Once, early in the morning, I had the Sistine all to myself, except for the constant presence of a black-robed priest. Built in the 1470s under Pope Sixtus IV, from whom it takes its name, the Sistine Chapel serves a crucial religious function. Beginning in 1492, it has hosted Conclave, white smoke and the cry of “habemus papam” signalling a candidate has received a two-thirds majority to pastor over a billion souls and to govern one of the most secretive states in the world.
The ceiling, Michelangelo’s reluctant masterpiece, was painted just over thirty years later and took four miserable years to complete, mostly with the artist horizontal. The centrepiece is of course, the section entitled “The Creation of Adam”, figures representing God and Adam reaching for each other with outstretched arms, their fingers almost touching. Some theorists think the scene also contains the unmistakable outline of a human brain, formed by the angels and robes surrounding God. Perhaps Michelangelo meant to evoke God’s bestowal of intelligence on the first human being, or, a more sinister, heretical interpretation whereby God and man could communicate directly, without interference from the Church. Cue Protestant cheers and Catholic boos. The Last Judgment fresco, one of the last in the Chapel to be finished, seemed to suggest this and Pope Paul VI suspended his pension in consequence.
He was an expert at concealing messages. In two places in the masterpiece, Michelangelo left self portraits, both of them depicting himself being tortured. He gave his own face to Saint Bartholomew’s body martyred by being skinned alive, and to the severed head of Holofernes, who was seduced and beheaded by Judith. But, there are more secrets. The gay community is spellbound by the eroticism clearly shown in the Last Judgment – men kissing and, as one gay site described them, “beautiful bottoms” is perhaps a paradigm for the secrecy surrounding homosexuality in the Church itself.
Thoughts about these ideas came from three separate and unlikely sources, the shame of Cardinal Pell in Australia, a new book “In the Closet of the Vatican” and the Sultan of Brunei.
The pitiless hound of truth is catching up with the Catholic Church, as the iceberg of paedophilia has begun to be seen for what it is, a longstanding cover up for priestly misbehaviour, often with young boys. While it is quite wrong to conflate homosexual activity between consenting adults with paedophilia per se, the link between them is undeniable, since convicted priests have systematically abused those predominantly of their own gender, suggesting they are both homosexual and paedophiliac, unpalatable as such may seem.
The almost pathological secrecy of the Roman Curia is well-known, and a new book “In the Closet of the Vatican”, four years in the making – ironically the same time as it took Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine – exposes the moral fraudulence of Rome which for centuries has been homosexuality’s fiercest critic, calling down the judgment of Heaven upon “unnatural practices” when the reality seems to be that a very high percentage have turned out to be unabashedly gay. Such moral turpitude is breathtaking. I was reminded of the story of David and Batsheva in 2 Samuel 11. The priest Nathan exposed David’s sin with the beautiful wife of a soldier in his army and reminded him that he had in effect committed not only covetousness and adultery but manslaughter by placing Uriah in the heat of the battle where he was struck down. In the story, exposure brought repentance. The sin of the Church is not to be gay but to use the weight of its own authority to denounce it on the one hand and practise it on the other, simultaneously seeking to cover it up. No exposure, no repentance.
Finally, Wesboro Baptist Church (“God Hates Fags”) and the Sultan of Brunei have little in common, except a visceral detestation of gays. The Sultan of tiny Brunei, made fabulously wealthy from oil, is used to getting his own way – this time by despotic implementation of a strict, medieval code of Shari’a, announced today. In addition to punishing theft by amputation of hands or feet, lashing for adultery and drinking alcohol, it mandates death by stoning for “sexual intercourse . . . done against the course of nature” which will have the inevitable effect of driving the gay community there underground.
The human race still has a great deal to learn, it seems.