Oct 212007

Jeremiah is the most touching of all the prophets on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. Especially when compared to the purposefulness of Ezekiel and the focus of Joel, he reveals weakness, weariness and despair — his posture betrays inner suffering. This is a powerful psychological portrait, that epitomizes the anguish and emotional pain of witnessing the consequences of the sack of Jerusalem.

To establish the general mood Michelangelo makes various objects in the scene point down, as if symbolically echoing Jeremiah’s torment and “down” feelings; the man himself hangs his head, his gaze is downcast, his right shoulder is drooping. His beard, unmoved by wind (the artists makes the hair flutter in other prophets) points directly downwards, as do the edges of his toga and the fingers of his left hand.

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Jeremiah’s arm and leg movements provide further insight into his inner state. The right hand covers the mouth, as if blocking harsh words or even cries — the man would not speak because he has already said everything he could — there’s nothing more to say now. The left hand plays with the clothing, a clear sign of absent-mindedness (this gesture resembles that of Moses in the sculpture in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome). Finally, the legs are drawn in and crossed to form an “X,” an evidence of low self-esteem or reticence.

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The disheveled prophet’s mirror companion to the right echoes his mood, with the lock of hair, the gaze, and the angle of the head imitating the protagonist. We don’t see the legs of the background figure; instead, the arrangement of the top garment mirrors the above-mentioned “X.”

Overall, Jeremiah appears to literally shrink, contain, nurse his pain and thoughts — in direct contrast to Ezekiel and Joel, who are portrayed  with broad outward movements, caught in the process of diffusing their ideas. The latter act energetically to prevent disasters, the former demonstrates the gloomy aftermath in case of disobedience.

*this article has been edited at a later date

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