Michelangelo's lesson:  We are not alone


Our letters editor, Paul Russell, asked our correspondents to answer the question:  How did it all begin?  It's a good question, one that has occupied the greatest minds since the dawn of civilization.


And our readers presented a range of plausible answers, with several noting the important distinctions in the philosophy of science that clarify what the scientific method can tell us, and what it can't.

The only failing grade went to Rick Kerr from Oshawa, Ont., who wrote that "it doesn't matter."  It does.  One cannot know one's destiny if one has no idea of one's origins.

I was struck by the decision to illustrate the page with Michelangelo's Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, surely the world's (literally) iconic depiction of the origin of man.

It is to the artist that the task of explaining creation properly falls.  Art is creative.  Science, for all its marvelous capacity to produce both knowledge and wonder, is essentially an act of discovery.  If the question is how anything came to be, rather than the mere discovery of what already is, then it is to the artist, not the scientist, that the answer is more readily given.

Michelangelo's ceiling was dedicated 500 years ago last All Saints Day.  But its cinematic portrayal came nearly 50 years ago, in the 1965 Charlton Heston film The Agony and the Ecstasy, based on the Irving Stone novel of the same name.  In that film, there is a profound dialogue between Julius II, il papa terribile, and his reluctant fresco painter, Michelangelo.  They are conversing about The Creation of Adam:

Julius II:  Is that truly how you see [God], my son?

Michelangelo:  Yes, Holy Father.

J:  Not angry, not vengeful, but like that?  Strong, benign, loving?

M:  He knows anger, too, but the act of creation is an act of love.

J:  You have not had an easy life, my son, but you can picture him like that?

M:  I am grateful for His gift to me.

J:  The most perfect of gifts.  If I had to choose my life over again, I think I would choose to be an artist.  What you have painted there, my son, is not a portrait of God, it's a proof of faith.

M:  I hadn't thought that faith needed proof.

J:  Not if you're a saint, or an artist.  I am merely a Pope!

J:  The new made Adam!  And this is how you see man?  Noble, beautiful, unafraid?

Eve is in the central panel to give an answer: We are not alone.  We are made not for loneliness but for communion with others, and with God.

M:  How else should I see him?

J:  As he is! Corrupt and evil! His hands dripping with blood, destined for damnation! Your painting is beautiful but false.

M:  I cannot change my conception.

J:  You've taught me not to waste my time trying to change your conceptions.  How did you arrive at this?

M:  I thought ...  my idea for the panel was that man's evil he learned from himself, not from God.  J:  (quietly) yes...  M:  I wanted to paint man, as He was first created.  Innocent, still free of sin, grateful for the gift of life.

J:  The gift of life! Recently I have prayed for the gift of death!  Like most of my prayers, it went unheard.  God sometimes appears to be deaf.  Perhaps I should have been an artist.  Then He would have listened to me, as He appears to listen to you!  You make a better priest than I do, Michelangelo!

M:  It's only painted plaster, Holy Father.

J:  No, my son! It is more than that!  Much more!  What has it taught you, Michelangelo? 

M:  That I am not alone. 

J:  And it has taught me that the world is not alone.  When I stand before the throne, I should throw your ceiling into the balance against my sins ...  perhaps it'll shorten my time in purgatory!

It is a beautiful bit of screenwriting by Philip Dunne and Carol Reed.  And it gets to the heart of the issue of our origins, which contains within it the profound question:  Are we alone?

The Creation of Adam often is thought to be the central panel on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but it is not.  Michelangelo puts The Creation of Eve in the centre.  In The Creation of Adam, Eve already is present, in the "back of God's mind."

She was created because it is "not good for man to be alone."  Eve is in the central panel to give an answer:  We are not alone.  We are made not for loneliness but for communion with others, and with God.




Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Michelangelo's lesson:  We are not alone." National Post, (Canada) April 4, 2013.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2013 National Post

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