Art & Church History: The Uncut Version

If I were to ask you to name the preeminent Christian artist of all time, Michelangelo would probably come to mind. After all, he did paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, creating some of the most archetypal and iconic imagery in Christian art. He also seems to be the guy who first depicted God as a large old man with white hair and beard, (not that this was necessarily progress.)

But his work is as ironic as it is iconic.

Art is human communication. As such it reflects the worldview of the artist. Art, literature, and manmade artifacts play an invaluable role in helping us to flesh out the true story of human history. Historians create labels such as Dark Ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and New World based on their biases. However, historic art and artifacts may serve to either confirm or call into question our interpretations of what was really going on. It’s just one more reason why art is so cool.

People much more qualified than me have written much about the ingenious art of Michelangelo, but I want to share a few thoughts about the particular Christian worldview reflected in his work. As a person who has an avid interest the historic relationship between Christianity and Judaism, I contend that in Michelangelo’s work, one can see the epitome of the Roman Church’s arrogance toward Judaism. If one is inclined to be charitable toward the artist and call it ignorance, it is still an ignorance born of arrogance – an arrogance that the Church is now, happily, beginning to put away.

First up, let’s look at Michelangelo’s beautiful sculpture, David, commissioned by the wealthy Florence City Council in 1501. It is widely agreed that this statue was commissioned as a political statement by the Florence Republic that was asserting its newly found independence from Medici rule. The young David, who famously slew the giant Goliath, would’ve been a fitting symbol of liberty. Still, the meaning of David as a symbol is unavoidably drawn from the figure in the Hebrew Scriptures – a boyhood figure who would one day become Israel’s most famous and beloved king. David was the man who penned the Psalms of Israel. He is Israel’s most famous worshipper, described as “a man after God’s own heart.” He was the father of Solomon, who built the first temple in Jerusalem. He was a self-proclaimed lover of the Torah (Law) of YHWH.

In light of this, if I could ever so delicately point out one small detail here, please notice that Michelangelo’s David is not circumcised.

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The artist actually forces the issue by depicting David in a Hellenistic (buck naked) style. What’s the deal? Why didn’t Michelangelo circumcise David? This would be like depicting Martin Luther King as a white guy. Or depicting the prophet Mohammad drinking a beer and eating a ham sandwich.

I’m not exaggerating. Circumcision is not negotiable for a Jew.  When God established the nation of Israel with Abraham, He instituted something called the “covenant of circumcision” (Acts 7:8):

“…So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Gen 17:13,14)

Later, with Moses and the giving of the Law, the covenant of circumcision was folded into the Mosaic covenant. Circumcision was considered the “sign” of God’s covenant with the Jewish people (Gen 17:11-14; Lev 12:3.) It was not optional. David was exceptionally zealous in his pursuit of obedience to God. This can be seen in the statement David made while still a shepherd; he is indignant upon learning that the Philistine champion, Goliath, has been taunting the Israelite army for days, and that no one is willing to meet him alone in battle. He famously says:


“…Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?”
(1Sam 17:26)

Of all the descriptors David could’ve used, he chooses to highlight the Mosaic covenant sign of circumcision. Then he insults Goliath by going out to meet him alone, not as warrior but as a shepherd boy, with no armor and no weapon except for some stones and a sling; as if the Philistine champion were merely an annoyance. Then he informs the 9 foot tall Goliath that he is going to give his flesh to the birds and the beasts. The rest is history.

Later, David, now a warrior, presents a trophy of 200 Philistine foreskins to King Saul as a marriage gift, (even though the king had only asked for 100.) A casual observer could be excused for thinking that, if anything, David was a bit obsessed with circumcision.

How could Michelangelo have missed this? We know he was literate and highly intelligent. Ascanio Condivi, his biographer, claims that Michelangelo often read the Old Testament scriptures during his work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. While it’s true that he sculpted David before he painted the Chapel ceiling, he made similar decisions when composing the chapel ceiling. For example, there is nothing Hebrew at all about the Hebrew prophets he paints. They look more like Greek philosophers and the  pagan sibyls (seers) to which he gives equal importance in the composition.

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Left: Michelangelo’s blond-haired, hellenized prophet Daniel from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Right: One day while studying church history I became quite frustrated & went out to my studio and repainted Michelangelo’s beautiful composition of Daniel, making him Jewish. Mine isn’t historically accurate either, but I feel better now.

If I were Dan Brown, I would be tempted to make up some fictional, secret, tantalizing history as to why Michelangelo did what he did. But unfortunately, we need look no further than the Roman Church’s anti-Judaistic theology for an answer. It’s a matter of public record, and Michelangelo was the rule, not the exception. For example there are many Renaissance era depictions, by many artists, of the infant Jesus, uncircumcised well into his babyhood, even though the gospels tell us that he was circumcised on his eighth day, in accordance with the Torah of Moses.

Historian James Parkes documents how the Roman Church developed a gentilized theology that essentially took everything good away from Jews and Judaism, leaving it only with the curses of disobedience found in the Torah. Even the Hebrew patriarchs, and the Mosaic covenant kings and prophets, such as David, were re-interpreted and re-imagined as Christians. The gentile Church came to view itself as having replaced Israel in God’s sight, even though the Bible does not teach this. Centuries of intentional anti-Judaistic theology and Church-sponsored denigration of Jewish people caused the Hebrew roots of “Christianity” to be first rejected, and eventually forgotten. Little wonder, then, that a Jewish person today would look at the gentile church’s legacy and utterly reject it.

“Little by little the Church was read back into the whole of Old Testament history, and Christian history was shown to be older than Jewish history in that it dated from creation, and not from Sinai, or even Abraham.” (The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue – James Parkes)

Imagine how a Florentine Jewish Person would’ve felt looking up at the statue of David. Michelangelo, an artist commissioned by the Pope himself, and referred to by the people as Il divino – the divine one, had created a popular masterpiece essentially depicting their historic king from their scriptures as a non-Jew.

We can’t know for certain what Michelangelo was thinking as he was sculpting David’s penis. Whether his statement was intentionally anti-Judaistic, or whether he was simply oblivious to David’s Jewishness, the fact remains that an intentional, official separation between gentile Christianity and Judaism was erected early on. This separation has been reflected in Christian art for virtually all of the Church’s 2000 year history. (See my previous post on Jewish-Christian history.)

A final note on the weird rite of circumcision.

Could this possibly have any relevance for us, especially for women, today? It could indeed! The sometimes strange, sometimes violent record in the Hebrew scriptures is part of a deep, incontrovertible picture of foreshadowing and fulfillment that is applicable to all of us. In short, our loving, relational Creator has fulfilled promises of salvation that were laid out centuries before the coming of Jesus. With that salvation has come a host of good things for everyone who chooses to enter into the New Covenant of Jesus. So what about circumcision?

The terms and promises of the Mosaic Covenant were physical in nature, having to do with possession of the land, abundance of children, livestock, physical health, peace, and safety (Lev 26.) There was no explicit mention of an afterlife or a resurrection. Israel was given laws written on physical tablets of stone, they fought physical enemies with material weapons, offered physical sacrifices to God, and entered into the physical nation of Israel by physical birth. This was all accompanied by a physical covenant entry sign – circumcision.

But everything I have just mentioned prefigured and foreshadowed something better that was to come. With regard to circumcision, God prophesied way back with Moses that He would circumcise Israel’s hearts (Deut 30:6,) but we only see the fulfillment after Jesus establishes His New Covenant. (Ro 2:28,29; Col 2:9-11.) In this new covenant, which is spiritual in nature, there is “no Jew nor gentile, slave nor free, male nor female” (Gal 3:27-29.) Accordingly, this New Covenant is entered into through Spiritual rebirth (Jn 3:3-7.) With that rebirth comes a new relationship to our Creator as sons and daughters, and circumcised (exposed) hearts that are spiritually responsive to God.

Physical circumcision might seem like a strange sign to seal a formal agreement, but you have to admit, if you were God and you wanted to pick a profound, anatomical yet symbolic sign that would keep people’s attention, physical circumcision would be it.

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9 comments on “Art & Church History: The Uncut Version

  1. Bridge Builder says:

    Awesome!!!! I was in Florence and beheld the statue of David for a while but never even noticed. Well, to be honest at that time (educational field trip from my German Highschool) I hadn’t ever seen a penis in the flesh so I wouldn’t have been able to tell anyhow. Amazing how you are able to point out from this tiny little thing that the Pope managed to separate Jews from Christians in such a profound way! 😉

    • Thank you for your response!
      I want to be careful to point out that I am not blaming the Pope for the Jewish-Christian chasm. It is a result of a combination of some early theological errors on the part of the church, unfortunate circumstances, nasty rumors, and centuries of anti-Jewish civil legislation. The part the Papacy has played has been mixed, but on balance very negative, though in recent years the Roman Cath Church has made strong overtures to attempt to reconcile with Judaism.

      The good news is that we are alive in a historically unique time when all sides can freely discuss these things without fear.

  2. Kathy Alongi says:

    Another good read ..but just wonder, why did u repaint the picture above it if it was bothering you that it was so inaccurate ..but yours is also inaccurate? Why/how does that make you feel better? (and does it matter that you now feel better??) 😉

    • A fair question.
      What bothers me about Michelangelo’s Daniel Is that he hellenized a Hebrew prophet. And on the ceiling of the very chapel where Popes are chosen. This is made all the more ironic in that Daniel prophesied while he was in exile in Babylon, where despite pressure from his captors, he retained his Jewish identity. He rose to prominence and influence to the extent that the Babylonian and Persian kings eventually decreed that the God of Israel to be the true living God, and that everyone in their dominion should fear the God of Daniel! Even when Israel was in exile, Israel’s God through Daniel influenced the most powerful empire in the world for good. So to ignore or deny Daniel’s Jewishness is just a wildly gross misrepresentation.

      I guess going out and repainting Michelangelo’s Daniel was kind of therapy for me. I just wanted to express the image and to see it. I love the church of Jesus, and the Jewish people, and it breaks my heart that most of the suffering of the Jewish people has been at the hands of the church, who should’ve been loving them and welcoming them all along. My painting is inaccurate in that I don’t know what Daniel was wearing during his Babylonian exile. But it rights a much greater inaccuracy.

      Does it matter that I feel better? Not if painting a picture is the extent of my response.

  3. God did not establish the ‘nation of Israel’ with Abraham. He established a covenant with Abraham, promising offspring and the land of Canaan. Israel does not show up as a name, a concept or a word in the scripture until Jacob wrestles with the angelic being who re-names him Israel – Genesis 35:10. Abraham was not a Jew or an Israelite, as these terms and this ethnic group were technically not in existence.

    • Thanks for your your clarification, Daniel.
      I technically agree with you. The way I say it is that God did not choose the nation of Israel – He chose a man, Abraham, and promised to make a nation of his descendants. However, that nation did eventually come to be known as Israel, so in the sense that God gave the promise of this nation to Abraham, He did establish the nation of Israel with him. Kind of like saying my wife was born in 1963, even though she wasn’t technically my wife until 22 years later. But this seems to me like a fine point that is lost on most readers. Similarly some would have a problem with me using “Jew” to refer to any Hebrews outside the tribe of Judah before David. My readership is quite diverse. I’ve been in past conversations where the word “Hebrew” is unknown to people, whereas most people seem the get the term “Jewish” and “Israel.”

      I invite you to tell me why you think this matters. Perhaps I need to be more careful.

  4. Shecky says:

    Michelangelo was one of the greatest minds in world history. There were Jews in Italy. He heard of circumcision.
    David was circumcised in the style used at the time of David’s life. At that time Jewish circumcision was only a cutting of the small spout around the opening of the urethra which made the slit visible. It wasn’t until later that the Jewish circ became more radical and removed all loose skin which we know today.
    If you look at a close-up of this area you’ll see that the urethral slit is visible which would not be the case in an uncircumcised Italian.

    • Shecky – Whaaa? This is news to me.
      If you’re correct I will have to change part of my story! Can you provide an authoritative reference for the history of Jewish circumcision?

      Thank you for taking time to comment.

  5. Shecky – As I’ve thought about your comment further, I notice that the scriptures do not seem to validate your point. For example:

    > Exodus 4:24-26 has Moses’s wife circumcising their son and touching Moses’s feet with the foreskin. This was hundreds of years before David.

    > Then there is the aforementioned 200 foreskins delivered by David to King Saul, presumably without the Philistines attached. Both examples must be describing the removal of the foreskin, not simply a slit as you describe.

    Furthermore, the very symbolism of circumcision strongly suggests a cutting away and removal. In Deuteronomy 10 God commands Israel to circumcise their hearts. Then in Colossians 2 we have Paul referring to old covenant foreshadowing of the new covenant fulfillment of circumcision. He refers to the heart circumcision of the new covenant as “the putting off of the body of flesh.”

    Even when the rite is introduced with Abraham, God tells him, “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Gen 17:14.) This play on words, while not necessarily obvious, makes the most sense if circumcision is and always was a “cutting off.”

    I’m still willing to be convinced by an authoritative source, (though I can’t imagine what that would be,) but until then, the Bible seems to present an internally consistent picture of what circumcision is.

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