God touches Adam’s finger on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but He also appears in a section about the Creation of the Sun and Stars. Michelangelo shows God moving toward us with hand extended to create the sun, and then again, a bit to the left, moving away from us, having completed His task. The artist makes a special effort to arrange the drapery to reveal God’s butt. 


Let’s start with the scriptural basis for this image.  In Exodus 3:1-5 Moses receives his original commission from God through a voice from a burning bush.  When Moses approaches the bush, God commands him to remove his sandals, for Moses is standing on holy ground.  Notice that Michelangelo has also represented the soles of the feet of God on the Sistine Chapel.  Feet, being close to the ground, are unclean, so God demands respect in asking Moses to remove his sandals.  By showing us the soles of God’s feet and His butt, Michelangelo is showing us the parts of God which might normally be considered least clean (though God himself couldn’t really be unclean). Later, when the Lord tells Moses to lead his people to the promised land, the two meet in a tent guarded by a pillar of cloud, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” (Exodus 33:11, NRSV).  What intimacy between the transcendent God and a mere mortal!   Moses asks for an even closer association, saying “Show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18), but God explains that this is not possible, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Exodus 33:20).  God’s denial arises from the ancient world’s understanding of the danger of a direct encounter with a divinity.  The Greek mortal Semele, pregnant with Zeus’s son Dionysus, foolishly asks to see her divine lover in all his glory.  When he reveals himself, she is burnt to a crisp, and Zeus has to rescue Dionysus from her womb and bring the baby god to term in his own thigh.  Moses’ God wants to protect his favorite from a similar fate.  But the God of the Hebrews is laudably flexible; He’s willing to meet Moses halfway:

“And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’” (Exodus 33:21-23)

The term “my back” poses linguistic and theological challenges.  In the Hebrew, the term rendered by NRSV as “back” is plural (אָחוֹר ‘achowr {aw-khore’}).  The third century B. C. scholars who translated the Hebrew Bible for the Septuagint retained the plural into Greek (τὰ ὀπίσω μου).  In the fourth century A.D., Jerome did the same when he put the text into Latin, posteriora mea.  In 1611, the translators of the King James version followed the prior plurals, “..and thou shalt see my back parts.”  Some nouns in various languages can be grammatically plural though logically singular, such as Los Angeles, which means “The Angels” but refers to a single city.  Perhaps these translators merely intend such an understanding, and the NRSV regularizes that to a grammatical singular.  I don’t think that’s right; I think that those translators were a very well educated group.  The Jewish scholars of the third century B.C. knew Greek and Hebrew equally well (they lived back then); Jerome was no amateur; and James’s scholars went back to the Hebrew for their version.  I think that Michelangelo agreed with the scholars who retained the plural, for he clearly represents the butt-crack of God, with the two globes of the buttocks vividly distinct.  The NRSV is just being prudish for their contemporary audience.

So what are the theological implications of God’s butt?  Denied access to the face of God, Moses is still allowed to see the lowliest parts of the divinity.  Michelangelo includes the soles of the feet for precisely this reason.  God is guarding His own sacrality, but he is letting his favored human have a look at His least sacred parts, His butt and the soles of His feet.  In giving Moses this access, God shows himself to have a special affection for his favorite.  He is willing to lower Himself to develop an association with Moses and, in Christian terms, with all humans.

In The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (1983, Chicago) Leo Steinberg argues that the renaissance representation of Christ’s genitalia revealed an interest in the humanity of Christ.  Since Christ had sexuality, the incarnation was complete; God assumed all aspects of the flesh, including sexuality.  The God on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, shown at the time of creation, doesn’t yet take on all the trappings of human sexuality, but He does have a butt and soles, parts which show His capacity for the more complete self-humiliation which will occur at the incarnation when the Word becomes flesh. By pointing out Christ’s genitalia, as in this image by Veronese included in Steinberg’s book, an artist draws attention to the fullness of the incarnation.

ImageJames Joyce took a special interest in the sexuality of Christ.  In Ulysses, ch. 17, “Ithaca,” Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom urinate in Bloom’s garden, and Stephen reflects upon the holy foreskin, wondering if it deserves the veneration (dulia) we might offer a martyr’s relics or the adoration (latria) which is reserved for God:

“the problem of the sacerdotal integrity of Jesus circumcised (1 January, holiday of obligation to hear mass and abstain from unnecessary servile work) and the problem as to whether the divine prepuce, the carnal bridal ring of the holy Roman catholic apostolic church, conserved in Calcata, were deserving of simple hyperduly or of the fourth degree of latria accorded to the abscission of such divine excrescences as hair and toenails.” (Joyce, Ulysses 17. 1203-09).

Since this bit of flesh was removed in infancy, it wasn’t included in the tomb after the crucifixion and it didn’t manage to find its way to heaven together with its original owner.  The Catholic Church claimed to be in possession of the prepuce of Christ. (It was stolen in 1983 from the town of Calcata, which Joyce mentions, and it hasn’t been seen since: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/faithbased/2006/12/fore_shame.html).  Catholic doctrine affirms that Christ was assumed into heaven in the flesh, so this little bit of foreskin would be the only remaining piece of the incarnated God on earth. Until 1960, January 1 was the Feast of the Circumcision.

Folks don’t want to think much about Christ’s foreskin these days, nor do you hear a lot about God’s butt.  Still, these two unpopular parts are crucially linked.  Both reveal the association of the lofty with the lowly.  The God of Moses comes down to earth and shows his butt; that same Entity comes to earth again, more fully, when he takes on human form, complete with foreskin.  The unseemly nature of butt and foreskin shows the great degree to which God was willing to humble himself in his associations with humans.  Joyce saw the connection between sexuality, defecation and theology, for he made Stephen ponder veneration and adoration in the context of urination.  Our young hero gets to use fancy terms like “hyperduly” and “excressences,” when he’s just finishing watering Bloom’s garden.  The most high and the most low have met.

“But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;”

William Butler Yeats, “Crazy Jane Talks With the Bishop”