IN THE MIDST OF ALL assuredly dwells the Sun. For in this most beautiful who would place this luminary in any other or better position from which he can illuminate the whole at once? Indeed, some rightly call Him the Light of the World, others, the Mind or ruler of the Universe: Trismegistus names him the visible God, Sophocles’ Electra calls him the all-seeing. So indeed the Sun remains, as if in his kingly dominion, governing the family of Heavenly bodies which circles around him.
The most interesting talk of the NAM historical session was the excellently titled Michelangelo Code. Valerie Shrimplin based her talk on part of her PhD thesis Sun Symbolism and Cosmology in Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgement’ available from Truman State University Press. It tackles something that initially doesn’t seem to be a problem. She also covers this in her paper of the same title in the Sixteenth Century Journal (Vol 21.4 1990 pp 607–44 JSTOR) which I’ve lifted the above quote from. The text above seems a reasonable description of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. In fact it’s from De Revolutionibus, by Nicholas Copernicus describing his heliocentric cosmology. Did Michelangelo paint Copernicus’s heavens in the Sistine Chapel?
It seems unlikely. De Revolutionibus was published two years after Michelangelo finished the chapel. After Copernicus’s death heliocentricism became controversial. It could be accepted as a mathematical device, but as a representation of reality, which is how Michelangelo uses it, it would later be seen as heresy. The accepted explanation is that Michelangelo came to place Christ in a central position independently, but this is an odd explanation when you look at other depictions of the Last Judgement and what it is supposed to do.
Above is a 19th century restoration of the Torcello Mosaic and it’s a fair representation of the standard form of Last Judgements. It places the heavens at the top, Earth in the middle and Hell below. At the top is Christ and this reflects the earthly social order. The Last Judgement was a typical theme for the west end of a church, so that when the congregation left they had a close look at what was in store for them if they strayed. Michelangelo doesn’t through out all of this composition, but there are peculiarities in the composition and there was talk of it containing secrets not meant for the layman.
The talk explored if Copernican ideas could have influenced Michelangelo and it turns out there’s plenty of evidence they could. There’s no evidence the two met, but they were contemporaries and both moved in similar circles in the upper echelons of the church. Copernicus was also talking about his ideas before publishing them and this is mentioned, if I recall the talk correctly, in some letters from the Vatican.
Yet the idea that the Sistene Chapel in the Vatican was a poster for heliocentricism during the time of the Roman Inquisition is a bit mad. Surely the church’s hostility to heliocentricism would have made it a taboo subject for Michelangelo’s fresco. On the contrary, it seems there was not wide opposition to heliocentricism until after Copernicus’s death. You’d think the church would have been against such thought. Against heliocentricism Martin Luther said: “…Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth.” He wasn’t a noted fan of Catholic theology, but he was stating the obvious. The Catholic church however had done some thinking and may have recognised there was a major theological flaw of geocentricism. It made Hell the centre of the universe. This wasn’t a new idea, it was explored by Dante in the Divine Comedy. But if you accept, as people did, that the Earth was round, then a geocentric universe would, if Hell was the underworld, made the universe Haidocentric.
One possible reason for hostility to heliocentricism – and I’m speculating wildly here because I haven’t read Shrimplin’s book yet – might not be the answer it gave, but the problems it created in even asking the question. Once you have a choice of what is at the centre of the universe then it becomes apparent that neither answer is going to be theologically perfect. This is a problem if your religion posits the existence of a perfect god.
The talk was interesting because it overturned a few simplistic ideas about the conflict between religion and science. The favoured story of Copernicus being quashed by a dogmatic Catholic church doesn’t really stand up, though he may have been justifiably worried about other denominations. Instead the Catholic church seem to have been favourably inclined to supporting Copernicus’s work until people started taking it a step too far. Rather than just seeing how much Michelangelo got right, the talk said much more about how the development of religion and by extension politics occurred in 16th century Europe. Though obviously we’re a long way from that now.
Throughout the 1970s I had been mainly studying black holes, but in 1981 my interest in questions about the origin and fate of the universe was reawakened when I attended a conference on cosmology organized by the Jesuits in the Vatican. The Catholic Church had made a bad mistake with Galileo when it tried to lay down the law on a question of science, declaring that the sun went round the earth. Now, centuries later, it had decided to invite a number of experts to advise it on cosmology. At the end of the conference the participants were granted an audience with the pope. He told us that it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the big bang, but we should not inquire into the big bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God. I was glad then that he did know the subject of the talk I had just given at the conference — the possibility that space– time was finite but had no boundary, which means that it had no beginning, no moment of Creation. I had no desire to share the fate of Galileo, with whom I feel a strong sense of identity, partly because of the coincidence of having been born exactly 300 years after his death!
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time.