Academics don’t know it all

All you may need is one correct observation to unlock the meaning of a masterpiece.

As an independent art “historian”, I am puzzled by how academic scholars deride and belittle the contributions of non-academic writers without considering their well-known advantage: outsiders can sometimes see what insiders cannot. The prejudice is so ingrained that this newspaper is unlikely to review a recent book on Michelangelo by a rabbi and a tour guide, both with in-depth knowledge of the Sistine Chapel. Although The Sistine Secrets by Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner (published in the US by Harper Collins) may mislead the public, it can still help scholars. For instance, their argument that the Jewish Kabbalah inspired Michelangelo’s designs, while probably wrong, does suggest that the lesser-known traditions of esoteric Christianity may be a promising avenue for research. The two paths, both part of the Inner Tradition [a philosophy of early Christian spirituality], are closely linked. Besides, the authors offer insights into Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks and Botticelli’s Primavera that no scholar should miss. I trust those perceptions because they fit my understanding precisely, an unlikely occurrence if we are both wrong. They also help demonstrate that visual illusions are part of artistic tradition.

My own work, advertised occasionally in this newspaper, has also shown how Michelangelo’s meaning is veiled in visual illusion, as visual poetry must be. Yet while academics distrust optical illusions in great art, painters often tell me: “That’s how an artist thinks.” In 2005 I rescued the insight of a Venezuelan diplomat from archival oblivion by linking his perception of Dante’s hidden profile in The Last Judgement to the observations of other amateurs. Frank Meshberger, a neurologist, had recognised that the cloak behind God in The Creation of Adam looks like a cerebral cortex. Thus, just as Christ stands in Dante’s brain on the wall, God reclines in a human brain on the ceiling. Years later, Garabed Eknoyan, a nephrologist, saw God’s cloak in another creation panel as kidney-shaped. Since kidneys were thought to separate water from matter, he is undeniably correct. The panel is God Separating the Waters from the Firmament. These observations have all been ignored by academics. Only in 2005, when I published a paper online, were the three perceptions linked into a coherent theory, that Michelangelo painted the chapel as a metaphoric description of his own mind, with divinity inside and artistic creation represented as an internal echo of divine creation. This fits what literary critic Lauren Silberman has called the “Petrarchan strategy of making...the poet’s own mental state the primary, objective reality.” And it is what the Renaissance saying “Every painter paints himself” actually means.

Like the Bible, Dante’s Commedia and other books, Michelangelo’s frescoes are both a representation of external (or divine) reality and a visual metaphor for the interior of an individual soul. It is a theme connecting literature, art and mysticism. Matthew Fox wrote of Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval nun: “She sees the human body and the human psyche as creation-in-miniature. We are in the cosmos and the cosmos is in us.” With moral corruption in the Church, lay people also turned inwards with devotional literature of the period urging readers to find Christ in themselves.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to seeing art correctly is the Albertian claim that painting is like a view through a window. Amateurs, unbound by this paradigm and willing to accept that optical illusions are a valid poetic device, can sometimes see what professionals cannot. Their theories may be wrong; their books may be full of errors; but all you may need is one correct observation to unlock the meaning of a masterpiece.

The writer is based in New York. His theories can be read online at

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