but have inspired the passions of countless others throughout centuries. I remember my own visit to the Vatican as a teenager. Michelangelo’s masterpieces, carved in stone and frescoed on that ceiling absolutely blew me away. For me it was like a foretaste of heaven. To learn about Michelangelo is to see his art.

Lynn Teschendorf, an art aficionado in her own right, offers the following in regard to some of Michelangelo’s most famous work.

The Pietà is considered to be Michelangelo’s most famous sculpture. He started it when he was 22. Note there is no suffering or sadness; Mary is withdrawn, preoccupied. Jesus lies limply on his shroud. So vulnerable and still.

 

 

 

This is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – Michelangelo hated doing this work. 1508- 12.  It is organized with 9 large rectangles: Creation, Fall, Flood (destruction of man) in these main scenes which show life before the Law and before the redemption of Christ. They provide background to lives of Moses and Christ shown on lower frescos by other artists (on opposite walls). Surrounding is a frieze of alternating squares and triangles, with larger triangles/pendentives anchoring the corners. And below that frieze is a series of half-moons or lunettes. Many attempts at interpreting the meaning behind the images.

Michelangelo painted the Last Judgment in 1535 – 41. Since he painted the ceiling, Luther’s 95 theses of 1517 had shaken Christianity, Rome had been sacked by the Holy Roman Empire, and Michelangelo was now in his 60s. His world had changed as had his artistic style (for detailed commentary, please listen to the sermon on colonialchurch.org).

Michelangelo lived almost 90 years, far beyond the normal life expectancy of his day. He was creative until he died, sculpting a pieta for his own tomb that he never completed. And yet despite the breathtaking beauty of his work, and that of many of his contemporaries, we Congregationalists have long been suspicious of visual artistic expression in service of the church, due both to ancient Biblical prohibitions against graven images and to the self-serving exploitation of art by medieval Catholicism. In the wake of the Reformation, which ironically fueled the Renaissance, Protestants decried Catholic abuses of power and the visible excesses of wealth depicted in the church’s lavishly adorned buildings and palaces. For Michelangelo and others to depict the Lord of hosts in paint, sculpture or stained glass was to diminish his glory. This is why Congregational Meetinghouses remain unadorned, drawing attention to the word instead of the walls. Meetinghouses are never called sanctuaries because buildings can’t be sacred. God resides in his people. Glass windows are never stained either because human hands can never improve upon God’s own handiwork seen through glass instead of on it.

Nevertheless, there has been a recent renaissance among Christian artists–Protestants no less–who seek to use art powerfully and beautifully in the service of worship. Their work in architecture, paint, and these days in light and digital media, elicits afresh the honor, majesty, strength and beauty about which the Psalmist sings as due the Lord. And yet while art can inspire, it never competes. Even Michelangelo in all his extraordinary brilliance never matches the ordinary ways God evokes our wonder daily. Dawn and Violet and I had the joy of visiting Camp Pyro last Thursday–it was a splendid day and the work our staff and counselors did to make it happen for the kids was fantastic. We concluded our day with an energetic and moving worship time, which coincided with the descending of dusk over the lake. Afterwards, Mark Stover asked my five-year-old daughter how she enjoyed the worship time, the songs and prayers and words we had shared. She told him she thought they were good, but actually she’d been watching the sunset.