In February 2002 during a visit to Rome, our family devoted an entire day to exploring the Vatican Museums, including a much-anticipated visit to the Sistine Chapel. Late in the morning, as we entered the chapel, my wife, Ann, son Christopher, and I began pacing the length and breadth of that historic floor gazing upward into Michelangelo’s brilliant frescoes cascading across nine panels and fourteen lunettes. We were awestruck by the great artist’s incredible attention to detail, the brush-stroked textures, the vivid shades and tints which comingle in breathtaking biblical narratives.
Our visit to the chapel came at an advantageous time, only two years following completion of the ceiling’s renovation, a process which itself was accomplished only after twenty years of painstaking modern craftsmanship. No one in their right mind questioned the millions of dollars and countless thousands of man hours required to restore the chapel ceiling. How could they? The Sistine may be counted among the world’s all-time great artistic masterpieces. The ceiling represents what is arguably Michelangelo’s finest work.
Recognizing this, can you imagine for even a moment the worldwide reaction where a misguided person, bearing a can of crimson red spray paint, ever to enter the chapel and deface the entire ceiling, utterly destroying this magnificent work, this representation of such elevated creative genius and artistry?
Many will recall the intense mourning the Western world experienced as we learned of the damage done to the Pieta inside St Peter’s Basilica when a disturbed man took a hammer to another of Michelangelo’s great works. Michelangelo’s creativity and artistry are beyond compare. And so, naturally, we would grieve the wanton destruction of his frescoes or his sculpted works.
Bearing in mind our remarkable capacity to grieve the destruction of art, I would like to examine creation of yet another great masterpiece. In Psalm 139, David reminds us that there is another great work of creativity and craftsmanship we need consider. Yet this great masterwork is so lofty that, by comparison, the very finest art Michelangelo has ever accomplished looks like a preschooler’s early attempts at coloring within the lines.
I am passionate about great art and can easily lose myself in great art museums for hours on end until frustrated docents track me down and shoo me toward the door. And so it is that recently the grand artistry underscored throughout the Bible but uniquely explained by the Psalmist that attracted my attention in ways I previously had failed to apprehend. No place is the creation of this highest art form more brilliantly portrayed than in Genesis chapter 2. Yet it is the Psalmist in Psalm 139 who reminds his readers in fresh ways that the Great Artist, the one who weaves the most magnificent of all creative works together, is Himself our Heavenly Father.
It is beyond questioning that this Artist transcends all other artists because it is He who designed and sculpted all human artists. This means that it is this Artist, it is God Himself, who designed, crafted, and wove together Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Botecelli, Rembrandt, Cezanne, great artists all, yet each one’s originality and creativity but pathetic shadows of the greatest artwork of all.
Please do not misunderstand what I am suggesting. The Sistine Chapel is beautiful, massive in scale, and highly complex in its design. But now consider the complexity of that which, fearfully and wonderfully, God has crafted inside each mother’s womb. For a moment, consider Michelangelo. Consider Michelangelo protected and cushioned within the amniotic fluid of his mother’s womb. His mother has a name. It is Francesca Neri.
Within Francesca literally trillions of separate cells have been created. Compare this number to the nine panels of the Sistine the living art work forming in her womb will later create. But these cells, while wonderfully made, are hardly passive like paint on plaster. Each one is a miniature chemical factory. Each and every one of those trillions of cells performs thousands of distinct chemical functions. So intricately balanced is this creation that even if one of these discrete functions ceased and all others continued, the art would perish. But so much more goes on within this art. Each cell in Michelangelo’s developing body contains on the order of one trillion bits of data, roughly equivalent to the information contained in ten million books.
But this does not even begin to scratch the surface of just how fearfully and wonderfully made God’s creation truly is. The brain and nervous system God is sculpting within Francesco’s womb is far more complex, than all of the computers and computer networks in our world combined. What this means is that your brain and nervous system, like Michelangelo’s, is, as biologist Jerry Bergman put it “is the most complex arrangement of matter anywhere in the universe.” (Bergman, “Mankind—The Pinnacle of God’s Creation”) It is a humbling thing to recognize the full truth: that humankind represents the crowning glory of God’s creation.
And yet we humans constantly look outside ourselves placing value in far lesser masterpieces like chapel ceilings or canvas and paint when the greatest masterpiece of all may be found—fearfully, wonderfully made—in a mother’s womb. The greatest masterpiece of all is found in our homes, or houses of worship, or places of business. But in our increasingly dehumanizing culture, we lose sight of this point. We fail to see the miracle; we no longer keep the wonder.
Reflecting on the human tendency to overlook the most magnificent artwork in the universe, St. Augustine observed, “Men go abroad to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the oceans, at the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass by themselves without wondering.”
If when we awoke tomorrow morning our local newspaper headlines informed us that a destructive hand had ruined the ceiling of the chapel in Vatican City, many would gasp and grieve the loss of what is admittedly the finest expression of human art. But you need not worry. Thankfully, no one has trashed the Sistine Chapel this week. We may rest assured the Vatican’s treasures are well guarded and protected from evildoers. But we need ask ourselves how is it we respond or react when we hear what is absolutely true about the wanton destruction of far greater masterpieces.
For you see what I am about to tell you is absolutely true, and though this truth is now being systematically shoved out of sight and out of mind, it remains nonetheless worthy of our consideration. Last week, more than 3,000 works of art that God Himself designed and implemented—the pinnacle of His creative glory—were trashed right here in the United States. They were extinguished, burned, torn to pieces, vacuumed through tubes, and thrown out like pieces of rubbish. That is how we virtually “cured” Down Syndrome. Even now, approximately 90% of those exquisite artworks are now being exterminated in their mothers’ wombs.
Now, in comparison to the news about mutilation of the Sistine Chapel, which, thankfully, has not occurred, how shocking in comparison is this news of finer masterworks that are being mutilated? And yet, as I read it again very carefully, I found it intriguing that Paul in I Corinthians 12 teaches Christians with authority about what their response should be:
But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. (NASB)
I leave all biblically-centered Christians with a simple question. If our scriptures, both in the Old and New Testaments, have all of this right, then we need ask ourselves which is of more value, a great painting or a mother great with child? As marvelous a work of human eye and hand the Sistine Chapel truly is, please bear in mind that in the more than 500 years of its existence, it has never once smiled and said, “Mommy, I love you.” And if it continues to hang there for a million more, the same will be said of it then.
No need to worry ourselves with any of this, of course, if the Psalmist made a mistake, if Paul got it wrong. But if indeed we and all other masterworks of God are fearfully and wonderfully made, we need to decide. We need to decide and make our voice heard.
The Rev. Briane K. Turley PhD
This article originally appeared on AFL’s website in November, 2011.