What could we possibly learn today from a painter in Ancient Rome who lived in 1508?
As it turns out, quite a lot. Whilst we strive to stay up-to-date with the latest technologies and marketing tactics, it’s important to also consider the timeless lessons that can be learnt from the greats of history. Michelangelo is one such story of a counter-intuitive thinker who was willing to risk it all to leave a legacy.
The lessons in his story could change the way you view the world…
When Pope Julius II asked a 33-year-old Michelangelo to paint the roof of the Sistine Chapel in Ancient Rome, the up and coming sculptor balked at the suggestion and was immediately reluctant. The young Michelangelo had devoted his life to becoming a master sculptor, he was not a painter and never had been. However Pope Julius II insisted and as such Michelangelo had no choice but to stop work on another project and begin a project that would see all of Rome become fascinated with what would eventually be unveiled. The year was 1508.
On the roof-high scaffolding that he himself had constructed, Michelangelo spent four years standing upright, painting over his head. To ensure the painting would be preserved for as long as possible, Michelangelo insisted on painting each brush stroke on to wet plaster that would often drip from the roof and into his eyes, causing him to eventually become blind in one eye.
These four torturous years would result in Michelangelo masterfully bringing together the then opposing worlds of religion, science, spirituality, history, art, and ultimately rebellion.
In this masterpiece, Michelangelo tells the story of nine scenes, each from the Biblical Book of Genesis, which tells the story of how the world was created. The scenes evolve from God first creating light and darkness, heaven and earth, to God creating man and woman with Adam and Eve and eventually following the story of Noah depicting how mankind had progressed imperfectly after God’s initial creation.
Perhaps the most interesting scene painted on the ceiling is the section called “The Creation of Adam” which at first glance shows God creating the first man, Adam. This particular painting shows God, surrounded by angels and slightly elevated, and Adam, each with their arms outstretched not quite touching, an element that is suggested to symbolise that man, while longing to touch God, may never fully accomplish the physical feat while he rests in the human form.
However when you look closer at the Creation of Adam, you see a message that Michelangelo left hidden in the plaster more than 500 years ago. Michelangelo has painted God and the angels surrounding him in the image of a human brain, something that at that time in Ancient Rome would have resulted in Michelangelo being executed for painting God in the anatomy of man, had it have been recognised by the eyes glancing up at it.
In Ancient Rome to dissect a human body, or to conduct an autopsy was illegal which meant very few people would recognise this image for what it was; a representation of the human brain. However, Michelangelo was not just a sculpture, he was also an anatomist. His knowledge of the body was impeccable, having studied anatomy his whole life in a bid to be able to better capture human beauty. He shared this background of anatomy with only one other artist of his time; Leonardo Da Vinci.
There is much speculation as to why Michelangelo risked his life on something as sacrilege as painting God in the form of the human brain, on the roof of a building which has significant meaning to the Catholic Church and indeed Ancient Rome – the Sistine Chapel is the very room in which the selection of each Pope is decided upon.
Michelangelo’s relationship with the Catholic church had been stretched for a long time. It is suggested that as a simple man who was true to his art, Michelangelo grew to dislike and often protest against the opulence and corruption of the Church at the time. Rather than look at the Church as a necessary pathway to reach God, Michelangelo was a very spiritual person believing that anybody could reach God or their ‘higher self’ directly, without the assistance of the Church.
Michelangelo was said to believe that God had not created man in his image, but rather man had created God in his.
What if Michelangelo, as all great artists do, was simply telling his truth?
What if this was his personal way to express his spiritual beliefs in a world where they were not yet acceptable to the status quo? A strong man grounded firmly in his principles, willing to risk his life to express his views in the only way he knew how; through his art.
Buddha once said, “With our thoughts, we create our world.” Perhaps Michelangelo believed this to be a literal principle, indicating that in his belief system we each create our own worlds according to our thinking and God is not something or someone seperate to ourselves but rather a higher energy that we are already intrinsicly connected with.
Perhaps this was a man with a highly evolved sense of spirituality, willing to risk his life to share his message, as many greats that have come since have also done. In Michelangelo we find a person willing to risk his life in order to fulfil his legacy.
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that was painted by an up-and-coming sculptor is today one of the most famous paintings in the world, each year attracting five million people who glance up and admire what one man painted more than 500 years ago.
In June of 2014, I was fortunate enough to be one of them and after learning about Michelangelo’s story, I resolved to be a person of firm principle unafraid of sharing my message with the world.