Do yourself a favor and spend some time meditating on Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel at this new Vatican webpage. (Thanks to Matthew Warner of the National Catholic Register for alerting me to the site.)
During my first trip to Rome twenty years ago, I could not see the chapel, which was undergoing renovation. I had to wait another eight years before having the chance to see it in person, and I’ll never forget it. It is beautiful not only because the painting is awesome (and bright, after the renovation), but also because its perspective is through the lens of salvation history, a story of God laboring mightily to give us freedom again and again after human beings choose to throw it away.
I not infrequently show images of Michelangelo’s work in my lectures as representative of a Catholic humanism, an attitude of reverence toward God who has made us “a little less than the angels,” according to the Psalmist (8:6). We seldom see ourselves the way God sees us–a point that Ignatius asks us to recall in the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises. Writ large, the way Michelangelo tells the story, human history is a story of our choosing to be far less than what God has graced us to be.
One of the images that sticks with me now–after having seen it many times–is from the Last Judgment, on the wall behind the altar. It’s a picture of heaven and hell, and one difference is that the saints’ bodies in heaven are trying to help those in the middle up, while those in hell are trying to drag those in the middle down. I am compelled by the image of our bodies being capable of helping others toward heaven. It’s a wonderful way of thinking about sexuality, about sickness, about disability, about pregnancy, about athletics– about any ways we use our physical bodies in loving ways that glorify God. “Glorify God in your body,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:20. Michelangelo got that right.