The reorientation of modern Christendom toward an untransfigured world was, as I indicated in in another post, the central project of the Renaissance. This Renaissance project was inspired by the values of the classical pagan world, but it was also motivated more immediately by the desire to escape the increasingly pessimistic anthropology of medieval western Christendom. Humanists like Mirandola proclaimed a new humanity to their generation, one that possessed free will, one that enjoyed complete autonomy. This was the dream of the Renaissance, and it became over the centuries an inalienable feature of our modern culture.
Autonomy literally means “a law to oneself,” or “self-rule,” and this is the ideal of modern individualism. The nineteenth-century historian Jacob Burkhardt isolated this ideal as the center of Renaissance culture and it has lived on in our time as well, somehow surviving the “posthumanist” pressures that assail it.
If Renaissance painting produced a perfect expression of this autonomous anthropology, I think it is found at the bottom of one of the era’s most famous paintings, the Sistine Madonna of Raphael.
(This is not to be confused with the Madonna of the Pinks described in my previous post). The Sistine Madonna was commissioned to memorialize Pope Sixtus, whose name was also given to the Sistine Chapel that Michelangelo so famously decorated.
Like nearly everything produced by Raphael, the Sistine Madonna is exquisite. In this case, Mary stands with the infant Christ (or, in the style then emerging, the “Baby Jesus”). Both appear somehow more ennobled than in his Madonna of the Pinks, gazing directly toward the viewer instead of losing themselves in a trifling moment of play.
But what is most striking in this painting is not the depiction of Mary and Jesus, or that of Saint Sixtus and Saint Barbara standing next to them. What is most striking, and by far most famous in modern times, are the two figures at the bottom. Who are they? Or rather, what are they?
By the standards of traditional Christian iconography they are unrecognizable. But by the standards of Renaissance humanism, they represented the ideal of human autonomy. Often called “cherubs,” they are angelic creatures who represent the spiritual and heavenly dimension to human life. The term cherub is Hebrew and comes from the Old Testament. There cherubs, or cherubim, are said to surround the throne of God in heaven, offering incessant worship of him along with the seraphim. The cherubim are what God commanded the Israelites to make icons (images) of on top of the Ark of the Covenant to facilitate true worship (Ex. 25:18-22). What we see at the bottom of Raphael’s famous painting is a significant deviation from the traditional Christian image of cherubs or any other angelic being.
The image of angels in traditional Christianity is a terrifying one.
An angel is a “messenger” (the literal meaning of the Greek word angelos) of divinity, of the power and awesome will of God. When in the Bible an angel appears on earth before a human being, the first words spoken by the angel are usually something like “do not be afraid” (Luke 1:13; 1:30; 2:10). Traditional iconography of Archangel Michael, for instance, depicted him as a mighty warrior armed for battle against the spiritual enemies of the Church.
The purpose of angels in traditional Christianity is not only to announce God’s will, but to exercise it. This often means defending and protecting human beings in the face of danger and temptation. And because they offer this protection, their presence emphasizes man’s lack of autonomy, his total dependence on God. Man cannot be self-ruled if he depends upon the angels. And so the Renaissance began to diminish them.
It is in this historical context that the revolutionary character of Raphael’s creatures at the base of the Sistine Madonna appears. Yes, they are obviously intended to represent angels, of a kind. After all, they are winged. However, their posture, expression, and especially childishness declare a very different anthropology than that of traditional Christianity. Here, the divine will represented by angels is replaced by an image of passivity and irrelevance. The two angel-thingies here look bored. They are powerless. But, like the Baby Jesus of the Madonna of the Pinks, they are cute. As the sixteenth-century equivalent of the Pillsbury Doughboy, they inspire a poke in the belly, not fear and trembling.
Why has this happened? Humanism, with its exhilarating ideal of human autonomy, has begun to replace the Christian conception of man as a creature dependent on God. Western Christendom, long out of touch with the eastern Christendom’s optimistic vision of man’s participation in the energies and life of God, had come to see the human condition in a pessimistic light, captured by the widely read work of Pope Innocent, The Misery of the Human Condition.
Now, with the Renaissance, man was elevated to the highest dignity, but it was no longer a particularly Christian one.