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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Beggars’ Gate Painting #1

I recently received a request that was extremely unusual coming from a theologically orthodox, evangelical church: create three large paintings for their newly renovated building. More remarkable still was that the commissioning pastor turned down my routine offer to submit a few rough ideas for him to approve. He wanted to see how God might inspire me, and he didn’t want to interfere. This rarely happens, regardless of who, or what organization is doing the commissioning. I had to pinch myself. Evangelicalism hasn’t had a rich tradition of supporting the arts, although I now see this changing. I don’t even attend this guy’s church. It’s a new, non-denominational church called Beggars’ Gate. They meet at the corner of 29th and Garfield in Loveland, Colorado in a creatively renovated building that formerly housed a bar and restaurant.

I cocked my head when I first heard the name Beggars’ Gate. It didn’t strike me as a very alluring name for a church. But then I realized that was probably the point. If someone would stay away because they felt the name was beneath them, then it’s a thought-provoking name indeed. Humility is a prerequisite to coming to God for salvation. If one thinks one has something to bring; something to add to God’s gift of salvation, then he or she doesn’t understand the spiritual poverty of his or her situation. Rightly or wrongly, the most common criticism I hear against church people is self-righteousness and hypocrisy. A church with a name like Beggar’s Gate would have to really work at being either of those.

In thinking about the beggar idea, I recalled the things that God offers to us according to the Bible; things that we have no hope of acquiring by our own effort. I’ve tended to shy away from “religious painting”, but I know from past experience that these things are very difficult to depict in paint without lapsing into the cheesiness and sentimentality that has often typified evangelical subculture. Following are some thoughts I had around the main Beggar’s Gate painting, pictured below.

I resisted the idea of depicting a literal beggar at first because it seemed too obvious. But then I became captivated by the idea of visually quoting Michelangelo’s “Creation” from the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s archetypal image depicts Adam as a perfect, godlike being, and in fact, you could argue that the Bible implies that’s what Adam was. In the painting he’s reclining, in a position of reliance on his Creator, but he’s clearly an impressive figure, naked and unashamed. However shortly after the creation account, the scriptures describe the fall of man from Life – he is separated from God and begins his slide into darkness, depravity, and death. Everything else that follows in the Bible is the story of our relational Creator restoring his creation to life and communion with Himself.

Adam 2

Which brings us to our present situation. I’ve repainted Adam as a beggar; emaciated and needy. He’s clothed in dirty rags – his own attempt at covering his disgrace. He represents our fallen human condition. The child clothed in white, who brings him a cup, represents the spiritual rebirth made possible through God’s Messiah. She is doing the work of the church. But what she offers doesn’t come from an earthly source:
“…whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (Jesus – Jn 4:14)

“…If any one thirst, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the scripture has said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.'” Now this He said about the Spirit, which those who believed in Him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given.” (Jesus – John 7:37-39)

Here Jesus claims to fulfill centuries-old Hebrew prophecy.

Water to the Thirsty
Scott Freeman, 4 x 6 feet, latex paint on panel