Rabbi Benjamin Blech, an associate professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and co-author of "The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican," said Michelangelo left messages of peace and unity for the world at a time when religious strife was wreaking havoc throughout Europe.
Jews in particular were being persecuted at the time, and though Michelangelo was commissioned to do an image of Jesus and Mary for the Sistine Chapel, he primarily showed images from the Old Testament instead.
"This is one of the most interesting, fascinating parts of the story. He is given a commission, the commission is to do the ceiling in honor of Jesus and Mary," Blech told Glenn Beck on Tuesday. "When it was finished, it had to be a total shock to the pope, because here is something meant to glorify Jesus and Mary. 95 percent of the ceiling is Old Testament, is Jewish figures, prophetic figures. 5 percent is pagan. There isn't a single Christian New Testament figure in the frescoes."
The rabbi reiterated that, though some have criticized his book as anti-Catholic, that is "absolutely" not the intention. He is highlighting how Michelangelo disagreed with the cruelty of Pope Julius II while still honoring the church.
"1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain," Blech said. "The entire world in the name of Christianity [is] crucifying the Jewish people, and this bothered Michelangelo to no end. Not because in particular he was solely a lover of Jews, but because he had this concept of God being the God of all people. He was opposed to fanaticism of any kind."
"When he was given the task of doing the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he wanted to give messages, messages of love, messages of understanding," Blech added. "In fact, the very messages that I would daresay today the church acknowledges and embraces after Vatican II."
Michelangelo was forced to add images of Jesus years later, Blech said, but his original work could have caused him to be killed if he was not so well-known.
"You have to understand that his fame, his art, his ability subsequently made it impossible for the church to condemn the work," Blech said. "So what they did was re-explain it."
The rabbi referenced numerous images in the chapel that he said prominent docents have failed to comprehend, or described away with phrases like, "nobody can figure out what this means." But Blech said a knowledge of Judaism -- which Michelangelo had been taught by his tutor Pico della Mirandola -- makes the images perfectly understandable.
The rabbi referenced a scroll with the word "ALEF" and a Hebrew letter meaning seventy written on it, which he said means one God for all seventy nations. And when Michelangelo later added images of Jesus, he continued to defend those who were being persecuted. When he depicted Jesus among the righteous, he included a Jew with the group.
"What in the world is he doing among the righteous?" Blech asked. "Don't people who reject Jesus lose all share in the world to come? ... Here in the 1500s Michelangelo is saying Jews can be up in heaven. What a daring statement!"
Blech said Michelangelo is "hitting you over the head" with messages of peace and tolerance for other religions in the Sistine Chapel, embracing a "far more a universalistic vision of a God who loves all his children" than some of his contemporaries.
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This post has been updated.