May 1, 2008 — The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican (HarperOne), co-authored by Rabbi Benjamin Blech, assistant professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University, and Roy Doliner, a Vatican docent, reveals some of the many hidden messages of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling when it comes out this week.
The Sistine Secrets posits that the paintings covering the Sistine Chapel, the largest fresco painting on earth in the holiest of Christianity’s chapels, does not contain a single Christian image. The authors offer an inside look at symbols and covert messages painted by Michelangelo that were discovered only after the ceiling’s cleaning and restoration.
The authors met when Rabbi Blech—an internationally known author, educator, and religious leader—visited Rome as the head of a delegation of Jewish leaders to thank Pope John Paul for his efforts to bring about greater understanding between Judaism and Christianity. He and Doliner, a highly respected Vatican Docent with a dual specialty in the Renaissance in Rome and Jewish history in Italy, exchanged their insights about the masterpieces in the Sistine Chapel. Their conversation became a groundbreaking turning point, a milestone responsible for a revolutionary new approach to unlocking the secret messages of Michelangelo.
Reading like a real life DaVinci Code, the book explains how Michelangelo’s genius expressed itself on a number of levels. Driven by the truths he had come to recognize during the years of his study in nontraditional, private schooling in Florence—truths rooted in his involvement with Judaic texts as well as Kabbalistic training—Michelangelo sought a vehicle to express his beliefs.
While the Church forbade him to speak out, he nonetheless found a way to convey his views to those interested in learning his secret language. He embedded messages of brotherhood, tolerance, and free-thinking to encourage “fellow travelers” to challenge the repressive Roman Catholic Church of the time. Michelangelo succeeded in communicating his ideas, all hidden in plain view in one of the Vatican’s most sacred sites.
For example, Pope Julius commissioned Michelangelo to paint a series of portraits of Jesus and the Apostles on the Sistine ceiling; instead, he inserted the faces of Old Testament heroes and heroines into the painting; in the Original Sin panel, Michelangelo painted the forbidden Tree of Knowledge not as an apple tree, but as a fig tree, as written in the Talmud; over the altar where Mary was supposed to appear, he placed the Jewish prophet Jonah, whose hands and legs form two Hebrew letters, sending a message of religious tolerance to those oppressed by the Church; in the Creation of Adam panel, Michelangelo paints a perfect cross-section of the human brain, combining messages from his forbidden anatomy studies with lessons from the Talmud and the Kabbalah, books that were burned during the Inquisition.
Rabbi Blech, a tenth-generation rabbi born in Zurich, has taught at YU since 1966. A graduate of YU’s Yeshiva College (1954) and affiliated Rabbi Issac Elchanan Theological Seminary (1956), he is a frequent lecturer in global communities such as Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Israel. He has served as rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Oceanside in Oceanside, NY, since 1993 and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, Newsday and The Forward.
He is the author of 11 highly popular and scholarly books, including Taking Stock: A Spiritual Guide to Rising Above Life’s Financial Ups and Downs, three volumes of the best-selling Idiot’s Guide series, and If God is Good, Why is the World So Bad?, translated into three languages.
Doliner’s studies span the spectrum of the humanities: languages, comparative religion, art history, Italian and Roman history, and Judaica (including Talmud, Midrash and Kabbalah). Doliner is often called upon to act as a docent for scholars and international dignitaries to Rome and the Vatican Museums.