Brenda Lee Bohen

Two Jews in Paradise: Enrico Bruschini shares a fascinating discovery after the magnificent restoration of the Sistine Chapel

Universal Last Judgement, Sistine Chapel. (Courtesy of Enrico Bruschini)
Universal Last Judgement, Sistine Chapel. (Courtesy of Enrico Bruschini)

The nearly 20-year restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and Last Judgement fresco transformed how we experience this glorious work aesthetically and how we interpret its rich and complex religious content. After removing nearly half a millennia of dirt and grime, the restoration of the Sistine Chapel not only unearthed Michelangelo’s magnificent colors, but also revealed precious messages hidden for centuries by the dust and soot caused by the burning of candles over the course of 500 years.

Italian art historian Enrico Bruschini’s research and scholarship explores these previously obscured messages and helps us see the life and mind and spiritual education and understanding of Michelangelo in a new and more expansive way.

Enrico Bruschini reveals this fascinating discovery in the forward he wrote for the international best seller The Sistine Secrets (Harper Collins, 2008), written by Rabbi Benjamin Blech and museum guide Roy Doliner. Bruschini informs that the most striking message—a sort of “Michelangelo’s hidden code”—uncovered in the 1980-1999 restoration of the Sistine Chapel is a demonstration of respect for the Jewish religion that Michelangelo knew very well. To truly understand the depth and importance of “Michelangelo’s hidden code,” we must first look to his development as a young artist in Florence and the influence of the Medici family.

The first meeting of the 13-year-old Michelangelo (1475, Caprese-1564, Rome) with the great patron Lorenzo de’ Medici of Florence (1449, Arezzo–1492 Florence), known as Lorenzo the Magnificent or Lorenzo il Magnifico in Italian, took place in 1488. The young Michelangelo aimed at sculpting a “Head of an old faun” now lost in the new School of Sculpture commissioned and sponsored by Lorenzo the Magnificent in his gardens at piazza San Marco in Florence.

It is Giorgio Vasari (1511, Arezzo–1574, Florence), the Italian painter, architect, and writer best known for his important biographies of Italian Renaissance artists, who relates the famous anecdote of the first meeting between the thirteen-year-old Michelangelo and the patron. As Vasari relates this story in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550 and 1568), the young Michelangelo was intently sculpting a copy of a head of an ancient “Old Faun” present at the San Marco Garden. The famous Lorenzo Medici noticed and admired the young boy’s ability but commented to the young artist that his “old” faun’s teeth were too healthy. While Lorenzo completed his tour of the garden, Michelangelo chiseled off a tooth and opened a small cavity in the gum, thus earning Lorenzo’s admiration and respect. It was skill, speed and insight of the young artist that convinced Lorenzo to become his patron and host him in his Palazzo Medici in via Larga (now via Cavour) and have him study with his children.

Courtesy of Enrico Bruschini. The episode is commemorated by a pleasant statue by the Italian sculptor Emilio Zocchi (1835–1913) presented in the Palatine Gallery in Florence. Zocchi is best known for his busts, bas-reliefs, and statuettes of classical and Renaissance individuals. Note: the attention and intensity of the young artist’s gaze is remarkable!
Courtesy of Enrico Bruschini. The episode is commemorated by a pleasant statue by the Italian sculptor Emilio Zocchi (1835–1913) presented in the Palatine Gallery in Florence. Zocchi is best known for his busts, bas-reliefs, and statuettes of classical and Renaissance individuals. Note: the attention and intensity of the young artist’s gaze is remarkable!

Serving in the Medici Court had a profound impact on the life of the young artist. Bruschini points out that several teachers of Michelangelo and Lorenzo the Magnificent’s sons were Jewish and taught the foundations of the Jewish religion, the Talmud and the Kabbalah. It was also at the Palazzo Medici where the young Michelangelo got to know philosophers and humanists such as Poliziano and Marsilio Ficino and in particular the great Pico della Mirandola, the most important Christian Renaissance kabbalist who at that time was trying to demonstrate the divinity of Jesus through the teachings of the Kabbalah. These religious teachings of the young Michelangelo would be a foundation and ideas he would later reference and incorporate in his most famous works.

When Michelangelo was thirty-three years old, Pope Julius II called him to Rome to paint a fresco on the Sistine Ceiling (1508–1512) and later the Last Judgment (1536–1541) on the altar wall. By now, Michelangelo had developed into a mature artist, and he was celebrated as one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance. But he never forgot the teachings he received as a young man in Florence in the Medici court, and the lessons he learned from Pico della Mirandola about Jesus and the Kabalah would inform his most famous works of art.

Bruschini points out in his scholarship that thanks to the restoration or rather the “cleaning” of the Sistine Ceiling, the first discovery is the figure of Aminadab, the King of the Levites, a priest of the Jews. Bruschini is careful to use the specific term “cleaning” and not restoration because during the long and delicate work not a single gram of color was added, only the dirt of the centuries was removed. The figure of Aminadab is presented in the series of lunettes that depict the “Ascendants of Christ,” the generations from St. Joseph to King David, as listed in the Gospel of Matthew. They were frescoed in the space above the large windows of the chapel. The figure of Aminadab was painted to the left of the altar and exactly above the papal throne of Pope Julius II (reigned 1503–13). Pope Julius, original name was Giuliano della Rovere, (1443, Albisola, Republic of Genoa—1513, Rome), was one of the greatest art patrons among the popes and one of the most powerful rulers of his age. Bruschini points out that Aminadab’s face appears sad and offended, and ponders why; his research provides an illuminating reason.

Photo: Courtesy of Enrico Bruschini. On Aminadab’s upper left arm (on the viewer’s right), cleaning has revealed a bright yellow circle of the badge of shame

The IV Lateran Council, held in 1215, declared in decree 68 that “Jews must distinguish themselves from Christians in the way they dress, to avoid involuntary promiscuous sexual unions.”The sign to distinguish and marginalize the Jews consisted of a large yellow wheel sewn onto their clothes. At the time when Michelangelo painted the fresco, this yellow wheel was not easily noticed from the ground due to its distance of over 20 meters, and the large fabric canopies placed above the altar and the papal throne partially concealed its view as well.

It is only after the lunette had been cleaned that the large yellow circle painted on the left arm of Aminadab’s iridescent cloak “reappeared” and could be clearly seen for what it represented. Hundreds of years later, this yellow wheel—formerly obscured by dirt and grime but now clean—was now immediately recognizable as the yellow badge of shame that Jews were forced to wear due to the IV Lateran Council.

Let us recall that the IV Lateran Council was held in Rome, Pope Innocent III ordered the Jews to wear identifying markers or clothing at all times that made them readily distinguishable from Christians. This terrible and alienating message was not immediately understandable during Michelangelo’s time, but perhaps Michelangelo hoped this alienating symbol would be understood by future generations. Unfortunately, even recently in the Nazi extermination camps, a yellow triangle or a six-pointed yellow Star of David formed by two overlapping triangles had to be sewn on tunics and worn by the Jewish prisoners.

Throughout the cleaning of the Sistine Ceiling and Last Judgement frescoes, Enrico Bruschini was invited several times to the scaffolding to observe the cleaning progress. “It was a dream,” and he further explained: “What looked like a dark gray veil was slowly turning into a kaleidoscope of colors. Imagine being about sixty centimeters from the frescoes, you notice important details not easily visible from below.” Another truly amazing detail Bruschini was able to see whilst on the scaffold after during the cleaning was the famous “Original Sin.” He observed Eva’s face up close and noticed that to paint Eva’s lips Michelangelo had used a very thin brush to make evident the small vertical lines that appear on our lips. It is not possible to even see this wonderful and humanizing detail from the floor of the Chapel. According to Bruschini, however, this is the proof that Michelangelo did not paint the ceiling just to please the pope. Despite pressure from Pope Julius II to quickly complete the Sistine Ceiling, for the great artist, Eve’s lips had to be painted with thoughtful detail, even if they couldn’t be seen from the floor of the chapel!

Original Scene, Sistine Ceiling. (Courtesy of Enrico Bruschini)

Detail of Eve, Original Sin, Sistine Chapel. Photo: Courtesy of Enrico Bruschini

Twenty-three years after he completed the Sistine Ceiling, Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Clement VII in 1535 to fresco the altar wall with the grandiose Last Judgement. Here too, after the cleaning, says Bruschini, another incredible discovery was made: Michelangelo put two Jewish Rabbis—therefore two unbaptized—in heaven!

The Last Judgment fresco, painted by an aging Michelangelo now in his late sixties and always alone, represents the end of the world and the eternal judgement of God of the saved and the damned. After the resurrection, the blessed rise to heaven to enjoy the presence of God. Jesus in the center with his right hand raised precipitates the damned into hell. With the same hand, Jesus points above his shoulder to a figure in an orange robe, which in turn leads our eye to two figures with beards and two hats, one green-turquoise and one yellow.

“They are two Jews, and how do we recognize that?” asks Bruschini.

Photo: Courtesy of Enrico Bruschini

After the death of Jesus, the Jews were accused of having sentenced him to death and killed him and were branded as “deicides.” Justification of the charge of Jewish deicide can be found in the New Testament, Mathew 27:24-25:
“ So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ And all the people answered, “ His blood be on us and on our own children!” In addition, the verse that reads “And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ is referred to as the “blood curse”, as well. This particular passage has caused more Jewish suffering throughout history than any other in the New Testament. It has contributed to centuries of pogroms, and to the hatred and murder of Jews during the periods of the Middle Ages, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Holocaust.

Jesus was not condemned by and with a Jewish law. Jesus was condemned and killed by and under Roman law and was therefore crucified. For the Jewish religion, a death sentence had to be carried out directly by the people by stoning the offender.

Despite this, “the deicides and their descendants” had to pay for their guilt and the persecutions began. After the IV Lateran Council of 1215, the persecution became even heavier and more offensive. To avoid “involuntary” promiscuous mating, Jewish men had to wear a green-turquoise headdress and women had to wear a yellow shawl (like prostitutes in ancient Rome), explains Bruschini. The impositions were institutionalized in the Papal bull “Cumnimis absurdum” , 14 July 1555. With this edict Pope Paul IV Giovanni Carafa revoked all the rights of the Jewish community and placed religious and economic restrictions on the Jews that lived in the Papal States. The first most important rule established in the Roman Ghetto and required the Jews of Rome to live in it.

Bruschini suggests, to look at the two characters: the man on the right has a yellow hat, a sign of ignominy, the other has a green-turquoise hat with two strange protuberances. Jews are ‘deicides’ so like the devil they have horns hidden under the two cones! Humiliating and offensive, maintains Bruschini, but Michelangelo placed the two rabbis not in a remote corner of paradise, but almost at the center of the elect. Observing carefully, we realize that the character in the orange dress not only shows the two rabbis, but points and almost touches the hand of the rabbi in the green-turquoise headdress with the index finger raised. The rabbi’s response with his raises right index finger to the person who is pointing at him, has “great ecumenical value for me, “remarks Bruschini. This gesture is to indicate the number one, to remind humanity that God is One. Only when we understand that we are all children of the same God, to whom each one of us must give the name best suited to his own sensitivity and traditions, will Peace reign in the world.

After five centuries Michelangelo’s universal message has been understood and begins to be implemented. We understand that religion, which is often used to trigger cruel conflicts, must unite and not divide, says Bruschini.

The Catholic Church has definitively opened dialogue with other religions. For example, in the document “Nostra Aetate” of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council it is stated verbatim that “the whole human race is originated from God, whose plan of salvation extends to all.” The largest section of the document is reserved for the Jewish religion, both because it is the closest to the Catholic religion, and above all to cancel the accusations made against the Jews over the centuries, says Bruschini. The document definitively excludes the collective responsibility of the Israelites in the death of Christ with the words “all Jews of that time and no Jews of today are not guilty of the death of Jesus”.

“What is important and I would also like people to note,” proclaims Bruschini, “as on April 13, 1986, John Paul II, the first pope in history, was invited to the Major Synagogue by the Chief Rabbi of Rome Elio Toaf. The Pontiff greeted everyone present with the following: “The Jewish religion is not‘extrinsic’ to us, said Pope John Paul II (during his speech at the Great Synagogue of Rome) but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion,” he said. “With Judaism, therefore,” he continued, “we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers, and in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.” You are our dearly beloved brothers, and in a certain way, you are our Elder Brothers.”

“I am sure that Michelangelo smiled from Heaven. His message was finallyunderstood,” concludes Brushini.


Interview with Enrico Bruschini

Named art historian of the American embassy in Rome and official Guide of Rome, Enrico Bruschini is an Italian historian, art expert, professor, author, and passionate storyteller. Until his retirement from the embassy in 1998, he served as its fine art curator. He is the author of 2001- best seller In “The Footsteps of Popes” (Wm, Morrow Publishing) , “The Vatican Masterpieces,” “Rome and The Vatican,” “Cesarini Venus by Giambologna,” and wrote the Forward to International best seller “The Sistine Secrets”(Harper Collins 2008). His books remain the standard reference work for art in the Vatican Museums and Rome.

About the Author
Brenda Lee Bohen is a collaborator with the Jewish Museum of Rome. She has earned a Bachelor’s degree in the History of Art and Architecture from DePaul University, and a Master of Science in Historic Preservation from the Art Institute of Chicago. She earned her certification in Jewish Leadership at the Spertus Institute in partnership with Northwestern University and continues higher education at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. She is also a licensed and accredited tour in the Vatican Museums. As such, she passionately advocates for ongoing productive scholarship concerning the history of the Jews of Rome. In her volunteer efforts and contributions to articles and blogs, she strives to enlighten others about Roman Jewish history by interviewing prominent Jewish scholars from around the world, as well as her fellow tour guides from the community who are familiar with references to her areas of interest in the texts of the Torah, Talmud and Zohar. These texts, along with insights from other sources – including new discoveries gained from modern scholarship – contribute to an appreciation of the scope of Jewish contributions to the city of Rome, a treasured fact often ignored and omitted from history books and even guided tours of the Eternal City. She is a Hispanic woman of converso heritage, holds dual American and Italian citizenship, and is a proud veteran of the United States Army Reserves.