Sunday, July 3, 2011

Power and Spirit - A Review of Michelangelo Revealed

I happened upon a fascinating program on PBS last night entitled Michelangelo Revealed: Angels, Demons, Artists and Intrigue. I’m a Johnny-come-lately here. It has been aired before. But I want to recommend it all around.

The documentary plays out like a mystery or detective novel. It’s got good guys and bad guys, and while the bad guys win, the good guys come across as greater than life. It has much of the suspense and intrigue of The Da Vinci Code, with which it has been compared for its attack on the church. The difference, though, is considerable. Michelangelo Revealed has a much better claim to authenticity, and where The Da Vinci Code ridicules, Michelangelo Revealed shames.

Michelangelo Revealed should appeal to everybody with even a passing familiarity with Michelangelo, and with art history. And to lovers of Italy. What I found riveting, however, was the revelation that Michelangelo was a member, or at least a close associate, of a group of catholic reformers working inside the church of his day to head off the excesses of hierarchical corruption. These people, known as The Spirituali, shared the basic view of Luther and Calvin that the way to heaven was through faith alone, and not through good works and contributions to the church.

Those following closely the struggle within the church today between conservative forces who focus their energies on maintaining centralized power, and progressive forces seeking to broaden the base of the church to include the entire body of believers, will have no trouble seeing a parallel between Pope Paul III and John XXIII on the one hand, and Pope Paul IV and the popes who succeeded John XXIII and have tried to turn back his Vatican II reforms.

Paul IV, the former Cardinal Carafa, used the Inquisition to hunt down his arch enemies, Cardinal Pole and other Spirituali, and even went after Michelangelo, cutting off his pension. To survive, Michelangelo went so far as to resculpt some of his sculptures which had revealed his sympathies with the progressive faction seeking internal reform.

It comes as no surprise that there is controversy over the views of the program’s director, Fabrizio Ruggirello, producer Marco Visalberghi, and writer, Vania Del Borgo. While I’m not in a position to speak to their veracity, I am sure others will. What they have delivered is a close look at the conclusion of art historian Antonio Forcellino that Michelangelo was a reformer within the church, and was punished for it. He’s commonly portrayed as a favored son of the church and of Pope Julius. Here, he is the victim of a harsh crackdown on religious dissent.

This may be old news to a few church insiders, but it’s pretty flashy stuff to the rest of us. The publicity is almost certain to displease the church’s right wing. How this story figures in future discussions of the modern church and its attempts to influence politics in America and elsewhere, remains to be seen.

Don’t be put off by the unfortunate title of the series, “Secrets of the Dead” and the creepy music of the intro, which might indicate you’re about to watch some sort of horror show. You are, of course, but the horror is the abuse of power of the conservative church hierarchy, not some ghoulish force that lives in the dark of night.

The struggle that continues today has been toned down. There is no Inquisition, no torture on the racks, no book burning. There is banning, as Hans Küng and other dissident theologians can tell you about, but at least they no longer live under house arrest. The ideology of the power-structure hard-liners is reflected in the insistence on clerical celibacy, on the subordination of women, on an attempt to limit all human sexuality to reproductive sex, define abortion as murder, and, until very recently, to protect the dignity and power of the bishops by hiding the child-abuse scandals around the world, rather than surrender authority to larger non-religious sources of justice.

We sometimes forget there is another church beyond Official Vatican – the 80 to 90% of the church that doesn’t follow its strictures on birth control, the Catholic governor of New York and the majority of New York Catholics who brought about the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples this week, the Liberation Theologists and others who insist the work of the church should be primarily pastoral, not political, and those working with people of other faiths and people outside the faith to foster universal human rights. They will see a forerunner in Michelangelo, who had his own copy of the Bible in Italian, a crime he could have been put to death for.

Traditionalists will want to argue this is just more church-bashing. Others will see it as an opportunity to dwell a while on the life and work of one of the greatest artists of all time, and an attempt to put history right. Still others, inside the church and outside, will see it not as church-bashing at all, but as the story of a man who loved his church and used his talents to make it see past the corruption to the reason the church was founded in the first place.

The program is available here in its entirety, at least at present.


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