Unpacking the Gendered Symbolism of the Sistine Chapel

By Zuleyka Zevallos

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.

Credits

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.

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4 thoughts on “Unpacking the Gendered Symbolism of the Sistine Chapel

  1. I can’t imagine a human mind that wouldn’t seporate the implied narrative in these or other art works from the narrative that mind interprets when experiencing the same art. How, I have to ask, is the post modern overlay you and so many others attempt any less obnoxious an example of the mind control of which you rightly accuse tue catholic church, renaissance era patriarchy and wealth and power inequalities. How, I am asking, does it help to spin and hubris better than the enemy when presumably, this tendency to spin and hubris is a big part of the frustration you feel with injustice and it’s practice? I am white and male and grew up in California where being white and male certainly wasn’t a disadvantage, so I might not share the fuel of frustration as might motivate your opinion, but when is acting like the enemy the best way to act? Such choices can only lead to a hubris arms race. In such a contest the bad guy always wins, the moral advantage is erased, and the teaching shifts from love to warcraft. Slick and cool and affect are the enemy within. Is there ever really an excuse to amplify these sad and easy reactions to oppression?

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    • Hi Randall. I’m not entirely clear about what you mean by your comments, but if you see that I am arguing that “men” are “the enemy”, you have misread my post. Patriarchy is damaging to all genders, including men, women, transgender, intersex and queer people. No where in my article do I use the term “mind control”, nor do “attack” the Catholic Church, and I certainly do not make the argument that men are “the enemy”. Sociology provides a critique of social institutions and social practices, such as religion and gender, but sociological critique does not set up sociologists the “enemy” of an entire gender or group. My article considers the historical effects of Catholic art and its representation of dominant gender relations within Catholicism. I specifically refer to the most famous artwork in the Sistine Chapel, where the Creation of Adam communicates the idea that men are closer to the divine than women. I argue that the mainstream Catholic discourse embedded within these works of art position men as superior to women. I do not say that all men think they are superior to women. Patriarchy operates through a gender binary that elevate men (as a group) above women (as a group). This argument does not mean that men are the enemy of women; rather patriarchy is a system of inequality that affects how ideas of power, masculinity and femininity are communicated in societies. White Western cultures further overlay ideas about racial superiority into the way the categories of “men” and “women” are constructed. I can recommend a couple of great sociological authors to help you think through this a bit more. Raewyn Connell has written a series of powerful books that explore how different types of masculinities are constructed. Connell discusses how different masculinities affect individual men; how they affect men’s relationships to women; as well as men’s relationship to other men. (See http://www.raewynconnell.net/p/masculinities_20.html) Anthony McMahon’s book “Taking Care of Men” also explores the difficulties men experience in navigating patriarchy. http://www.amazon.com/Taking-Care-Men-Sexual-Politics/dp/0521588200 Hope you enjoy reading these books.

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  2. “Creation of Adam communicates the idea that men are closer to the divine than women”I think this is the kinds of statements that put the arg, in argument, the creation of man is as one but man was the creation of two. A question do you know what it means when the Bible say ” takes on a wife and they become one” understand this and it may help you stop this ridic.

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    • I’ve had a number of angry men write to me about this post over the years and I never allow their comments because they are filled with sexist abuse. I’m allowing your comment simply to make the point that comments such as yours argue using emotion and a poor understanding of the cultural context in which religious works are created. I’ve presented a sociological argument about the historical gender norms informing the art of the Sistine Chapel. These norms focus on men as active agents of faith, as creators, and sidelines women’s religious contributions. The Bible is a document written over many centuries and informed by various patriarchal cultures. Women question this history because it creates inequality and marginalises their role within the Church. The Sistine Chapel is beautiful, but that doesn’t mean we can’t critically study at its cultural meaning.

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