Profusely illustrated with monochrome photographs on virtually every page, and with 25 colour plates, this is a work of ingenious, provocative scholarship based on hitherto unused sources: Talmudic literature, the Midrash commentaries on the Bible, and the Kabbalah. As Michelangelo was educated with the young Medici at a time when Judaic studies were fashionable, this seems reasonable. But Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner are inclined towards sensationalism in an effort to match Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, and also to engage in a natural Jewish vein of anti-Catholic rivalry; so readers need to be wary as the startling revelations pile in.
The ceiling frescoes over the Sistine Chapel are probably the greatest achievement of the most impressive artist who has ever worked in Europe. But although their power and invention is indisputable, and the official Church line is that they represent "the promise of redemption through Christ and his Church", they never communicate a precise theme and, apart from The Last Judgment, they have never been given a title. What have the giant nude youths, the Ignudi, who overwhelm the biblical scenes, to do with the prophets and sibyls? Why, among 300 figures painted above Christendom's holiest places, is there no single Christian figure? All are from the Old Testament and Jewish. But then the chapel itself was built to the exact dimensions of the Holy of Holies in King Solomon's First Temple in Jerusalem. The authors think they have the answers. Michelangelo was using the sequence to create a bridge between faiths, cultures and sexualities, and to aim shafts at current Church corruption; all conveniently politically correct.
Two groups of putti, one behind Zechariah and one behind the Cumean Sibyl, are, so Blech and Doliner claim, making obscene hand gestures at symbols of Pope Julius's della Rovere family, even though Julius was the artist's generous and permissive patron. Even worse, in The Separation of Day and Night, God is "mooning" at the Pope with his gratuitously exposed divine backside from the Pope's own ceiling. Or did the artist simply enjoy painting naked rumps? Copious illustrations allow readers to test all these revelations, as they can another: that in The Last Judgment Christ is making eye contact with only one of the dead - Michelangelo's lover at the time, Tommaso dei Cavalieri.
There is much of this. Every corner of the ceiling is examined, often most rewardingly, but there is one gaping void: there is no exegesis of the mysterious 20 iconic, beautiful nude young men who control this Jewish ceiling. The authors will not deal with homosexuality, but Michelangelo did, and they quote him: "What spirit is so empty and blind that it cannot recognise that the foot is more noble than the shoe and skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?" They also quote Emily Dickinson: "Saying nothing sometimes says the most", and take that cowardly way out.
Judaism is an earthy and practical faith. It believes that God made man in his own image. So Michelangelo was an honorary Jew, and those 20 beautiful hunks are his images of God, Platonically perfected. They were his demonstration that lust plus beauty equals love, and that the love of God is not, therefore, entirely removed from the love of one of these perfect young men. The authors hide away this conclusion in the shortest last section of the book, but it is there. The Ignudi dominate the chapel because they are Michelangelo's daring images of God: a dangerous blasphemy by Jewish or Catholic standards.
The Sistine Secrets - Unlocking the Codes in Michelangelo's Defiant Masterpiece
By Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner. J R Books. 2pp, £18.99. ISBN 9781906217556. Published 25 June 2008