Today I spent a great deal of time playing around with the Vatican’s virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel. For an art and sociology of religion nerd such as me, the 360 degree view of the Chapel was loads of fun. Nevertheless, this got me thinking about the history of Christian art and, in particular, Michelangelo’s contribution to Western ‘high art’ culture. I am interested in how Western European art of the Renaissance period set up women as The Other of men, and how this gender binary continues to influence dominant discourses of divinity within mainstream Christianity.
Elizabeth Dodson Gray offers a feminist critique of the history of patriarchal depictions of divinity. She argues this form of patriarchy is best exemplified by the system of meaning behind Michelangelo’s design of the Sistine Chapel. Dodson Gray’s central point about ‘the process of naming the sacred’ helps to unpack the narrative behind the Sistine Chapel’s most famous work. Dodson Gray argues that throughout most of modern history, men had greater power in constructing discourses of The Sacred. As a consequence, symbols of God were constructed as synonymous with being Male. Until women began offering feminist critiques of religious signs and texts, religious imagination largely ignored women’s knowledge.
Most of us have been nurtured on God Symbolised as Father and King. These patriarchal symbols of God’s power attribute to God Authority as males have thought about it and wielded it in family and nation – mainly as power-over.
Michelangelo’s portrayal on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of the creation of Adam by God has become a visual icon of all of this. The theological doctrine is encapsulated in the statement that ‘God created man in his own image’. In the first three centuries after Jesus, the early church fathers in their theology wrote a great deal about the imago dei, man created in the image of God. It is clear from the picture in the Sistine Chapel both that God is male, and the human is also male: Michelangelo has displayed clearly Adam’s flaccid penis as well as God’s male muscles and beard.
We have always assumed that the creative energy in this creation story came from the extended finger of the bearded God-the-Father, leaping across the spatial gap to the extended finger of the man Adam. The energy we have imaged at work here is the energy of God to create life. Until God’s energy touches him, Adam is but clay or some similarly inert substance. But when that creating finger of God reaches out and outstretches that hand we just know that this dormant Adam-figure becomes alive…
But if you understand the sociology of knowledge I have been laying out here, you see that the creative energy really was going the other way, and that the human male of the species, peering into the cosmic mystery, reached out to create God in his own image, the male image.
Dodson Gray calls this ‘the Narcissus effect’, a phrase that evokes Greek mythology to explain how historically, Christian elites constructed men as the purest vision of God. This obviously casts women as inconsequential, and ultimately paints divinity as primarily male.
Like some other mainstream feminist critiques, Dodson Gray’s analysis fails to make clear how the author’s position as a white, middle class woman influences her critique of Christianity. The result is that the analysis ignores the nuances of how The Sacred is constructed in other religions and cultures. For example, there’s no substantive discussion of women’s role within other ‘non-Western’ interpretations of the Bible and what the concept of divinity looks like from non-Western standpoints. Instead, readers are provided with a critique of ‘Religion’, ‘God’ and ‘Men’ as universal constructs, rather than as reflecting a particular ‘Western’ habitus. (For an alternative, see Kim Veltman for an analysis of how Hinduism and ‘Eastern cosmology’ have influenced storytelling in the Bible.)
This critique aside, Dodson Gray’s work still offers a useful sociological analysis of the Bible and its related cultural artefacts, including the art held by the Vatican. The Creation of Adam celebrates men’s status in Western Christianity as being representative of humanity’s active link to God. Through the absence of women, Michelangelo’s iconic depiction of the Christian story of Creation reinforces women as the passive by-product of men’s divine relationship to God. What is most useful about Dodson Gray’s analysis is not a critique on religious belief systems, but rather to understand how historical and cultural processes influence how religious discourses become established and maintained, including through art and architecture.
Quotes taken from: Elizabeth Dodson Gray (2004) ‘Lay Women’s Feminist Critical Thinking about the Bible’, pp. 149-159 in Charles M. Ess (Ed.) Critical Thinking and the Bible in the Age of New Media. Passages taken from pp. 152-153.
Images taken from Vatican’s Sistine Chapel virtual tour.
Link to Vatican website via VSauce.