The four Pendentives of Michelangelo’s Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel represent four different dramatic stories from the Old Testament. What are these stories, and what do they teach?

Show Notes

Our last episode introduced the subjects represented on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and we will today extend this inquiry to include the ceiling’s four corners or pendentives. But let me first emphasize two points that call attention to the novelty of Michelangelo’s general approach in the frescoes the ceiling.

One of Michelangelo’s twenty “ignudi,” who just might rival the nominal subjects of the ceiling in importance (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It is hard to know what to think of Michelangelo’s importing of non-biblical themes into the principal chapel of Roman Catholicism. Does he see his classical nudes and architecture as being in harmony with the biblical tradition or as introducing an alteration of it? I’m not sure, but it seems to me to raise the general question of the Renaissance, which we have previously mentioned in connection with Dante and Machiavelli, that is, whether the flood of classical artworks and books sowed the seeds of a profound change in the way Western Europeans would understand themselves and their world. It is perhaps noteworthy in the case of Michelangelo’s ceiling that two of his frescoes based on Genesis suggest that a certain shamefulness does and should accompany nudity, at least in the biblical view. Only when Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, as represented in the ceiling’s sixth main panel, do they begin to sense that their nakedness is shameful; and the last of the nine main panels shows an exposed and drunken Noah being ridiculed by two of his sons. And yet in the main non-biblical element of the ceiling, Michelangelo’s ignudi seem untouched by shame, as if they know themselves to be not guilty of the original sin the Bible accuses them of.

Another non-traditional element in Michelangelo’s ceiling concerns his representations of God, all six of which show him in human form, and four make him the center of attention. One of the Ten Commandments forbids the making of images of God, and this had helped to keep God out of most Medieval mosaics and many paintings. Alternatively, His presence was limited to a symbolic hand or, in a few cases, especially as the Renaissance approached, to a small figure at the top of a work of art. Michelangelo, however, gives God a large and perfectly natural human form in the six images of Him he paints on the ceiling, one of which includes a bare derriere. Tour guides amuse bored tourists by joking that God drops his drawers to show His disrespect for the popes and cardinals who frequent the Sistine Chapel, but it strikes me as evidence of Michelangelo’s desire to represent naturally the sorts of things we see with our own eyes, even if this means bringing God Himself into the natural realm occupied by other figures on the ceiling.  This might then also explain why none of Michelangelo’s figures in the chapel has a halo, not even the saints who enter paradise in his “Last Judgment.”

The second panel on the ceiling’s main axis shows God creating the Sun, Moon, and Plants, and it also shows his bare bottom. I incline to see this as partial evidence of Michelangelo’s emphasis on the natural form of the human body (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s turn now to our announced topic, the four corners or pendentives of the chapel. The vast majority of the fifty-plus painted frames on the ceiling show us individuals or families, mainly prophets, sibyls, and the ancestors of Christ. The frames that include stories are far fewer and consist of the nine panels running down the center of the vault, all based on Genesis, and the four pendentives, each based on a different book of the Bible. It is God Himself who is the main actor in the five panels representing the creation stories from Genesis, but He makes His last appearance when he creates Eve, the central panel in the ceiling. After this, human figures take center stage. First Adam and Eve are shown getting themselves expelled from the Garden of Eden, and then Noah becomes the focus in the back three panels of the ceiling. Then in the four pendentives, our attention turns to Moses, Esther, Judith, and David.

Michelangelo, a detail of the right rear pendentive of David and Goliath (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The main outlines of the story of David are well known, and Michelangelo had brought David more forcefully to the attention of the public by the great statue he had completed just two or three years earlier. This great statue anticipates the ignudi on the chapel’s ceiling, and raises a similar question: Does its nudity and physical beauty distract attention from the story as told in the Bible and does it instead promote the taste of classical Greece and Rome? In the Old Testament Book of First Samuel, the mighty and well-armed Goliath, the champion of the enemy Philistines, calls upon the Israelites to send a champion of their own, so the issues between them might be settled by single combat, but none of men of Israel accepts this challenge until a shepherd boy shows up in the camp to bring supplies to his older brothers. This young boy, David, volunteers to fight the gigantic champion Goliath. He does so with confidence not because of his training as a warrior, his physical stature, or his possession of high-quality weapons but because he trusts that God will defend him. He explains that he should be allowed to fight the giant, for the Lord has kept him safe from the attacks of wild animals, and so he will do the same in the fight against the uncircumcised Goliath. And as he says to Goliath himself, “You come to me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin. But I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. . . .  [After I am victorious] then all shall know that the Lord does not save with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hands.”

In his fresco, Michelangelo shows us a David who is fully clothed and is just about to use Goliath’s sword to cut off his head. A scholar named Heinrich Pfeiffer, who is better attuned than I am to symbolic readings of the chapel’s frescoes, observes that the raised sword is set off against the golden upper part of a tent in the background. He concludes the gold represents heaven and the sword belongs to God: this is at least a good way of reminding us that David’s faith was crucial for his victory. The story wants to teach the importance of trust in God, not that of toughness or military preparedness. Machiavelli offers not only a different account of the reasons for military victories but also, in his Prince, chapter 13, a radically different interpretation of how David was able to defeat Goliath. God had nothing to do with it.

Michelangelo, left rear pendentve of Judith and Holofernes (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the other pendentive in the rear of the chapel, Judith also used a sword to cut off the head of an enemy leader, though she took the precaution of getting him drunk first. This time it was Holofernes, the commander of powerful and hostile forces. Michelangelo’s fresco highlights the escape of Judith and her maid servant, who carries the severed head on a platter, while Judith tries to aid their escape by hiding the head with a cloth. Michelangelo is said to have modeled the unattractive face on the severed head after his own.

The subjects of the two rear pendentives are fairly common subjects for art both before and after the time of Michelangelo’s fresco. An earlier podcast episode already called attention to Bernini’s wonderful statue of David in Rome’s Galleria Borghese, which was done a century after Michelangelo’s, and the Bargello Museum in Florence features two different versions of David by Donatello, one in marble completed about a century before Michelangelo’s, the other in bronze, from about sixty years before Michelangelo’s. The Donatello bronze seems most to suggest that David’s physique was delicate and not that of an athletic warrior, thus suggesting an interpretation that stresses his faith as the cause of his victory, as the Bible does. I find this less the case in the Davids sculpted by Michelangelo and Bernini: they are both impressive human specimens, and the aggressive posture of Bernini’s David suggests he might well defeat a giant even without divine assistance.

Judith was also a popular subject among famous artists, and Donatello sculpted one of her, too. Botticelli, Mantegna, Giorgione, Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Cranach the Elder made her the subject of paintings both before and after Michelangelo. I suspect she is singled out for her cleverness, courage, beauty, and determination, but the artists also seem drawn to represent the fully or partially severed head of Holofernes. Rembrandt is the only great artist I’ve noticed on a quick look who does not show us the gruesome head.

Michelangelo, Punishment of Haman, front left pendentive. Though wicked, Haman gets a beautiful body. (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s move now to Michelangelo’s fresco in the pendentive to the right front of the chapel, which goes by the name, “The Punishment of Haman.” What most catches our attention is the large, nude, athletic male figure near the center of the fresco, who can be appreciated more or less like the ignudi in the center of the ceiling, who come with no story attached. Like them, this fresco shows Michelangelo’s ability to paint bodies in many different possible positions, and perhaps also in some impossible ones.

Unlike the ignudi, this nude comes with a story, however, so let’s consider it. The heroine in the story, Esther, was taken to be a concubine in a king’s harem, but she so pleased him that he made her his queen. She was Jewish, and Mordechai, her adopted father, got himself into trouble with the king’s most trusted advisor, Haman, for he refused to bow down to him. Haman concluded that the Jews held themselves too aloof, so he planned to kill not only Mordechai but all the Jews in the king’s vast empire, and to confiscate their property. One of the keys to Judith’s success in the previous story is that she was willing to flatter Holofernes and won his trust partly by prostrating herself before him, as Mordechai refused to do, but of course this was all part of her plan to kill him.

Esther wished to persuade the king not to follow Haman’s cruel advice, but there was a rule that no one, not even the queen, could approach him unless the king called for them, but Esther risked the death penalty and approached him nevertheless. She did so successfully, and even managed to get the king to revoke Haman’s order to kill the Jews and to turn his plan to execute Mordechai against Haman himself. Michelangelo divides the pendentive into two main sections and shows the king condemning Haman on the right, and in the left-center, Haman about to be hung from the gallows from which he had planned to hang Mordechai. Between the two scenes are Esther in red and white, crouching, and Mordechai, in yellow. Surprisingly, at least to me, it is the villain Haman who is the beautiful nude, so in this case we cannot say that physical beauty represents or follows the beauty of soul.

Michelangelo,Brazen Serpent (Detail from the front right pendentive) (Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The subject of the fourth pendentive is the story of the Brazen Serpent from the Book of Numbers. The background includes God’s support of the Israelites in their victory over the Canaanites, but the mood quickly changes when, still far from the promised land, they begin to complain about their hardships in the wilderness and ask of God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness?” In this case, the Israelites become their own worst enemy, for God punishes their discontent by sending a plague of poisonous snakes, from which many die, and this brings them to repent. To protect his people, Moses prays and learns from God that if he makes an image of one of the serpents and puts it on a pole, those who look upon this would not suffer from the lethal serpents that have been afflicting them. Moses thus erects a serpent of bronze, and this brings the plague to an end. Moses is thus singled out as the hero of the story, and yet he does not appear in the fresco.

Michelangelo chooses to paint the dramatic moment when the life-saving bronze serpent has been raised above them. On the left are eight or nine figures whose gazes are fixed on the serpent. A healthy baby even reaches out as if to pet it, while a young woman gestures and looks hopefully in its direction, though fang marks on her arm show she has already been bitten. On the right is a larger group whose members fail to look at the bronze serpent, even as they are bitten by live ones. In this respect they remind of the “Laocoon” sculpture which so impressed Michelangelo when it was unearthed, for it too showed divinely ordained death delivered by slithering serpents. The difference in size between the group that lives and the one that dies is marked by the elevated bronze serpent, which divides the scene and is off center to accommodate the larger group on the right. Michelangelo would not paint the “Last Judgment” for another quarter century, but it is similar in showing a group to the left, whose members would be saved, and a group to the right, whose members would be damned.

If we review all four stories, we can say they are all similar in being highly dramatic, and their context is always war. Two show us beheadings, one a hanging, and one death by coiling serpents. And in contrast to what he did in his own statue of the David a few years earlier, Michelangelo now chooses in all four cases to represent an action-packed moment in the story. The front two pendentives offer strong support for the view that one of his goals is to present the human body in writhing motion.

The stories differ also regarding the basis of the hero’s success. Moses’s action is prayer for his people. He acts in close conformity with God’s instructions and relies directly on His miraculous power: he does not kill an enemy leader or persuade one to become an ally. The story of Esther, on the other hand, is about her courageous persuading of a king to become an enemy of the Israelites’ enemies. Her story never mentions divine support, and far from expressing confidence that God will protect her, as David did, when she decides to visit the king even though it is a violation of the law, she adds “And if I perish, I perish.” God plays no visible role in Esther’s story.

Although she is represented as deeply pious, Judith is also shown to be extraordinarily clever and resolute, and she too acts without depending directly on help from God. God performs no particular miracle in this story, and when it comes to the question of whether or to what extent God acts on her behalf, the text includes a provocative ambiguity. Several lines have Judith saying that God is acting through her hands, but one has her calling upon God only to “look graciously on the work of my hands” (13:4) Here, at least, she looks for God’s approval, not for His help. This is also the way the Jewish officials see it: they claim Judith’s action has pleased God, but they say, “By your own hand you have done all this” (15.10).

The two male heroes of the pendentives, Moses and David, are presented as more direct beneficiaries of divine support. The two women, Esther and Judith, are more self-reliant, and both rely on their beauty as an asset in persuading men to do what they want.

I have not focused today on Michelangelo’s brilliance as a fresco artist and his skillful use of such techniques as foreshortening, for I find that the stories he paints in the pendentives are fascinating and rarely discussed in other introductions to the chapel. Let me conclude by emphasizing one more point about these stories. It is that even though the ceiling refers only to events from the Old Testament, or to the Sibyls, these subjects were all interpreted by Christian theologians as looking forward to the coming of Christ, and Michelangelo was at least partly guided by such interpretations.

Heinrich Pfeiffer reports that contemporary theologians took Holofernes to represent the devil, and Judith to be the immaculately conceived Virgin Mary, who would help defeat him. Since the Chapel is dedicated to the Virgin, this may have influenced the inclusion of Judith as a subject for its walls. Accordingly, Michelangelo shapes the bands that hold Judith’s hair in place to look like a cross, which suggests she is serving the Christian cause, not only that of the Israelites.

In a conversation with a certain Nicodemus, a Jewish ruler, Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). It is Jesus himself, then, who likens himself to the elevated bronze serpent of the Old Testament, for both are life giving, though in Jesus’s case, the given life is eternal. I would not say that Michelangelo makes the staff holding the bronze serpent look exactly like a cross, but once we learn that Jesus himself likened himself to it, it’s hard not to think of him as a New Testament version of the salvific serpent on a staff. Jesus identifies the belief or faith in him as the source of salvation. Perhaps this is why, in the pendentive, it appears that not all the Israelites are being saved by the bronze serpent, for faith does not come to everyone.

I hope today’s episode helps to stimulate your thinking about the frescoes in the four corners of the chapel. I confess to have found them even more interesting and thematically linked than I expected. We have now finished our introduction to the second phase of frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. We began with the frescoes on the side walls by Botticelli, Perugino, and other greats from 25 years before Michelangelo. Now we have discussed Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling, from 1508 to 1512. The third phase awaits us, which Michelangelo would not even begin for another 25 years, and which covers the altar wall with almost as many figures as appear on the ceiling.

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