The Myth Made Fact, by Louis Markos
NOVEMBER 28, 2020
Arguably the greatest work of Christian art ever conceived and executed, the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel bear mute witness to the universality of the gospel message.
Along the spine of the ceiling, Michelangelo depicts nine scenes from the early chapters of Genesis, scenes that predate the calling of Abraham and the narrowing of God’s focus to a single people group: the Jews. As such, the central frescoes concern God’s interactions with all of humanity—a concern that is captured with even greater power in the second set of frescoes that surround them.
As if standing guard around the foundational stories of Creation, Fall, and Flood, huge paintings of the Old Testament prophets stare down from the Sistine ceiling. In sharp contrast to the ravages wrought upon humanity by man’s first disobedience, the prophetic messages of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Zechariah, Joel, Jonah, and Daniel point forward to the coming of the Messiah and to the atonement that will reconcile God and man. But the prophets do not stand alone in their divine office. Interspersed between them, Michelangelo depicts the sibyls of ancient Greece and Rome. Though their vision was less acute, though they saw, as it were, very dimly in a dirty mirror (see 1 Corinthians 13:12), these austere and mysterious pagan priestesses are hailed by the artist as authentic, if lesser, proclaimers of God’s promises.
Without downplaying the central Christian belief that Jesus fulfilled the Law and Prophets of the Old Testament, Michelangelo presents Christ as having fulfilled as well the deepest yearnings of the pagan nations. . . . Christ is the nexus point of history, the confluence at which the dual streams that flow from Athens and Jerusalem meet and become one. The Delphic oracle, who played a key role in the history and literature of Greece, and the Cumaean Sibyl, who guided the legendary Aeneas through the underworld and whose prophecies were zealously heeded by the historical Augustus, may not have known the God of the Bible by name, but they caught intimations of his presence, his character, and his plans for Greece, Rome, and the world. That is to say, though they lacked the special revelation vouchsafed to the writers of the Old Testament, their access, and openness, to general revelation enabled them to be conduits of . . . Truth.
In the same manner, the highest, most noble poets and philosophers of the ancient Greco-Roman world—Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, Ovid—glimpsed truths that would not reach their fullness (Truth) until the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. Though many theologians, philosophers, and poets from the early, medieval, and Renaissance Church understood and accepted that the one true God had borne witness to himself through the lips of these noble pagans, their faith in the interplay between general and special revelation diminished sharply in the centuries following the Enlightenment.
Indeed, the Victorian Cardinal John Henry Newman seems to speak from a far distant age, when, in discourse III, chapter 7 of The Idea of a University, he boldly presents the ancient priestesses, tragedians, and popular poets as broken, but real, sources of truth. “God,” Newman writes, “speaks amid the incantations of Balaam, raises Samuel’s spirit in the witch’s cavern, prophesies of the Messia[h] by the tongue of the Sibyl, forces Python [the Oracle of Delphi] to recognize His ministers, and baptizes by the hand of the misbeliever. He is with the heathen dramatist in his denunciations of injustice and tyranny, and his auguries of divine vengeance upon crime. Even on the unseemly legends of a popular mythology He casts His shadow, and is dimly discerned in the ode or epic, as in troubled water or in fantastic dreams.”
For a true myth from a Key Life author, read the first chapter of Erik Guzman’s book, The Seed, here.