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ANALECTA ROMANA INSTITUTI DANICI XLII© 2017 Accademia di DanimarcaISSN 2035-2506

Published with the support of a grant from:Det Frie Forskningsråd / Kultur og Kommunikation

Scientific Board

Karoline Prien Kjeldsen (Bestyrelsesformand, Det Danske Institut i Rom)Jens Bertelsen (Bertelsen & Scheving Arkitekter)Maria Fabricius Hansen (Københavns Universitet)

Peter Fibiger Bang (Københavns Universitet)Thomas Harder (Forfatter/writer/scrittore)

Michael Herslund (Copenhagen Business School)Hanne Jansen (Københavns Universitet)

Kurt Villads Jensen (Syddansk Universitet)Erik Vilstrup Lorenzen (Den Danske Ambassade i Rom)

Mogens Nykjær (Aarhus Universitet)Vinnie Nørskov (Aarhus Universitet)

Niels Rosing-Schow (Det Kgl. Danske Musikkonservatorium)Lene Schøsler (Københavns Universitet)

editorial Board

Marianne Pade (Chair of Editorial Board, Det Danske Institut i Rom)Patrick Kragelund (Danmarks Kunstbibliotek)

Sine Grove Saxkjær (Det Danske Institut i Rom)Gert Sørensen (Københavns Universitet)

Anna Wegener (Det Danske Institut i Rom)Maria Adelaide Zocchi (Det Danske Institut i Rom)

Analecta Romana Instituti Danici. — Vol. I (1960) — . Copenhagen: Munksgaard. From 1985: Rome, «L’ERMA» di Bretschneider. From 2007 (online): Accademia di Danimarca

ANALECTA ROMANA INSTITUTI DANICI encourages scholarly contributions within the Academy’s research fields. All contributions will be peer reviewed. Manuscripts to be considered for publication should be sent to: [email protected] Authors are requested to consult the journal’s guidelines at www.acdan.it



Sine Grove Saxkjær: The Emergence and Marking of Ethnic Identities: Case Studies from the Sibaritide Region

aleSSia di Santi: From Egypt to Copenhagen. The Provenance of the Portraits of Augustus, Livia, and Tiberius at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

larS Boje MortenSen: The Canons of the Medieval Literature from the Middle Ages to the Twenty-First Century

Søren kaSperSen: Body Language and Theology in the Sistine Ceiling. A Reconsideration of the Augustinian Thesis

nicholaS Stanley-price: The Myth of Catholic Prejudice against Protestant Funerals in Eighteenth- Century Rome

annika Skaarup larSen: Bertel Thorvaldsen and Zeuxis: The Assembling Artist

kaSpar thorMod: Depicting People in Rome: Contemporary Examples of Portaiture in the Work of International Artists









Abstract. This essay extends and critiques Esther Gordon Dotson’s analysis linking Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling to an Augustinian world view by focusing on the iconography and formal language of the three first compartments with Creation scenes. Aiming to keep the interpretation on a level as simple as possible, this analysis also strives to clarify the interpretative character of the framework, supposing that all the different parts of the Ceiling decoration are entangled and relate to the Genesis series, which is the core of the decoration and the beginning of a comprehensive narration of Augustine’s two cities – the City of God on its pilgrimage in a world of sin.

Body Language and Theology in the Sistine CeilingA Reconsideration of the Augustinian Thesis1

by Søren KaSperSen

The General Structure of the Decoration and its Augustinian CharacterThis interpretation of Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling (1508-12) is grounded in the hypothesis that the decorative scheme represents an Augustinian worldview exposed in The City of God – a story of the earthly and the heavenly City, and of the Church on its pilgrimage in a world of sin from the earliest to the last days.2 Such an Augustinian interpretation was framed by Esther Gordon Dotson in 1979,3 and it has more recently been supported by Marcia B. Hall and Meredith Jane Gill.4

The analysis both elaborates on Gordon Dotson’s thesis and interrogates it on specific points. Gordon Dotson has made both a literal and a figurative reading of the Ceiling in an Augustinian perspective, with the Genesis series as its core. But, according to my opinion, she unproductively complicates things by trying to fit the figurative meanings

of Christ and his Church into a chronological narrative that reverses to the literal narrative of the Genesis story – a move that posits the relationship between the early history of man and the divine scheme of redemption as a kind of palinode (recantation).5

My goal is to simplify the analysis and also to reconcile it with Michelangelo’s artistic idiom itself. In this vein, I foreground the ways the artist has represented multiple layers and meanings of the Christian universe in the chosen structure of the Ceiling through his expressive use of the human body. At the same time, part of Michelangelo’s inventiveness and mastery here encompasses an antithetical rhetoric, which may be compared to St Augustine, who talks of “an exquisite poem set off with antitheses”:

For what are called antitheses are among the most elegant of the ornaments of

1 I would like to thank very much Professor Emeri-ta Jean A. Givens, University of Connecticut, for a thorough reading of the article, suggesting many improvements and for linguistic guidance.

2 See Augustinus 1955.

3 Gordon Dotson 1979. For a discussion of the inter-pretation, see Martone 1982; Sinding-Larsen 1982; Gordon Dotson 1982.

4 Hall & Okamura 2002; Gill 2005, espec. 173-200.5 Gordon Dotson 1979, 246.


66 Søren KaSperSen

speech. They might be called in Latin “oppositions,” or, to speak more accurately, “contrapositions;” [...]. As, then, these oppositions of contraries lend beauty to the language, so the beauty of the course of this world is achieved by the opposition of contraries, arranged, as it were, by an eloquence not of words, but of things. This is quite plainly stated in the Book of Ecclesiasticus, in this way: “Good is set against evil, and life against death: so is the sinner against the godly. So, look upon all the works of the Most High, and these are two and two, one against another” (33, 15).6

At the same time, it is my assumption that the Genesis cycle as the central story of the ceiling is part of a complicated whole that has to be read in connection with its multiple frames. This supposed entanglement is obviously an invitation to seek for learned explanations, and many learned readings have in fact been made – together with some imaginative ones. If one considers the milieu for whom the decoration was painted it would also be foolish to rule out that it originally was open for and animated all kinds of learned and even esoteric understandings. One need only to refer to Cardinal Paolo Cortesi’s instructions in his De cardinalatu from 1510 for the decoration of a dignitary’s chapel:

Now it should be understood that the more erudite are the paintings in a Cardinal’s chapel, the more easily the soul can be excited by the admonishment of the eyes to the imitation (imitatio) of acts, by looking at [painted representations of] them. The truth of this can be judged by the histories painted in the votive chapel built by the most illustrious Sixtus IV in the Vatican (in aede Palatina), or seen in the ingenious subjects (argumenta) represented in the paintings of Cardinal Oliviero Carafa’s chapel in S. Maria sopra Minerva.7

It has been discussed several times to what degree Michelangelo was the master mind

behind the decoration, mainly owing to a letter he wrote to Giovan Francesco Fattucci, a confidant, in December 1523, where he claims that he could do the work as he wanted and that he should decorate the surfaces down to the earlier painted stories on the walls.8 The question can never be settled, but most likely he had one or more advisors and was probably subject to some programmatic direction. On the other hand, Ascanio Condivi’s biography from 1553 tells us that Michelangelo “read the Holy Scriptures with great application and study, both the Old Testament and the New, as well as the writings of those who have studied them,” and that he “gladly retained the friendship of those from whose enlightened and learned conversation he could benefit [...].”9 In any case, the whole decoration owes fundamentally to Michelangelo’s decisive invention as an artist.

In this initial re-examination of Gordon Dotson’s Augustinian interpretation I will focus on the three compartments with the creation of the universe, i.e. the first ’chapter’ of the Genesis cycle. The fundamental structure of an Augustinian view based on The City of God is a chronological telling of the history of the Church from the beginning to the end. In that sense, the Genesis series filled in a gap before the depiction of the era sub lege and sub gratia on the walls of the chapel; those decorations with the history of Moses and the life of Christ Michelangelo refers to in his letter cited above.10 To this scheme was finally added tapestries with scenes from the Acts of the Apostles, made after cartoons of Raphael and exposed at specific festivities.11

Originally, the different parts of the history of salvation ended with a mural painted altarpiece by Perugino showing the Assumption of the Virgin.12 Today Michelangelo’s Last Judgment covers the whole west wall behind the altar. According to Vasari, there were early plans for this scene and for an additional depiction of the Fall of the Rebellious Angels on the entrance wall, thereby stressing with a monumental ‘bracket’ the Augustinian

6 The City of God, XI, 18, see Augustinus 1979 and Augustinus 1955 for the Latin text, both cited, here and in the following cited after the on-line versions.

7 See Weil-Garris & d’Amico 1980, 93.8 See Zöllner 2002, 78: “Allora mi decte nuova chom-

messione che io facessi ciò che io volevo, e che mi chontenterebe, e che io dipigniessi insino alle storie di socto.” German version at p. 81.

9 See Condivi 1976, 105, 102.10 See e.g. Pfeiffer 2007, 10-79; Kemper & Nesselrath

2011.11 See e.g. Evans & Browne 2010. 12 See Salvini 1965, 177-178; Butler 2009, espec.

256ff., suggests a Franciscan Mariological layer of meaning.


body Language and TheoLogy in The SiSTine CeiLing 67

dimension of the decorations as a history of salvation from alpha to omega.13

The Genesis cycle certainly makes up the core of the ceiling decoration. It is, as mentioned, part of a very elaborate structure, visually as well as regards contents, framed, as it is, in different ways by other historiae and by a richness of imagines consisting of single figures and groups of figures. These frames differ in scale, form, and character, being chronological parts of the history of salvation, typologic-allegorical expoundings, or comments in other ways. The whole is woven together in an exquisite fabric where every part seems related to the other parts in an intricate web of significations, hierarchies and co-ordinations.

The Genesis series proceeds from the altar wall at the western end of the chapel but it must be seen from the opposite, eastern entrance wall. It consists of nine rectangular panels of alternating sizes, and its narrative is divided into three chapters, each with three scenes, showing the Creation of the Universe, the Story of Adam and Eve, and the Story of Noah. It can also be read with a focus on its central, transverse axis showing the Creation of Eve – figuratively the birth of the Church. Originally, this scene was placed above the chancel rail, the four panels with the creation of world and man then above the choir, while the four panels above the space of the congregation show man’s fall and life in a world of sin.

The Genesis series is the only part of the decoration that is exclusively organised along the longitudinal axis of the chapel. Almost all the other parts shall be viewed along the many cross axes indicated by the nine panels in the ceiling and by a row of lunettes on the north and south walls and their severies

above. Four large pendentives or spandrels in the corners of the ceiling mediate between the two directions with compositions arranged for diagonal views. These compositions depict four great events showing how God, in miraculous ways, has saved his people from suffering and destruction, events which were also seen as important prefigurations of Christ’s work of redemption, of his crucifixion (The Brazen Serpent), his conquering of evil and death (David and Goliath; Judith and Holofernes) and the final consummation (Esther and Ahasuerus) with the Crucifixion of Haman as an antithesis to Christ’s crucifixion.

The corner pendentives then, are central to the structure’s basic organization. Not only do they mediate between the two main axes, they also mediate between the historical-narrative and prophetic-typological dimension of the Ceiling.14 In the transverse axes, the main subject is an impressive row of Prophets and Sibyls, enthroned between the severies – five on each side, together with two more prophets closing the longitudinal axis in its ends. The twelve figures are named but they carry no texts, and it is accordingly a delicate case to try to explain the choice and placements of these figures in relation to supposed prophecies and oracles.15

Even if there is no obvious chronological order between the Prophets and the Sibyls, they represent the period under the old covenant back to the time of Noah. The Erythraean Sibyl, placed beneath the sacrifices made by Noah and his family, according to her own prophecy married one of Noah’s three sons. She is most likely to be identified with the woman standing behind the altar together with Noah and his wife; the headgear and burning torches connect the two figures.16

The Genesis scenes also are surrounded by

13 See Gill 2005, 200-214.14 Gordon Dotson (1979, 249-250) adds up their

significance in the following way: “Antichrist, the Last Judgment, and the reunion of Christ and the Church in the Kingdom of Heaven are introduced in the supplementary images at the altar end of the chapel. Representations of the opposition of pride and humility, and of their paradoxical destinies, the proud to be cast down and the humble to be ex-alted, frame the historical sequence of the Chapel spine, in which those principles are worked out in the story of the two cities.” And: “The spine, the levels on the transverse axes, the relationship of the corners to the central organization – these consti-tute the basic structure of meaning, as well as the decorative organization of the Ceiling.”

15 As Gordon Dotson (1979, 415) points out: “it may be argued with considerable truth that almost any item of Christian doctrine, almost any event of Christian sacred history can be found in almost any Prophet if one searches diligently and construes visions and prophetic language imaginatively [...]. Even though each Prophet can be shown to have made prophecies related to the proposed figurative meanings of the scenes near which he is placed, the relationship may still seem to be accidental, and no more a confirmation of the program than any other set of Prophets in whose writings one might find apparently appropriate texts.” Concerning the Sibyls, see Gordon Dotson 1979, 405-406.

16 See Wind 2000, 133-135.


68 Søren KaSperSen

Thus, Michelangelo’s ceiling decoration became part of a comprehensive program that represents the history of salvation from its beginning to its ends. This seemingly places the paintings in an Augustinian world view, understanding, as told, the universal history as the history of the Church on its pilgrimage in a world of sin. According to this perspective we will now analyse the first ‘chapter’ of the Creation.21

Creation of LightIn the first compartment, we see the Creator di sótto in su, when he enters the space from the left in a complex revolving motion with his mantle of abundant material rotating around him. His arms are raised above his head and he looks upwards toward formations of dark and light clouds that he is about to separate. He seems to push the dark clouds away with his right hand, while his left hand is open with the palm upwards and partly sunk in the light clouds (Fig. 1).

This Creation scene has been connected both with the first two verses of Genesis 1 (“In the beginning God created heaven, and earth. And the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God moved over the waters”),22 with the Creation of Light, and not least with the Separation of Light and Darkness (verse 3-5: “And God said: Be light made. And light was made. And God saw the light that it was good; and he divided the light from the darkness. And he called the light Day, and the darkness Night; and there was evening and morning one day”).23

According to Émile Ollivier we are at the very beginning of the act, when Wisdom (Sapientia) was the only possession of God (cf. Prov. 8, 22-31).24 Other scholars have suggested it is about the emergence of primitive matter25 or about God struggling

a very inventive depiction of Christ’s Ancestors (i.e. according to Matthew 1, 1-17), from the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, once on the altar wall, to Joseph and the Virgin Mary on the entrance wall, depicted in the lunettes uppermost on the walls – originally sixteen with six on each of the long walls and two at each end wall – and in the intersecting cells above, four on each side, corresponding with the large Genesis panels.17 There are not many generations from the last Genesis scene with the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, to Abraham and his descendants. In this sense, then, the genealogic tree continues the chronology from the Genesis series, and it will be argued in a future study that the two first severies in the ceiling depict Ruth (and Boaz) with the son Obed (the father of Jesse) and David as the first green shoot on the stem of Jesse, leading to Mary and Christ. Below this cycle of the Ancestors of Christ other ‘ancestors’ of the Church are preserved between the windows of the chapel, namely 28 canonized popes from the early pre-Constantinian period.18 Thus, the long narrative of the historiae in the ceiling and below on the walls is supplied with rows of imagines in zones between, also representing long periods of the Church’s history.

Finally, each of the five small panels of the Genesis series are accompanied by four ignudi in more-or-less agitated positions. These angels, spirits, or genii together flank and display ten bronze medallions held by silken ribbons and with reliefs showing events from the Maccabees and other books of the Old Testament. Edgar Wind suggested that these different stories represent the Ten Commandments,19 but they rather refer to the Church and its office, underlining the sacramental aspect. Notice e.g. that the ribbons holding the two medallions on either side of the Creation of Eve – representing, as mentioned above, the foundation of the Church – are golden.20

17 The depictions in the two lunettes on the altar wall were destroyed when Michelangelo painted the Last Judgment scene on this wall, but they are known from engravings published in 1823 by William Young Ottley.

18 See Salvini 1965, 31-34, 154-160 (Camesasca), Figs. 17-44. Christ and three popes on the altar wall are lost.

19 Wind 2000, 113-123 + ills.20 I will return to the subject in a future study.21 For a survey of the older history of research on the

Ceiling, see Camesasca 1965, espec. 192ff.22 “In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram. Terra

autem erat inanis et vacua, et tenebrae erant super

faciem abyssi: et spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas.” See Vulgata – here and in the following cited after the Douay-Rheims version on-line, and the English translation on-line.

23 “Dixitque Deus: Fiat lux. Et facta est lux. Et vid-it Deus lucem quod esset bona: et divisit lucem a tenebris. Appellavitque lucem Diem, et tenebras Noctem: factumque est vespere et mane, dies unus.” See Vulgata – the translation of “dies unus” as “one day” is also used by St Augustine, cf. below.

24 Ollivier 1892, 64-65.25 See e.g. Kuhn 1975, 14: “Schwieriger zu verstehen ist,

was Gott hier schafft: eine nebelartige, wolkenartige Masse, die noch keine gestalt hat.” (Cf. Sap. 11, 18).


body Language and TheoLogy in The SiSTine CeiLing 69

Fig. 1. Michelangelo, The Creation of Light, ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, 1508-12 (photo: Archivio Fotografi-co dei Musei Vaticani).

Fig. 2. The Stammheim Missal, fol. 10v, Creation and Fall (photo: J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 64).

Fig. 3. The Malermi Bible, Venice 1490, frontispiece with Creation-scenes (photo: Oxford, The Bodleian Library).


70 Søren KaSperSen

with chaos, extricating himself from primitive matter26 or sweeping over the waters and getting chaos in order.27

The idea of creating order in chaos also has been connected with the Creation of Light. According to Charles Holroyd the panel “represents the creation of light. God separates light from darkness, and brings order out of chaos.”28 Henry Thode named the scene Die Schöpfung der Welt and understood it as “das Scheiden von Licht und Finsternis, das Hervorleuchten des Lichtes aus der Finsternis, Gott ist das Licht und Erzeuger des Lichtes, sein Kleid ist Licht, aus dem Licht geht die Welt hervor und es vernichtet das Chaos, [...].”29 Edgar Wind argued that darkness by Augustine marks the absence of light and that light therefore potentially is present in the darkness which then has to be ”the very place in which primeval light was generated. [...]. God is seen passing through the abyss, almost engulfed in the surrounding chaos from which he elicits light with a Promethean gesture.”30

Otherwise, the general designation of the scene has since the time of Ascanio Condivi and Giorgio Vasari been the Separation of Light and Darkness.31 But the problem is that it is often difficult to decide what exactly is meant by this title. Does it refer to gen. 1, 2-3, i.e. to light coming forth in the darkness, or to gen. 1, 4, i.e. to the separation of light from darkness? Many scholars are seemingly unaware of the importance of the difference, at least they do not reflect on the matter. For example, Loren W. Partridge calls the motif ’The Separation of Light and Darkness’ but later it is said, that God “is supremely creative and potent as he

pushes back the dark to reveal the light within the infinite cosmos.”32 Marie-José Mondzain writes: ”Quand Michel-Ange fait sortir Dieu du chaos, pour rendre hommage au Fiat Lux originaire qui précéda l’ordre des jours, il est un sujet céleste possédé par la violence qui le porte à la hauteur de Dieu.” But the designation of the motif on the plan is ’La séparation de la lumière et des ténèbres’.33

There was during the Middle Ages a strong Augustinian tradition that connected the creation of light with the creation of the angels and the separation of light from darkness with the separation of the good angels from the bad ones, i.e. with the hurling down of Lucifer and his legions from heaven.34 Prideful Lucifer wanted to raise himself to the level of God (cf. Is. 14, 14), but he was defeated and thrown down by the archangel Michael and his adherents (cf. apoc. 12, 7-9; II Petr 2, 4).

Augustine argued that angels exist according to Scripture (cf. psalm 148, 1-5) and that their creation therefore ought to be mentioned during the works of the six days. They may be named ‘heaven’ or ‘light’ and he chose the last possibility.35 They were created before the fourth day, because according to Job the angels praised the Lord with a loud voice when the stars were made (cf. Iob 38, 7).36 Augustine concludes:

There is no question, then, that if the angels are included in the works of God during these six days, they are that light which was called ‘Day’, and whose unity Scripture signalizes by calling that day not the ‘first day’, but ‘one day’.37

26 See Steinmann 1905, 338: “So scheint es, als ringe sich Jehovah erst selber aus dem Chaos los.” De Tol-nay 1945, 40: “God seems to extricate Himself from primitive chaos in a swimming movement.”

27 See Justi 1922, 36-38: “Es ist der Gottessturm (ruach eloim), der uranfänglich über den Gewäs-sern der Tiefen schwebte. [...]; die Gottheit selbst, die aus dem nächtlichen Unbegrenzten hervordrin-gend, sich selbst dem Chaos entringend, das Chaos entwirrt.” See also Montégut 1870, 927: “C’est Dieu qui vient de se débrouillier du chaos; ils est monté des profondeurs de l’infini, [...]; il regarde, et avec son regard la pensée de la création vient d’éclore.”

28 See Holroyd 1903, 170.29 Thode 1912, 311. See also Thode 1908, 295.30 Wind 2000, 68. See also Gamba 1945, xxii; Mariani

1964, 63-64 (“eccezionale immagine dell’Eterno che si muove, quasi danzando, nella materia del Caos.”); Redig de Campos 1971, 9; von Einem 1973, 74;

Mondzain 2006, 123-124; Streffer 2012, 228 (“Wäh-rend die rechte Hand des Schöpfers die Dunkel-heit wie eine Art Urmaterie wegzuschieben scheint, taucht die linke Hand fast in die Lichtwogen hinein, als würde sie dem Licht Formkraft verleihen.”).

31 Condivi 2002, 30; Vasari 2002, 52. Further, see e.g. Hettner 1879, 258-259; Grimm 1890, 292 (“ - - wie er, über dem Wasser schwebend, Licht und Finster-nis auseinanderreißt.”); Bertini 1942, 74; Pfeiffer 2007, 220; Barolsky 2008, 41; Zöllner et al. 2007, 154; Hornemann v. Laer 2009, 150.

32 Partridge 1996, 60.33 Mondzain 2006, 123-124 and 6-7 (plan).34 See Zahlten 1979, 123-128. 35 The City of God, XI, 9 – see Augustinus 1979 and

Augustinus 1955 for the Latin text.36 Augustine interprets ‘filii Dei’ as ‘the angels’.37 The City of God, XI, 9.


body Language and TheoLogy in The SiSTine CeiLing 71

But some of the angels turned away from the light of God.38 Their leader, Lucifer, “refused to submit to his Creator, and proudly exulted as if in a private lordship of his own, and was thus deceived and deceiving.”39 If the angels were created when that first light was made, it is congruous to suppose:

that a separation was made between the holy and the unclean angels, when, as is said, “God divided the light from the darkness; and God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night.” For He alone could make this discrimination, who was able also before they fell, to foreknow that they would fall, and that, being deprived of the light of truth, they would abide in the darkness of pride.40

Finally, it should be noticed according to Augustine, “that when God said, Let there be light, and there was light, it was immediately added, And God saw the light that it was good.” But when He separated the light from the darkness, He did not validate the darkness, i.e. “the light alone received the approbation of the Creator, while the angelic darkness, though it had been ordained, was yet not approved.”41

All this implies that the two actions of the creation have a very different content and meaning, one concentrated on bringing forth the light, the other containing a dramatic opposition and division. Gordon Dotson, who identified the first panel with the Separation of Light and Darkness, was of course aware of this, but she did not substantiate her judgment;42 neither do her followers.43

It remains to try to determine the moment represented by Michelangelo. Unfortunately,

the earlier iconography for depiction of the beginning of creation is not very clarifying.44 The Creation of Light may be represented as a single bright disk or as a group or choir of angels, and the Separation of Light and Darkness as a disk divided horizontally into a dark and white half or as the Fall of the Rebellious Angels.45 It may be mentioned that in one of the examples, in the Michelbeuern Walther Bible from 1125-1150, the lower, dark half of such a disk is designated as the abyss by a now fainted figure (Abyssus) and by the dove of the Holy Spirit hovering above. But at the same time, the disk represents darkness separated from light, since the Creator is accompanied by two angels already created.46

Another interesting representation can be seen in the Stammheim Missal, probably made in 1170s at St Michael’s Abbey at Hildesheim. In this instance, the first day of creation is represented as a disk divided vertically and surrounded by an inscription: fiat lux et facta est lux (Fig. 2). A superimposed rosette of blue rays is perhaps meant to indicate the process of light coming forth; darkness is not mentioned.47 Closer in time to Michelangelo, and a plausible source of inspiration, is the so-called Malermi Bible, an Italian Bible translation published in Venice 1471 and onwards. In 1490 appeared a richly illustrated version with a frontispiece with woodcuts showing the six days of Creation, and the picture of the first day is divided in a bright and dark half along a sloping, wavy line. God stands frontally on the ‘waters’ with a blessing gesture and points towards the bright area. It most likely, then, represents the Creation of Light (Fig. 3).48

The Division of Light and Darkness may also be shown as two different disks – in the

38 See ibid. XI, 11.39 Ibid. XI, 13.40 Ibid. XI, 19.41 Ibid. XI, 20.42 See Gordon Dotson 1979, 224, 227 and espec. 235:

“The first scene of Creation on the Sistine Ceiling corresponds, furthermore, to the first appearance of the two cities at the beginning of time, since Augustine understands the creation of light as the creation of angels, and the separation of light from darkness as the division between the holy and the rebellious angels.” I think her reading is hampered by her idea that the event on the figurative level shall designate the Last Judgment – cf. below.

43 Partridge 1996, 42; Hall & Okamura 2002, 25, 74 (“With his arm he [the Creator] pushes back the darkness

and the light rolls in like clouds. [...]: he [Augustine] understood the creation of light to be the creation of the good angels, and the creation [sic!] of the dark to be the creation [sic!] of the demonic angels.”); Gill 2005, 191: “and it [the idea of the two cities] is man-ifest in the primal opposition of light and dark in the Separation of Light [sic!], whence the two cities origi-nated and the rebel angels were cast out.”

44 See Zahlten 1979, 102ff., espec. 119-133. See also Wind 2000, 75, n. 60.

45 In manuscripts with Bible Moralisée the meaning of the different iconographies is explained through legends. See Christe 1999, 179.

46 Zahlten 1979, 120, figs. 109, 201. 47 Ibid. 120; Teviotdale 2003, 80ff.48 See Strachan 1957, 25-35; Wind 2000, 77. The


72 Søren KaSperSen

Cotton Genesis tradition – or as two different personifications, often in (mandorla-like) aureoles – in the Roman tradition.49 In both cases inscriptions like ‘Lux’ and ‘Tenebras’ may accentuate the meaning.

Michelangelo’s panel contains the same elements as the examples considered – light and darkness and an element of chaos. Yet, a crucial difference is the staging of the Creator. Significantly, as Jacob Burckhardt observed in his Cicerone of 1855, Michelangelo’s God creates through movement rather than simple gesture – an expressive depiction that was to become normative.50 An earlier example of a floating Creator is depicted in the Bible of Niccolò III d’Este of Ferrara, made 1434 by Luchino Belbello da Pavia. On fol. 2v a miniature depicts the foreshortened Creator in a calm movement through a red, glowing space, “accompanied by angels represented as small explosions of light.” His left hand is turned downward and, most likely, pushes back a dark area below him, while his right hand is outstretched in an approving gesture of the red area. Rather than a separation of light and darkness, we see (red) light and angels coming forth simultaneously from the dark.51

Because of the strong movements in the Sistine Ceiling one may be tempted to talk about a dramatic division of light and darkness. Edgar Wind refers to “a tempestuous drama” and “an elemental battle” explained by “Augustine’s theory that the first light was drawn from the Abyss: thus, a suggestion of Chaos as the original place for the creation of light, might account for the Creator’s contorted immersion into the recalcitrant substance he is about to split.” Furthermore, the Creator’s violence was perhaps “meant to suggest a spiritual division between angelic and demonic forces ‘at the very moment when the first light was made.’”52

But Michelangelo’s use of a serpentine-like figure most likely depends on an urgent desire to express the creative force needed by God at the beginning of his great work.53 As mentioned above, both Condivi and Vasari designate the scene as the Separation of Light and Darkness,54 but Vasari’s apt characterization of the Creator rather indicates the motif to be the Creation of Light:

Besides this, in order to display the perfection of art and also the greatness of God, he painted in a scene God Dividing Light from Darkness, wherein may be seen His Majesty as He rests self-sustained with the arms outstretched, and reveals both love and power (e mostra amore insieme ed artifizio).55

Vasari thus interprets God’s appearance and gestures as an expression of love and powerful skill, not of dramatic expulsion. The Creator’s hand pushing aside the black clouds is not marked by divine anger but more by tender feelings (Fig. 4). One may further notice, that the white clouds are about to fill the whole space and that even the darkness seems to be inoculated with reddish sparks from the whirling mantle.56 Of course, the Separation of Light and Darkness is easily present in the scene through allusion.57 In any case, Michelangelo seemingly uses the four ignudi around the panel to extend the narrative to the whole of the first day of Creation by referring to the words framing it: “In the beginning God created heaven, and earth. [...]; and there was evening and morning one day” (gen. 1, 1-5). The two contrasting figures beneath the floating Creator, then, signify Heaven and Earth: the one a perfect representative of the intellectual sphere, pensive and leaning back in an olympic attitude, the other in an Atlas-like

woodcuts in the Malermi Bible obviously inspired Michelangelo’s design of the bronze medallions, see Wind 2000, 113ff.

49 See Weitzmann & Kessler 1986; Kessler 1989.50 See Burckhardt 1927, 826: “Zuerst unter allen

Künstlern faßte Michelangelo die Schöpfung nicht als ein bloßes Wort mit der Gebärde des Segens, sondern als Bewegung.” See also Panofsky 1921, 7-8.

51 Bibl. Apost. Vat., Ms. Barb. lat. 613. See Gill 2005, 186, Pl. VII.

52 Wind 2000, 72 and 77.53 See Summers 1972; Maurer 2001, 21-79; Edwards

2013.54 See also Condivi 2002, 30: “Adunque nel vano pri-

mo nella testata di sopra, il quale è dei minori, si vede in aria l’omnipotente Iddio, che col moto delle braccia divide la luce dalle tenebre.” English ver-sion, Condivi 1976, 42.

55 Vasari 1996, 2, 670. Italian text 1568, see ed. 2002, 52: “Senzaché egli, per mostrare la perfezione dell’arte e la grandezza di Dio, fece nelle istorie il suo dividere la luce dalle tenebre, nelle quale si vede la Maestà sua che con le braccia aperte si sostiene sopra sé solo e mostra amore insieme ed artifizio [that may mean ‘skill as author’].”

56 Pointed out by Streffer 2012, 228, 230, ill. 229. See also Streffer in note 30 above.

57 Cf. Edgar Wind above (note 52).


body Language and TheoLogy in The SiSTine CeiLing 73

Fig. 4. Michelangelo, The Cre-ation of Light – detail, ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, 1508-12 (photo: Archivio Fotogra-fico dei Musei Vaticani).

Fig. 5. Michelangelo, The Creation of Sun and Moon – The Fall of Lucifer, ceiling of the Sistine Cha-pel, 1508-12 (photo: Archivio Fotografico dei Musei Vaticani).


74 Søren KaSperSen

pose, carrying a heavy garland of oaks with a golden cloth as cover.58 On the other side of the panel, the female-like figure to the right with (almost) closed eyes and blue draperies may represent evening, while the opposite figure, awakening, seated on a pink bundle of clothes but about to rise may express the dawn of the day. In this way, Michelangelo stages and frames the Beginning, the first and one day (dies unus) signified by the light coming forth.

Creation of Sun and MoonIn the next large panel the floating God Father enters from the right, and he is seemingly depicted twice – on both occasions in vigorous movement. In his first appearance, his arms are outstretched; the left hand points toward a pale disk of the moon behind him while the right one point forwards, where the larger part of a shining sun disk can be seen (Fig. 5). We obviously witness the creation of sun and moon. The Creator is accompanied by four angels or genii and they have convincingly been related to the four times of the day: dawn and noon on his right side, evening and night on his left.59 They are the angels Augustine called ‘day’, the ‘one day’ (dies unus), signifying the immaterial light because they “were created partakers of the eternal light which is the unchangeable Wisdom of God, by which all things were made, and whom we call the only-begotten Son of God; [...].”60 And the knowledge of the created things contemplated in the wisdom of God marks the different days of this ‘one day’, e.g. “the

knowledge of the greater and less luminaries, and all the stars” through “praise and love of the Creator” is the fourth day.61 We shall later see that Michelangelo uses the genii to comment on the event in a similar way.

As Carl Justi observed long ago, the Creator is entirely different from the figure in the first panel:

Der Blick ist zornig, flammend, wie das feurige Wesen dieser Himmelskörper; die tief gefurchte Stirn, das finster umwölkte Auge, die zurückwallenden Haare, die schwellenden Nüstern drücken sie zum Affekt gesteigerte Willenskraft aus.62

One may ask what the grounds are for this extreme outburst of divine power and anger, since the normal iconography just shows a Creator who fastens or has fastened sun and moon on heaven or a (starry) firmament.63 One should expect a Creator being content with his embellishment of the universe.64 Still, only a few scholars have addressed the problem.65 Thus, for example, Hermann Fillitz has suggested that the placing of sun and moon is used to expose through gestures the separation of day and night, of real light and darkness.66 And according to Frederick Hartt, God the Father resembles his crucified Son with his outstretched arms, which means that “God himself can suffer. His tragic expression reflects premonition of the impending sacrifice of the Incarnate Word.”67

Esther Gordon Dotson has proposed a more complex explanation, one that is

58 Edgar Wind with his gloomy understanding of the panel conceives the figure to be a mirror image of Lucifer – see Wind 2000, 77-78. The medallions will be treated in a future study.

59 See Thode 1908, 300.60 The City of God, XI, 9, see Augustinus 1979. Trying

to understand what the mention of evening and morning (gen. 1, 5) may mean before the creation of sun and moon Augustine argues for a cognitive explanation: “For the knowledge of the creature is, in comparison of the knowledge of the Creator, but a twilight; and so it dawns and breaks into morning when the creature is drawn to the praise and love of the Creator; [...]” (XI, 7). Later Augustine argues that the holy angels, as created beings “know themselves better in God than in themselves, [...]. In Him, there-fore, they have, as it were, a noonday knowledge; in themselves, a twilight knowledge, [...]” (XI, 29). Then, not only evening and morning but also evening and noon may represent the two levels of knowledge.

61 Ibid. XI, 7, cf. note 59.

62 Justi 1900, 38.63 See Zahlten 1979, 174ff.64 Cf. Hartt 1990b, 245: “si attenderebbe un’espressio-

ne soddisfatta per la Creazione delle luminarie del firmamento.”

65 Leading scholars like Steinmann 1905, 336-337; Thode 1908, 298-299; Thode 1912, 312, and De Tolnay 1945, 38 just follow Justi. Sometimes Biblical citations are used to explain the characterization of the Creator, see e.g. Kuhn 1975, 18-19.

66 Fillitz 1981; Fillitz 1985 – cf. below (note 81). Str-effer 2012, 236-237 also thinks that God is about to assign sun and moon their right places: “Dafür spricht das vorübergehende Innehalten des Schöp-fers, das sich in der Gegenbewegung des Körpers zeigt, ferner die zusammengezogenen Augenbrau-en wie auch der gebieterische Blick, der dem rech-ten Arm folgt. Das alles drückt eine gesteigerte Wil-lenskraft aus.”

67 Hartt 1964, 116; Hartt 1990b, 245. He further states: “Non è facile infatti determinare se l’espres-


body Language and TheoLogy in The SiSTine CeiLing 75

connected with the second episode in the panel which Condivi described at some length:

In this same space, at the left side, God appears again, turning to create the grasses and the plants on earth, executed with such great artistry that, wherever you turn, He seems to follow you, showing His whole back down to the soles of His feet, a very beautiful thing, which demonstrates what foreshortening can do.68

The normal interpretation of the scene is that it – as Condivi says – represents the Creation of the Plants, the act of the third day followed by the Creation of Sun and Moon on the fourth day. Read from left to right, the narrative follows chronologically, but the opposite flow of movement in space complicates the reading. While Condivi and some follower admired the foreshortening of the figure, others noticed and lamented its lacking decorum, i.e. the (almost) bare buttocks of the Creator.69 One of the earliest accounts by Hermann Hettner states that:

Michelangelo’s Gottesgestalt ist bindend geblieben für alle Folgezeit. Um so ärgerlicher ist die Geschmacklosigkeit, daß im zweiten Schöpfungsbild die Rückseite des machtvoll dahinschwebenden Gottes völlig enthüllt ist”70

Gordon Dotson and others have explained the unusual feature with a reference to Moses, who wanted to see Yahweh in his glory, but the Lord answered: “Thou canst not see my face: for man shall not see me, and live.” Yet, he makes a promise to Moses: “Behold there is a place with me, and thou shalt stand upon the rock. And when my glory shall pass, I will set thee in a hole of the rock, and protect thee

with my right hand till I pass: And I will take away my hand, and thou shalt see my back parts (et videbis posteriora mea): but my face thou canst not see” (exod. 33, 18-23).71

The reference is understandable but also problematic, since the meaning, of course, is not that the Creator will show Moses his bare buttocks but only that Moses will be allowed to see him from the back. In any case Gordon Dotson read the whole composition in the Augustinian – and Ambrosian – tradition: the moon is the Church, who “possesses no light of her own but derives her light from the only-begotten Son of God,” i.e. the sun. The pilgrimage of Ecclesia in this world ”may be dark and troubled,” and she, the Church, will only reflect Christ fully at his Second Coming. This is also made clear by the foreshortened figure, because when God only allowed Moses to see his posteriora it was according to Augustine’s De Trinitate, a prefiguration of “our Lord Jesus Christ” and means that as long as Christ is absent and we “walk by faith and not by sight, we must see the back parts of Christ, i.e. his flesh.”72 Only later we will be able to see the full face of his glory.

According to Gordon Dotson, the panel with the Creation of Sun and Moon therefore reveals

on the left the limited vision of God [i.e. from the back] granted the Church in this present age; on the right the Second Coming when she [the Church] will see Christ face to face and will be like him.73

Gordon Dotson aimed to further support this allegorical reading with a reference to Egidio da Viterbo’s Sententiae: the forest visible on the segment of the earth in the lower, left corner of the panel is a metaphor for “the shadowy forest of the world of

sione agitata della fronte e il tremendo roteare degli occhi denotino ira o tragedia o entrambe...”

68 Condivi 1976, 42; cf. Condivi 2002, 30.69 A thin veil may be imagined as a covering, cf. Stref-

fer 2012, 236.70 Hettner 1879, 259.71 See Justi 1900, 39; Kuhn 1975, 20; Gordon Dot-

son 1979, 245; Wallace 1998, 159; Hall 2002, 68; Pfeiffer 2007, 220; Streffer 2012, 236. Cf. also a meditation on the figure by Joachim Cardinal Meis-ner: “Das Erstaunllche an dieser Rückenansicht des Schöpfers besteht darin, dass der Künstler fast der Versuchung erlegen ist, Gott als Ebenbild des Menschen darzustellen. Der Schöpfer zeigt dem

Betrachter sein entblößtes Hinterteil [...]. Der Maler war von der Fleischwerdung Gottes in Jesus Chri-stus so durchdrungen, dass er im Schöpfungsbild des Alten Bundes die menschliche Fleischlichkeit [...] gleichsam als Lobpreis Gottes demonstrativ ins Licht rückt.” Prause 2002, 48-49.

72 De Trinitate, II, xvii, 28: “Thus the back parts are taken to be his flesh, in which he was born of the Virgin and rose again, whether they are called the back parts (posteriora) because of the posteriority of his mortal nature, or because he deigned to take it near the end of the world, that is, at a later period (posterius).” Cit. after Gordon Dotson 1979, 245.

73 Ibid.


76 Søren KaSperSen

sense”, which “obscures our vision of the heavens.”74 This earth, opposite the moon, becomes for Gordon Dotson the “earth, from which the Church turns away in order fully to reflect her Lord.” Finally: “the pale lighted face of the moon,” which “repeats the shape of the glowing sun” at the centre of the panel indicates that “the Church fully reflects the light of Christ, appearing with him in glory of the Second Coming.”75

This extended and erudite interpretation is unsatisfactory, I think, measured by the artistic and expressive idiom of the panel. How are we able to connect God the Father’s outburst of anger with the Second Coming – of Christ! How are we able to judge that the pale moon now fully reflects the radiance of the sun or is in moral opposition to the earth with its green plants? Is it not better to try to follow the dramatic action across the panel and to find an explanation of the figure to the left that is not only based on the possibility of a highly personal and jocular understanding of posteriora by Michelangelo?76 The retreating figure has long been seen in opposition to the Creator, as a figure of chaos – Lucifer himself. In 1858 an anonymous writer states in The Quarterly Review:

We cannot admit that in the first [sic!] compartment (in the Biblical order), where the Almighty with extended arms appears supported by cherubs, creating the sun and the moon, the single unattended figure on his right, seen entirely from behind from the back of the head to the soles of the feet, was really intended for ‘il medesimo Iddio’, in the act of creating the earth. [...]. Nothing, indeed, could be more repulsive

to all feelings of reverence and propriety than to identify either the form of the Almighty, or the solemn act of creation, with the back view of a figure expressing nothing but haste and discomfiture, and in that sense only magnificently rendered.77

More recently, in 1966-67, Paolino Mingazzini similarly identified the figure as Lucifer. He finds the appearance unseemly (“la posa oltremodo sconveniente”) as a representation of the Lord or divine beings at all and also improper according to the sacred space. Furthermore, the clouded face and the gestures of the Creator are unjustified (“ingiustificato”) in a situation that does not call for effort (“un essere, cui nulla richiede uno sforzo”) and where everything should be serene (“dal momento che tutto era buono”). But all this is explained if one understands the figure as Lucifer (“lo spirito del Male”) moving through the air as a swimmer in water, aiming to take the earth in possession by the gesture of his right hand (“la mano destra si volge verso la terra, nella volontà di prenderne possesso”).78

The response to Mingazzini’s interpretation has been sparse and negative.79 Even so, his theory is supported by other features. Some scholars have noted that the Creator to the right does not in fact, point at the sun.80 According to Hermann Fillitz the hand of God is in front of the disc, and his whole appearance signifies that he is about to create order, i.e. to separate day and night, light and darkness. His hands, therefore, point at the final location of the sun and the moon.81 Still, the Creator’s right hand may just as well point at the back-turned figure to the left as already indicated by Quatremere

74 Ibid. note 116.75 Ibid. 245.76 According to e.g. Pfeiffer 2007, 220 this figure rep-

resents Michelangelo’s own creative imagination at work, triggered by the word posteriora. Cf. Streffer 2012, 236.

77 Anonymous 1858, 457. Cf. citation from Hettner 1879 above (note 70). Thode 1908, 297 rejects the idea of Quincy and the Anonymous: “Diese An-nahme erscheint ausgeschlossen, denn 1. haben wir die beachtenswerten Aussagen der beiden al-ten Biographen, 2. würde Michelangelo doch si-cher dem Chaos nicht genau die gleiche Gestalt und Gewandung wie Gottvater gegeben haben, 3. wäre doch nicht der gleiche helle Himmelshinter-grund auch für die “Nacht” beibehalten, 4. ist die Scheidung von Hell und Dunkel im ersten Fresko dargestellt, und 5. bezeichnen, wie wir gleich sehen

werden, Sonne und Mond Tag und Nacht.”78 Mingazzini 1966-67.79 See e.g. Kuhn 1975, 19, n. 17. Sinding-Larsen (1969,

149, n. 2) calls the theory “unconvincing” without any arguments.

80 According to Hornemann v. Laer 2009, 136 the forefinger’s relation to the disc cannot be deter-mined. “Eine eindeutige Bestimmung der Aktion Gottvaters in Bezug auf die Sonne ist demzufolge ausgeschlossen” (p. 142). He proposes at the end a new, problematic title for the panel: “Die Doppel-präsenz Gottvaters im Zwischenbereich von Son-ne, Mond und Erde” (p. 143).

81 Fillitz 1985, 402: “Der Platz der Sonnenscheibe ist Michelangelos Vorstellung nach der Punkt, von dem sie sich durch Gottes Befehl weg nach vorne links bewegen soll – seine weisende Hand ist vor der Schei-be und deutet auf ein anderes Ziel.” Cf. Fillitz 1981,


body Language and TheoLogy in The SiSTine CeiLing 77

de Quincy in 1835: “Dans la second [scène], le Père éternel est vu soutenu ou accompagné par de petits anges, et chassant le genie du chaos.”82

Furthermore, the presence of angels/genii attending the Creator to the right and their absence at the back-turned figure to the left also is a stiff explainable feature for scholars who understand this figure as God the Father pure and simple.83 Finally, the appearance of angels/genii in the second panel while they are absent in the first panel strengthens the idea that the beginning with light coming out of darkness is not meant to expose the separation of the good and evil angels – but that it was a theme yet to be treated.84

Therefore, the relation between the two main figures in the panel: the ambiguous pointing gesture of God the Father to the right, and the obvious differences between them: bare buttocks and the absence of genii to the left, may well lead to the conclusion that together they represent the Fall of Lucifer, i.e. the Separation of Light and Darkness. Thus, one also has a simple explanation of the body language in the staging of the panel.

The main objection to this thesis is, of course, that it is improper to depict Lucifer/Satan in the likeness of God.85 But Lucifer wanted to raise to the likeness of God (ero similis Altissimo – Is. 14: 14) and Michelangelo generally likes to play with the opposition between good and evil making their representations very alike. In the large panel with the Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve he depicts the Devil in the guise of a female serpent very similar to the punishing angel – the first one ‘naked’, the second in a red cloak and floating. Likewise, the two large spandrels at the altar wall represent a prefiguration of

Christ’s crucifixion – the Brazen Serpent – opposite a real crucifixion of an evil figure – the Crucifixion of Haman.86 The ‘good’ crucifixion is depicted on the same side of the ceiling as the will-determined Creator in our panel while the ‘evil’ crucifixion is behind to the back-turned figure. But its main figure, Haman, resembles the ‘good’ Creator through his outstretched arms.

In sum, it seems very likely that the back-turned figure refers to Lucifer. Yet, one question remains: how one understands the gesture of the figure’s right hand. As noted above, Mingazzini refers to a figure who wants to take the earth in possession, whereas Charles de Tolnay thinks that the figure’s hand is “extended in a hesitating movement”.87 In any case, the figure does not seem to tumble downwards toward the earth in the manner of the Devil on Master Bertram’s so-called Grabower Altar.88 It is rather a flying figure,89 and if one compares it with the Creator in the next compartment the gesture of the right hand may well be understood as a creative one.90 Therefore, the possibility remains that the back-turned figure in fact is the Creator, but that Michelangelo has done as much as he could to make it allude to Lucifer driven away from heaven towards the earth.

Yet, balancing things against each other, it makes better sense to understand the figure as Lucifer. In that context, there is no longer any problem of chronology in the panel, the green earth no longer refers to the third day of creation but to the Earth opposite Heaven (cf. gen. 1, 1), body language and facial expression fit with the event, and the scene can unproblematically be read from the right to the left as movements strongly indicate.

331-332: “Die Geste des von rechts heranbrausenden Schöpfergottes ist als ordnungsschaffend zu erklären, indem die angehobene beleuchtete Rechte der Son-ne ihren Platz zuweist, während der ausgestreckte völlig beschattete linke Arm offenkundig den Mond wegweisen soll.” Fillitz also states that “die Geste des Schöpfergottes bei Michelangelo ist sicherlich als Scheidung von Licht und Finsternis zu deuten, in der befehlenden Art des Ausdrucks und in der Verschie-denheit der Beleuchtung der beiden Arme Gottes, die Handlung dagegen wäre die Fixierung von Sonne und Mond am Himmel” (p. 332). He clearly rejects Mingazzini’s theory (Fillitz 1985, 402-403)

82 De Quincy 1835, 66.83 See Kuhn 1975, 17, note ‘h’; Fillitz 1981, 331-332;

Streffer 2012, 236.84 Cf. Justi 1900, 42: “Merkwürdig: im Anfang der

Fahrt sind sie [die Engel] noch nicht da, erst bei der

dritten Erscheinung (auf dem zweiten Bilde) zeigen sie sich. [...]. Es ist die Geburt der Sonne, der Au-genblick ihres Aufleuchtens, wo sie [die Engel] aus dem Dunkel jener göttlichen Hülle hervortreten. Das ’Werde’ ist zu ihren Ohren gedrungen: [...].”

85 See Kuhn 1975, 19, n.17: ”die Deutung der linken Figur als Luzifer” would be more alarming than a Creator with bare buttocks, “indem Michelange-lo dann Luzifer anschaulich zu einem Äquivalent Gottes gestaltet hätte: [...].”

86 See Wind 1937; Wind 2000, 36-41.87 De Tolnay 1945, 38.88 See Kaspersen 1993, 9ff., fig. 7.89 De Tolnay 1945, 38 talks about “the silhouette of a

heavily falling body, but the flowing mantle indicates that he continues His flight through the air.”

90 Cf. e.g. Steinmann 1905, 36; Spahn 1907, 112, 114; Bertini 1942, 74.


78 Søren KaSperSen

Michelangelo’s concept of letting the Creation of Sun and Moon expose the Separation of Light and Darkness following gen. 1, 4 may have originated in The City of God. Here Augustine claims that only God could make the discrimination between light and darkness, i.e. between the good and evil angels, he “who was able also before they fell, to foreknow that they would fall, and that, being deprived of the light of truth, they would abide in the darkness of pride.” This is made intelligible for us on the fourth day of creation:

For, so far as regards the day and night, with which we are familiar, He commanded those luminaries of heaven that are obvious to our senses to divide between the light and the darkness. “Let there be,” He says, “lights in the firmament of the heaven, to divide the day from the night; [...].” And God set them in the firmament of the heaven, to give light upon the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness.91

The articulation of the four genii may also, in Augustinian terms, signify different relations to light and darkness on a cognitive and moral level. Condivi noticed that one of the small angels “draws close to his Creator as if to protect himself from the evil influence of the moon,”92 and Charles de Tolnay’s analysis supports this interpretation.93 What it fears is shown by the genius behind, who with its upturned face sinks into darkness and does not look at the Creator. As a representation of night, it signifies, according to St. Augustine, on the spiritual level the condition when the Creator is “forsaken through love of the creature (“creaturae dilectione”).” Opposite the upward-looking dawn, then, represents the creature that “is drawn to the praise and love of the Creator.” And as the evening has

to hide itself from the moon, dawn has to protect the eyes from the light of the sun. Finally, noon or day, in contrast to the night, is nearly fully exposed and looks towards the Father, perhaps alluding to his Son. This genius then, represents a “knowledge of created things [...] contemplated in the wisdom of God”, and its right hand turning downwards may signify insight into what is going on.94

A final argument in support of our case may be Raphael’s reception of the Sistine iconography evident when he painted his Biblia with a Creation series in the Vatican Loggias.95 First, Raphael here combined Michelangelo’s creator with outstretched arms with the first Creation scene in the Sistine chapel to illustrate the Separation of Light and Darkness. Secondly, he depicted a flying Creator seen from behind, but decently dressed, to place sun and moon in heaven. These changes may be regarded as playful corrections, but they may just as well express a deep understanding of Michelangelo’s intentions.96

God Moving over the Gathered Waters – Blessing of the Sea.In the third panel, the direction of motion has changed again, and the Creator enters from the left, in frontal foreshortening, floating above an even surface of water, flanked by two genii and with a third one almost hidden in the depth of his helical cloak (Fig. 6). Once more, an unusual iconography gives rise to uncertainties about what is really happening. The scene has been connected both with the Spirit of God Moving upon the Face of the Waters (gen. 1, 2),97 the Division of the Waters Under the Vault from the Waters Above (gen. 1, 6-7),98 the Division of the Lower Waters from the Dry Land (gen. 1, 9-10)99 – i.e. also the Gathering of the Waters,100 and finally, with God Letting the Waters be Alive with a Swarm of Living Creatures (gen. 1, 20-22).101 As a consequence, some scholars accept different events to be

91 The City of God, XI, 19 – see Augustinus 197992 Condivi 1976, 42 – cf. Condivi 2002, 30.93 Thode 1908, 300.94 For the citations and the general thinking, see The

City of God, XI, 7, Augustinus 1979. See also note 60 above. Pfeiffer 2007, 215 thinks that the nude boy “whose head bumps up against the disk of the sun can only be God the Son, the sol iustitiae” (cf. Mal. 4, 2). This idea is unfortunately followed by free speculations on the other genii.

95 See Wind 2000, espec. 69-70, figs. 69-72 and Dacos 2008, 139, tavv. 99-102.

96 Wind 2000, 69 talks about “biblical drôleries.”97 See e.g. Hettner 1879, 256; von Euw 1992, 35;

Wind 2000, 64. See also De Tolnay 1945, 38; Hall 2002, 64.

98 See e.g. Lange 1919; De Tolnay 1945, 37-38; O’Malley 1986, 136f.; De Vecchi 1994, 168; Hornemann v. Laer 2009, 125 (Scheidung von Himmel und Wasser); Pfeiffer 2007, 214-215; Streffer 2012, 240-243.

99 See Vasari 2002, 52; Gamba 1945, xxi.100 See Holroyd 1903, 171; Hartt 1964, 114; 1990a, 5.

See also Gordon Dotson 1979, 238. 101 See Condivi 2002, 30; Steinmann 1905, 335; Thode


body Language and TheoLogy in The SiSTine CeiLing 79

represented in the scene.102 Gordon Dotson leans towards the

identification already given by Condivi, namely that the scene depicts God Commanding the Waters to Bring Forth Life on the fifth day (gen. 1, 20), not least because it makes the event fit into the chronologic scheme.103 It is very possible that the panel contains this moment, but Michelangelo obviously does not show the result of the act.104 He may have wanted to stage other meanings not yet revealed.

In any case, water is the crux of the scene and Michelangelo may have been inspired

by the above-mentioned frontispiece in the Malermi Bible, where, on the second day, over half of the scene is filled with slightly undulating waters being blessed by the Creator, while the upper waters are not see (Fig. 3). In fact, both the upper and lower waters may be represented in the Sistine panel: an area with a compact blue colour is visible in the upper corner to the left, demarcated by a clear line towards a white heaven turning to a light greyish colour in this upper zone.105 But the Creator’s full attention is on the greyish ocean beneath him, raising at least his right hand in

1908, 303-304; Thode 1912, 315-316; Justi 1922, 39; von Einem 1973, 73; Hall 2002, 64. Some au-thors even designate it as the Creation of the Ani-mals as such: Mackowsky 1908, 82; Bertini 1942, 72; Mondzain 2006, 111.

102 See e.g. Partridge 1996, 46.103 Gordon Dotson 1979, 236, 238: “Within the scheme

of the City of God and in Augustine’s treatises on Genesis, however, the order of occurrence within the biblical account of Creation has been shown to be highly significant.” She uses the categories of Augustine’s De Genesi ad litteram as a comprehensive frame for the understanding of the structure of the series of Creation scenes: the spiritual [1st day] and corporeal worlds, the corporeal world’s two visible parts, the heavens and the earth [2nd and 3rd day], and their immobile and mobile elements [3rd/4th to 6th day], but they do not really fit in with Michelan-gelo’s inventions, especially not the parts about the immobile and mobile creations.

104 For an explanation of the missing animals, see

von Einem 1973, 73: ‘Erschaffung der im Meere wohnenden Tiere’ – “Condivis Deutung leuchtet am meisten ein. Daß Michelangelo – gegen die Bildüberlieferung – allein das Meer dargestellt hat, ist gerade bei ihm, der sich auf das Notwendigste beschränkte und auf alles Außermenschliche fast ganz verzichtete, nicht verwunderlich. Ihm lag ein-zig an dem Vorgang des Schaffens.”

105 The area with a darker blue colour is pointed out by de Vecchi 1994, 168 – cited by Streffer 2012, 240. At the same time, Streffer draws attention to three zones in the panel: “ein sehr breites weißli-ches großes Mittelfeld für das Firmament oder das Gewölbe, ein schmales dunkel-graues Band an un-teren Rand des Bildes für die Wasser unterhalb und ein breiteres hellgraues für die Wasser oberhalb des Gewölbes.” (p. 242, cf. p. 240). But the relation be-tween the blue and pale grey area in the upper zone is not clarified. The clear demarcation may signify that the blue area/the upper waters belong to an-other sphere, while the pale grey area is the visible

Fig. 6. Michelangelo, The Gathering of Wa-ters, ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, 1508-12 (photo: Archivio Fotografico dei Musei Vaticani).


80 Søren KaSperSen

a blessing gesture above it.106 The staging of the act may therefore also correspond with the gathering of waters on the third day:

God also said: Let the waters that are under the heaven, be gathered together into one place: and let the dry land appear. And it was so done. And God called the dry land, Earth; and the gathering together of the waters, he called Seas (congregationesque aquarum appellavit maria). And God saw that it was good (gen. 1, 9-10).

It is worth noting that the Vulgata calls the ocean (“mare”) “maria,” and it may have been quite easy for the contemporary viewer to connect the sea, as the ‘congregation’ of the waters, with Ecclesia personified by Mary.107 In any case, Basilius the Great in his fourth sermon on Hexaemeron compares the seas in which God found pleasure, with the congregated prayers of the church members.108 Ambrosius is certainly on the same line in his Hexaemeron, when he writes:

How is it possible for one to comprehend all the beauty of the sea a beauty beheld by the Creator? Why say more? What else is that melodic sound of the waves if not the melody of the people? Hence the sea is often well compared to a church which ‘disgorges’ a tide through all its vestibules at the first array of the approaching congregation; then as the whole people unite in prayer, there is a hiss of receding waves; the echo of the psalms when sung in responsive harmony by men and women, maidens and children is like the sound of

breaking waves. Wherefore, what need I say of this water other than it washes away sin and that the salutary breath of the Holy Spirit is found in it?109

Gordon Dotson’s analysis admittedly assigns a very different figurative meaning to the sea. In her scheme, it corresponds to the time of the Church, but she focusses on its pilgrimage in a “wicked world as though in a flood” and claims that the seas in Augustine’s writings most often stand for the secular world (saeculum).110 The ocean, then, should signify troubled times, but the visible features in the Sistine panel does not support this reading. On the contrary, the Creator blesses the calm waters.

Michelangelo’s iconography with the floating figure of the Creator obviously alludes to the very beginning of Creation when “the spirit of God moved over the waters” (et spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas).111 In his Confessions Augustine reflects frequently on the allegorical and spiritual meanings of the creation, not least its beginning. The earth, that is, the Church was then invisible and unformed, and its members were covered with the darkness of ignorance. “But because thy Spirit was moving over these waters, thy mercy did not forsake our wretchedness, and thou saidst, “Let there be light; repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” [cf. Matt. 4, 17].” 112

Here, in his Confessions, he also draws a picture of the Church in connection with the creatures coming forth from the waters:

Also let the sea conceive and bring forth your works, and let the waters bear the

heaven saturated by humidity from the seas.106 The left hand is totally repainted.107 The Franciscan Bernardinus De’ Busti writes in a

sermon on Mare Magnum Beatae Marie Virginis, pub-lished 1502: “It is said that Mary is represented by the congregation of the waters, as in the first book of Genesis, because in her congregate all graces.” See Butler 2009, 265.

108 See Basil 1963, 64-65: “A pleasant sight, indeed, is a whitened sea, when settled calm possesses it; and pleasant also when, ruffled on the surface by gen-tle breezes, [...], when it does not beat violently the neighboring land, but, as it were, kisses it with peace-ful embraces. // And why is it possible for me to see with minuteness all the beauty of the sea as it ap-peared to the eye of the Creator? If the sea is good and an object of praise to God, surely, the gather-ing of such a Church as this is more beautiful, from which there is sent out in our prayers to God the

mingled voice of men and women and children, as of some wave beating upon the shore. A deep calm preserves it unshaken, since the spirits of evil are not able to disturb it with heretical teachings.”

109 Hexaemeron, III, 23: see Ambrosius 1961, 84. Cf. Hartt 1964, 114.

110 Gordon Dotson 1979, 243-44. Yet, she also in note 112 stresses the many possible meanings of the waters.

111 gen. 1, 2. Lange 1919, 2 states: “Die starke Ver-kürzung Jehovas, die ruhige feierliche Bewegung seiner Arme, die Bauschung seines Mantels und die drei schwebenden und tragenden Putten, al-les das hilft dazu, die Illusion des Schwebens her-vorzubringen. Schweben zusammen mit der mächtigen Körperlichkeit des Schöpfers ist der eigentliche Inhalt des Bildes. Oder besser gesagt: in dieser Illusion haben wir die künstlerische Absicht seines Urhebers zu erkennen.”

112 Confessions, XIII, xii, 13. See Augustinus 1995.


body Language and TheoLogy in The SiSTine CeiLing 81

moving creatures that have life. [...]. For, by the ministry of thy holy ones, the mysteries (sacraments) have made their way amid the buffeting billows of the world, to instruct the nations (gentes) in thy name, in thy Baptism.113

Finally, some prophecies use the sea as a metaphor of the Lord’s wisdom. According to Habakkuk, “the earth shall be filled [with wisdom], that men may know the glory of the Lord, as waters covering the sea (quasi aquae operientes mare)” (2: 14). For Isaiah, in a famous prophecy, this will be the moment of redemption:

They shall not hurt, nor shall they kill in all my holy mountain, for the earth is filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the covering waters of the sea (sicut aquae maris operientes). In that day the root of Jesse, who standeth for an ensign of the people, him the Gentiles shall beseech, and his sepulchre shall be glorious (et erit sepulchrum eius gloriosum) (11, 9-10).

It is worth mentioning that the root of Jesse is depicted in an intersecting cell close to the panel (cf. above), and that the Virgin Mary as Sapientia “hath been created before all things” (“prior omnium creata est”).114 In the next panel with the Creation of Adam, the Maria-Sapientia is represented as a naked female figure embraced by the Lord’s left arm, next to the ‘incarnated’ Logos.115

It seems significant that the Creator’s conch-shaped mantle extends into a space outside the panel’s frame. In that way, the depiction may well combine more stages of the Creation narrative, from the Beginning of creation via the second day with the Separation of the Upper and Lower Waters to the Congregation of the Waters on the third day and further onwards to the future teeming of living creature on the fifth day. This idea may be supported by the three genii: the one with open mouth, almost hidden in the shadow of the Lord’s cloak, then, hints at the darkness before light (gen. 1, 2); the genius on the Creator’s right side looks backward – towards the upper waters(?); while the genius on his left side, with (almost) closed eyes may refer

to the future profusion of the waters, now being blessed by God.

The four ignudi surrounding the panel most likely elaborate on the event in the same way. The two ignudi to the left are characterized by blue clothes but otherwise depicted as contrasts in appearances and movements. The serene figure with a wind-swept cloak may look at and refer to the upper waters while the opposite figure with wind-swept hair and a bluish green ‘ballast’ then marks the lower waters. On the other side of the panel, the ignudo to the right carries a heavy, green oak garland, and our attention is drawn to a ribbon that tightens up on his back and intermingles with a golden cloth. In his strenuous position, he resembles the Earth linked with the first panel. He looks outward, away from the sea and may refer to the dry land and its fecundity. In contrast, the movements of the opposite figure are ecstatic. He is seated on a wrapped cloth or cushion, pink like the cloak of the hovering Lord, and his animated, jubilant mind may very well be caused by a knowledge of the hidden promises of the sea.

Provisional conclusionThe undertaken analysis of the three first Creation panels has tried to illuminate the content of Michelangelo’s very eccentric iconography. In the same time, it has both substantiated Esther Gordon Dotson’s thesis that the whole decoration has its foundation in an Augustinian world view, and offered new readings of the Creation alongside clarifications, primarily on the basis of The City of God. The transference of the narration about Separation of Light and Darkness from the first to the second panel has introduced an important change within Dotson’s scheme. In her figurative reading, from the entrance to the altar wall these two panels:

incorporate allegories and analogies of the last events of all time [i.e. the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgment], before [my emphasis] the eternal joining of the two companies of the City of God, angelic and human.116

The analysis offered here reconciles, however, the first panel with her continued comment:

113 Ibid. XIII, xx, 26, see Augustinus 1995.114 See Eccles. 1, 1-10; cf. Eccles. 24, 1-16 and Prov. 8, 22-31.115 This is not the place for a discussion and critique of

the alternative interpretation offered by Leo Stein-berg. See Steinberg 1992 and Hall 1993.

116 Gordon Dotson 1979, 245-246.


82 Søren KaSperSen

At the end of time that City will be restored to the state it had at the creation of light, for citizens from humanity are to replace the angels who fell. Time is to end with a return to its beginning, as the central chronological sequence of the Sistine Ceiling returns, in the figurative reading, to its first event.117

It is obvious that the choice of subjects for the first three Creation scenes as well as their iconography is very unusual. Even so, as pointed out by Gordon Dotson, the choices made by Michelangelo in his representation of the narrative correspond with the highly selective discussion of the Creation in The City of God.118 Paralleling Augustine, Michelangelo focuses on the Beginning of Creation and the Creation of Man, on Heaven, Earth, and Seas, on the Creation of Light and the Separation of Light and Darkness.

According to the scheme traced here, the first three panels are closely knit together: the implications of the first event, the Creation of Light – in an Augustinian perspective – are exposed in the next panel showing the fourth day with sun and moon and hereby the

Separation of Light and Darkness through the Fall of Lucifer. The last panel refers primarily to the third day but it also points forward, to the fifth day, and backward, to the second day, and furthermore alludes to the very beginning of God’s work. It calms the dramatic movements in the first two panels, signifying that the Creation is good and full of promises.

Through their mutual relationships, this trilogy of motives can be seen as an elaboration of the first creation scene in the so-called Roman tradition, known to us through the 17th century water colour copies of the lost frescoes in San Paolo fuori le mura in Rome (Fig. 7) and through many medieval successors.119 It shows a compilation of several events, with an approving and blessing Creator present in a segment of heaven with stars, above the abyss and its waters – over which the dove, i.e. the Holy Spirit, hovers, and flanked by sun and moon as well as by light and darkness depicted as personifications in mandorle, walking away from each other.120 Light and darkness are related to sun and moon in a manner that mirrors Michelangelo’s second creation scene, and his focus is primarily on the same items as in the Roman compilation. At the end of

117 Ibid.118 Ibid. 235. See also p. 238.119 The origin of the Roman model was almost cer-

tainly a similar representation in Old St Peter’s, see

Kessler 1989, espec. 125-126, 129-130.120 The Lamb of God in the water-colour is most

likely an addition by Pietro Cavallini, since it is not known from the earlier recension.

Fig. 7. Rome, San Paolo fuori le Mura, Creation-scene, wa-tercolour record made for Card. Francesco Barberini, 1634-35, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Cod. Barb. Lat. 4406, fol. 25r. (photo: Bib-lioteca Apostolica Vaticana).


body Language and TheoLogy in The SiSTine CeiLing 83

his series, he returns to the dominating subject of the Roman picture, the Spirit moving above the waters.

I would argue that the relationships evident in the trilogy and also the Creation of Adam and Eve along with the Creation scenes in the Roman tradition accentuate the Augustinian aspects of the Sistine Ceiling decoration. Because the extensive Old Testament series in St Peter’s and San Paolo fuori le mura became the early and normative pictorial narrations of the Church on its pilgrimage in the world of sin, both ending with the exodus from Egypt, and thus with the beginning of the Israelites’ desert journey towards the Promised Land.121

Finally, anchoring analyses in Miche-langelo’s highly developed body language produces a better understanding of both individual figures and aspects of the events pictured. On one hand, the body language has turned out to be fully compatible with

an Augustinian perspective, on the other, it suggests that not only the genii but also the ignudi are closely related to the stories they attend and frame.

The other frames of the Genesis series – primarily the Prophets and Sibyls, the Ancestors of Christ, and the bronze medallions – and their relations with this spine of the Ceiling have been set aside in the present part of the investigation. It is my intention, however, to take up these topics in a future study that aims to show how they may still enrich the meanings of the whole fabric in new ways and contribute to an extension of the Augustinian perspective.

Assoc. prof. emer. Søren KaspersenDianavej 27

DK-2610 RødovreE-mail: [email protected]

121 Cf. Ettlinger’s analysis of the early decoration or-dered by Pope Sixtus IV, comparing the pope with Moses leading the Israelites towards the Promised Land – Ettlinger 1965. See also Fillitz 1985, espec.

409ff. who stresses the Ceiling’s takeover/adoption of the tradition from Old St Peter’s by its relations to the old Creation scenes.


84 Søren KaSperSen


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