Through the Cracks of Context

By Hillary Asbury

“A beautiful thing never gives so much pain as failing to hear and see it.”

-Michelangelo Buonarroti

As Christian viewers, we see art history differently than the rest of the world.

When we gaze upon a masterpiece of the Renaissance, we may be awed and amazed by the time, talent, and skill the artist wielded. We may be struck by the years the art has seen and survived, possibly drawn in by some mysterious link to the past. As believers, though, there is another level of context; we are viewing a visual representation of the Word of God.

 The religious art of antiquity speaks to us, tells, and retells the stories of Scripture; it reminds us of who we are and who our God is.

In her introduction to “The Square Halo and Other Mysteries of Western Art,” Sally Fisher makes the following declaration: “Important as it is to study a work with the eyes of the past, it is more important to admire it with our own.” When I first read it, my inner art historian was appalled, even offended. How dare she? Of course study is more important than admiration. How can anyone fully admire a work without having studied the historical and cultural context of its creation?

I cherish some of my favorite pieces of art more because of the context or drama behind them than their aesthetic.

Fisher goes on to use Michelangelo’s most famed work to prove her point: “The famous often-reproduced section of the Sistine ceiling, in which God’s hand reaches toward Adam’s, has a crack in it. I find that crack an eloquent and moving part of the picture: perhaps it is lightning, or perhaps it signals catastrophe, perhaps even as the sky is coming apart, the hands come together. I suspect, personally that the deep appeal of the image of those two hands lies partially in that crack.” I find the argument fascinating, even if I disagree. It’s true that the image in question is pervasive in our culture. It can be found referenced in advertisements, films, comics, and children’s cartoons. Everyone has seen it in some context, and I’m sure most of them know where it originates from.

The question is this: Are the cracks in the ceiling the reason for the image’s intense popularity?

Now, some of the cracks in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are incidental; they are structural, as one would assume at a cursory glance. However, there are some that were apparently painted by the artist. There is some speculation as to why Michelangelo would do this. Was he trying to convince Pope Julius II (who forced his hand, almost literally) that he wasn’t up to the task of painting frescoes? It’s quite possible. He wasn’t a fresco painter and really, really didn’t want to take the job. Maybe he was trying to get out of the commission by tricking the pope into thinking the results would be a disaster from the start. Michelangelo was likely aware that the ceiling was prone to cracking. Perhaps he was preemptively attempting to camouflage future imperfections. Maybe the cracks do have some hidden meaning or symbolism. I’ve never been close enough to know which cracks are real and which are painted, though, and surely there are cracks all over the ceiling, illusory and otherwise. So, what would make the cracks around Adam so much more intriguing?

The Sistine Chapel is large.

 There are paintings covering almost every inch of wall and ceiling—brilliant paintings. The Creation of Adam is but a small section, so why is it the object of so much obsession? Is it because the cracks in it add so much to the aesthetic and drama of it that we can’t help but be drawn in by it? Or is it a fascination with the mystery of our creation?

I believe we view this section of the Sistine ceiling and we see ourselves.

We look at this image, and we witness humanity coming in contact with the divine. Are we witnessing the moment God breathes life into Adam as traditionally interpreted? Or are we instead witnessing the consequences of sin? Could this be a heartbreaking moment of separation? Are we being reminded of a life-giving God or of the nature of our fatal sin? Is this Law or Gospel? Perhaps it’s both.

 Perhaps in this little section of ceiling we are reminded of our whole story.

I think our fascination with Michelangelo’s work here would be just as strong with or without its cracks (intentional or not), and I can’t help but wonder if Fisher was aware that the cracks she insists on admiring outside of the painting’s context may have been painted by the artist himself in the first place. What she certainly fails to consider is that when we Christians view these pieces, we don’t see them for their aesthetic beauty or historic value alone; we see them for the elegance with which they make Scriptural connections and value them for the way they speak to our hearts, minds, and spirits. Our context runs deeper. Religious art isn’t just decoration. It isn’t another log in the history books or a display at a museum. Religious art is life and death, Law and Gospel. It is the Word of God, reimagined in a visual language. For us, context is everything.

Without our context, we are lost.