168 – Michelangelo: Leaning back, looking forward

Michelangelo, Jonah, c. 1511-12. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

I’m just about to start a new series of lectures, Almost All of Michelangelo, and we kick off this Monday 5 September with The Paintings. Unlike my previous online talks, these will be two hour sessions, and will last from 5.30-7.30pm – with a ten minute gap in the middle. So far only this and the second talk, The Sculptures (Monday 12 September) are on sale, but the following two (The Works on Paper and The Architecture) will be released after the talk on Monday evening. As ever, for other in-person and online talks, not to mention overseas tours, please check out the diary. Today, as an introduction (as if any were needed) to the work of this extraordinary genius, I want to talk about my favourite figure in the Sistine Chapel. It’s a hard choice, given that there are so many, and, if I’m honest, I keep changing my mind anyway. But here we go.

This is Jonah. Like the other prophets and sibyls his name is painted on a plaque underneath his feet (as we will see when I show you another detail), but unlike the others, there is enough narrative detail here that we don’t actually need the label. More of that later. He sits on an imposing stone throne, which here, perhaps more than in the other examples, looks profoundly uncomfortable. A massive slab of stone forms the seat, with two square, cylindrical ‘legs’ stretching down to the footrest – not that his feet reach that far. Precisely how these ‘legs’ are attached to the seat is not clear, as they are covered by some red/green drapery, presumably a shot silk, which, together with some folds of his white loin cloth, is the only padding between prophet and stone. Another featureless slab of stone forms the back of the throne, with two ‘arms’ made of square columns, into each of which have been carved a pair of putti. Jonah leans back, away from us and to our left, while looking up to our right and pointing down in the opposite direction. He is looking up towards God, no doubt, and pointing to some aspect of his story, but precisely which aspect is not defined. As well as the loin cloth, short enough to reveal the full length of his legs, he wears a tight, pale bodice clinging to the underlying anatomy. Emerging from this is an undershirt – although what we can see of it is remarkably untidy.  As the closest part of his body to us, the legs benefit from Michelangelo’s full attention, with precise details of musculature and skeletal structure clearly defined subcutaneously thanks to the fall of light from top right to bottom left. Leaning back as he is, his feet do not reach the ‘ground’ – his right foot hovers above it, while the toe of the left, which is slightly less flexed, almost touches the marble footrest. This proximity is also conveyed by the shadow, visible close to the left foot, below and a little to our left. The shadow of the right foot is further from its origin, and only the toe of the shadow lands on the horizontal surface.

The two figures who are not Jonah are presumably agents of God – angels – involved in the miraculous events of the prophet’s narrative, which of course involve an enormous fish. Everyone thinks it was a whale, but no, that was Pinocchio. This is what it says in Jonah 1:17,

Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

So yes, it is a great fish, although it is still in some way symbolic, as, however big, I can’t quite believe that you could get all of Jonah inside it. Of course, if it were big enough, there would be no space for Jonah on the throne. More than one angler has identified the fish as an Atlantic tarpon, while also wondering how the artist could possibly have seen one – but as I’m not a fish person, I’ll just give you links to the articles posted in 2012 and 2015 and leave you to think about it. What is clearer is that, at the end of the story, Jonah is sitting in the shade of a gourd tree, and we can see that growing up over his left shoulder. And the story itself? Well, there are only four chapters, so why not read it here? Or, short story shorter, Jonah was sent, by God, to tell the people of Nineveh that they were bad, and that He would kill them. Jonah didn’t want to do this, so ran away on a ship, so God sent a storm. Jonah told the sailors to throw him overboard, as it must be his fault. They didn’t want to, but when they couldn’t get the ship to shore, decided that this was, in fact, their best option – at which point God sent the fish. At the end of verse nine of chapter two Jonah states, ‘Salvation is of the Lord’ (remember the idea of Salvation), and this is followed by,

And the LORD spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.

If we are at this stage of the story, it is hardly surprising that his clothes are in disarray… but there is more. He goes to Nineveh finally, preaches to the people, and they repent. God does not kill them. For some reason this really angers Jonah, and he storms out of the city and sulks, sitting in the shade of a tent and waiting for the city to be destroyed. God causes a gourd tree to grow up and shade Jonah further, ‘So Jonah was exceedingly glad of the gourd’ (Jonah 4:6)– until the next day (4:7):

But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered.  

By this stage Jonah had really lost the will to live. God just chides him gently, saying (roughly speaking) ‘You seem to be more concerned about the gourd than the people of Nineveh. I made the gourd, and I can make another. I also made all the people of Nineveh, so don’t you think I can do what I like and show mercy to whom I please?’ At which point the story ends. But what is the point of the story in the context of the chapel? Well, we’ll come back to that when we’ve seen where Jonah sits.

He is in the most prominent position, dead centre, above the altar, not far above Christ at the Last Judgement (which wasn’t there, of course, when he was painted – but more about that on Monday). Like his fellow prophets and sibyls he sits on the curving section of the vault, a transition between walls and ceiling. If we were to enter through the Ecclesiastical West Door (geographically it’s actually the other way round, but never mind), he would be one of the first things we saw. However, tourists enter through the door at the bottom right of the Last Judgement. Suspiciously this is directly underneath the depiction of the mouth of hell – are the directors of the Vatican Museums trying to tell us something? It is as if we, unlike the other damned, are escaping everlasting torment only to endure the purgatory that visits to the Sistine tend to be these days. And what are the little yellow squares at the bottom of this image? Well, it comes from my new favourite website, a high-resolution virtual model of the whole chapel hosted by the Vatican itself. Click on the link, and I’ll see you in a couple of months when you’ve finished looking round.

The four corners of the chapel are filled by four fan-shaped areas often called pendentives, like the triangular units which help support a circular dome above a square space beneath. The stories depicted here are important to understand the relevance of Jonah in this prime position. To our left we see the Crucifixion of Haman, from the Book of Esther (ten chapters…). Haman had secretly plotted to have all the Jews killed. Esther was both Jewish, and Queen, and went to her husband Ahasuerus (the King) to tell him about the plot, even though no one – not even his wife – was admitted to his presence without his express permission. However, he pointed towards her, thus granting her the right to speak (and also to live). Michelangelo has imagined him reclining in bed on the right of the pendentive. Eventually Esther, Haman and the King dine together – the scene in the background on the left – and Esther reveals the plot, which leads to Haman’s execution on the gallows he had previously prepared for Mordecai, Esther’s adoptive father. Now, Haman was hung on the gallows, not crucified, as Michelangelo shows here (in the most tortured foreshortening), but Michelangelo knew his Dante, and Dante said that Haman was crucified. It is the story of Esther which is celebrated by Jews during the feast of Purim. For early Christian theologians, though, Esther was seen as the ‘type’ of Mary. The word ‘type’ comes from printing – the typeface letter ‘M’ will print an ‘M’ on the page, for example – and Esther is the ‘type’ of Mary as she is the idea periods which models the realisation: both are virtuous women whose action results in the salvation of their people. This symbolism was used throughout the medieval and renaissance and well beyond. In this particular instance it is worthwhile remembering that the Sistine Chapel was actually dedicated to the Mary, and specifically to the Assumption of the Virgin, and so this story is especially important. At the other end of the chapel we find Judith and Holofernes, who, like Esther, saves her people through her actions – she is another type of the Virgin.

The story in the other pendentive is perhaps more familiar. It comes from the Book of Numbers, Chapter 21: 4-9. The people of Israel were travelling from Egypt towards the promised land, and were complaining about the lack of food and water. God sent a plague of serpents to punish them, they realised their mistake, asked Moses to intervene, and God told Moses what to do – make a serpent of brass. You can see it erected on a pole in the middle of the image. Numbers 21:9 says,

And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

In the same way that Esther was the type of Mary, the Brazen Serpent (as it became known) was the type of Jesus on the Cross. It even says as much in the bible.  According to John 3:14-15, Jesus himself said,

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

Salvation is relevant to the story of Esther, to the story of Moses and the Brazen serpent, and to the story of Jonah. According to Matthew 12:40 Jesus said

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

So the story of Jonah and the whale (yes, it does say whale) is the type of the death and resurrection of Jesus, which is precisely why Michelangelo has given it such an important position in the chapel, directly above the altar. It could even be that, rather than leaning back, Jonah is in the process of sitting up, a physical action expressive of resurrection, having been ‘vomited… upon the dry land’. In terms of his position in the chapel, he is looking up towards God the Father dividing night and day on the ceiling, and appears to be pointing down to the forgiving Ahasuerus – so we have death, resurrection and forgiveness, night and day. This is just as well, as you would be hard pressed to find an image of the Crucifixion in the Sistine Chapel. Rather oddly it is hidden away in the background of one of the scenes on the walls, visible through the one of the windows in Cosimo Rosselli’s Last Supper at the far end of the chapel. Michelangelo uses this figure of Jonah leaning back to look forward to the Crucifixion, to Christ’s death and resurrection, thus making it symbolically more present. However, this theological complexity doesn’t really go all the way towards explaining why he is my favourite figure.

It is, quite simply, the technical brilliance of it all. To unify the ceiling and its many disparate elements Michelangelo has created an underlying architectonic structure. There are seven prophets and five sibyls all seated on these enormous, unforgiving thrones, one at either end, and five atop each wall. Sitting on the arms of the thrones along the sides of the chapel are the twenty ignudi, ten pairs of naked men. You can just see bits of them in this detail, but there is no space for them above Jonah’s throne, as the others are in the way. Behind the ignudi are pilaster strips which link one side of the chapel to the other, and also frame the old testament stories on the ceiling. But just above Jonah’s throne is a detail that is very often missed, partly because it is so plain. Above the cornice which goes round the top of the throne and ties the whole ceiling together – just as, by Michelangelo’s design, there is a cornice that is continuous around the tops of the walls inside St Peter’s – there is a thin strip of pale blue. It is the sky, seen through the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. You can only see it here, and at the other end of the ceiling, because elsewhere there are pictures in the way – the stories of the creation and fall. The prophets and sibyls are sat where they are to console us. They are intermediaries, letting us know, whatever is painted above them on the ceiling, that, thanks to what is painted below them on the walls, we, at the very bottom of the chapel, will be redeemed.

The continuous cornice implies that the walls of the chapel end above the heads of the prophets and sibyls, and that their thrones are the vertical continuation of those walls. We can buy into that illusion because they appear to be flat in front of our eyes, because this is the part of the vault which curves from vertical to horizontal. As we look up they are effectively on a curving diagonal at right angles to our direction of vision: we could equally well be looking at right angles to the vertical wall. But what that means for Jonah is that he is leaning back on a piece of vaulting which is actually curving forward – and as a feat of foreshortening this is unparalleled. I think Condivi, who wrote his biography of Michelangelo in 1553, put it better. When praising the prophets and sibyls he said,

But marvellous beyond all of them is the Prophet Jonah, placed at the head of the vault. This is for the reason that against the plane of this vault and through the power of light and shadow, the torso, which is foreshortened to recede inwards, is in the part which is nearer to the eye, and the legs which project forwards are in the part farther away. A stupendous work , and one which makes clear how much knowledge this man had of principles and the use of line in creating foreshortenings and perspectives.

Not only that – but Jonah is a true giant, but one so far away that you can’t possibly measure how big he really is. Gianluigi Collalucci can help us. He was a paintings conservator most famed for his work on the Sistine Chapel between 1980 and 1994. This is photograph of him next to Jonah. Enough said. Just as well, you say, but sadly I won’t have time to go into every figure with this much detail on Monday!

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

6 thoughts on “168 – Michelangelo: Leaning back, looking forward

  1. Dear Dr Stemp,

    I absolutely loved reading this blog and I am very much looking forward to Monday’s talk. Thank you for the link for the virtual model of the chapel, it is amazing !

    Kind Regards

    Mrs Laurence Lopez


    1. Thank you! So glad that you liked the blog, and hope the talk lives up to expectations! And yes – the virtual model is fantastic… I’ve already spent too long with it…
      All best wishes, Richard


  2. What a wonderfully informative and enjoyable read! Many thanks for this and for your other posts which I always look forward to.


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