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A WORD FOR TODAY, June 29, 2021
“What profit has he who works in that in which he labors? I have seen the burden which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in their hearts, yet so that man can’t find out the work that God has done from the beginning even to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice, and to do good as long as they live. Also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy good in all his labor, is the gift of God. I know that whatever God does, it shall be forever. Nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; and God has done it, that men should fear before him. That which is has been long ago, and that which is to be has been long ago. God seeks again that which is passed away.” Ecclesiastes 3:9-15, WEB
There is a special exhibit in San Antonio right now showcasing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings. The creators have taken photos of the many works and printed them on canvas panels which you can view up close. The prints are large, most of them are seven feet tall and five or more feet wide. Some of the larger pieces were fifteen feet wide. It is almost overwhelming to see these paintings so close, to experience the incredible details of these paintings by a master artist. Michelangelo never wanted to do the ceiling because he considered himself a sculptor, but his work carving human figures in stone gave him a unique perspective that came out in sculpted figures on the flat surface of the ceiling.
There are those who have written of conspiracy theories about the work of Michelangelo, claiming that he had hidden anti-Christian messages in the paintings. They point to the many odd choices he made of subject matter and symbolism. I must confess that as I walked through the exhibit listening to the self-guided tour, I wondered too what some of it meant. Why did he choose to paint the non-Biblical Sybils? Why did he choose the story of Judith slaying Holofernes, which is a story from the Apocrypha, books that many Christians do not accept as canon? Why are the ancestors of Christ portrayed as children rather than mature rulers? It is easy to hear the claims of conspiracy and wonder if they are right. After all, these things do not quite stand up to our modern understanding of Christianity.
The problem with this is that the conspiracy theorists are interpreting Michelangelo’s paintings from our modern point of view. They haven’t looked at them from the point of view of the Renaissance. We might consider their theology faulty because it isn’t what we learned and understand about God, but is what we believe always the best interpretation? Michelangelo lived at a time when scholasticism and humanism were a part of the Christian worldview. Even Martin Luther taught these ideas for a time, but eventually fought against them in his writings and teachings. These were common ideas in that age, and the Sibyls were acceptable images to use in Christian art during that age.
There are twelve prophetic figures painted around the ceiling of the Sistine chapel: seven Israeli prophets and five Sibyls. They all represented the coming of Christ. The alternating male and female figures are seated on thrones and are depicted reading manuscripts, books or scrolls. They are the largest figures on the ceiling. The pagan Sibyls were included to symbolize that the Messiah came for all people of the world, not just the Jews. It is said of the most famous of the Sibyls, the one from Delphi, that she was reading a scroll when she was suddenly moved by the Word of God. She prophesied that the coming Messiah would be mocked with a crown of thorns.
I think one of my favorite paintings was Michelangelo’s portrayal of Noah’s Ark. Instead of focusing on the flood, as most of us do, he focused on the people running from the rising waters. They sky is bright and clear except for one small cloud, and the water is absolutely calm. Noah and his family are not even seen in this painting. They appear in two others: the Drunkenness of Noah and the Sacrifice of Noah. The people we see are those who will be lost to the flood. They are desperate people seeking refuge. You can see their fear, their despair, their panic. You can see the worst of human characteristics shine, like those who were trying to save their possessions and those who were looking out for themselves. There are some who have better attitudes, like the man carrying another man to higher ground and some reaching out to help. Yet, their lives will also end because our good works cannot save us. Only those in the ark would be saved. The ark doesn’t look much like a boat; some believe it was meant to represent the Church as the only place of salvation.
Art has long had a place in the education of Christians. There have been periods of time when the common people were uneducated and illiterate. They could not read the Bible for themselves, so art was used to tell the stories. The people could look at the stained glass windows of their churches and see the Bible come alive. Paintings and statues had the same purpose. While we may not have made the same choices that were made for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, we can look back at those images and understand that they were created to glorify God, not only in the Church building but in the hearts and lives of those who would see them.
As the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us, our understanding of God will always be limited. What we believe today will be questioned by those who live a hundred years forward. God always gives us a piece, a part, a portion, because we are human and cannot carry it all on our own shoulders and in our own hearts. We can rejoice today even if we have just a piece, part, or portion and enjoy what we have done for His kingdom because we know that He has given us the gifts to glorify Him. And everything God does is forever. Even when our philosophies are faulty, God’s Word will always remain true and He will use even our frailty for His glory.
A WORD FOR TODAY is posted five days a week – Monday through Friday. The devotional on Wednesday takes a look at the scripture from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday. A WORD FOR TODAY is posted on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/A-Word-for-Today-Devotional/339428839418276. Like the page to receive the devotion through Facebook. For information and to access our archives, visit http://www.awordfortoday.org.