ORDAINED ART APPRECIATORS are, in the main, a predictable tribe. Often enough, the freshest and most intellectually satisfying comments on art from outside the expected punditariat. Michelangelo’s Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence, by Raymond Tallis, is an engaging, erudite excursion into what it means to be human. Tallis, a professor emeritus of geriatric medicine at the University of Manchester and one of Britain’s finest public intellectuals, offers as a guide the human forefinger. He does so with all the wit and eloquence of the poet, novelist and philosopher that he is also.
Tallis’ argues for the unique significance of the index finger in the history of human development. The simple act of pointing, used in a variety of ways, is central, he tells us, to our evolution and to our distinctiveness among primates. This extended reflection of less than 150 pages begins with Tallis’ observations on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. There, in the marvelous encounter between Michelangelo’s God and Adam, is the seed of a far-reaching meditation on what it means to be human.
Tallis opens with a caution against underestimating the influence of small things in determining what kind of creatures we humans are:
The independent movement of the index finger is one such small and easily overlooked thing, and it has made a big difference. We sometimes need thinkers of genius to make us see this. Michelangelo was such a thinker, although he usually thought with a paintbrush and chisel rather than a pen.
He describes alternative readings of The Creation of Adam, then adds this:
. . . that the index finger is centre stage is still [left] to be explained. This was no mere eccentricity. The best-known and most venerable of Catholic hymns, sung at supremely important occasions such as the election of Popes, already over 700 years old when Michelangelo deployed his brush in the Sistine Chapel, is ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’—’Come Creator Spirit.’ In this hymn, the Holy Spirit is called ‘the finger of the Hand Divine’ and the digit in question is the index finger. There appears to be a deep symbolic connection between this finger and the special nature of human beings, who are understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition as being created uniquely in the image of God. Why?
I ask this question in full awareness that, if the hand has lifted man above other living creatures, the credit would seem to lie with the thumb.
First, an historical reference that deepens our understanding of the image; next, a provocative observation that leads to discussion of how the ability to point is at the heart of that multitude of transformations which distinguish our species. To follow Tallis’ careful argument, get hold of the book. Let me leave you with just these final words to the first chapter:
Because we transcend our natural condition, we are aware of our own nature and of nature herself in the way that no other part of nature is aware. Pointing both presupposes and develops that transcendence. I was tempted to call this book The Godfinger. I believe, however, that in placing the forefinger of God and the ultimate forefather of man at the centre of the act in which humanity was created, Michelangelo captured a great truth—a greater truth than he perhaps realized.
If only art history read like this all the time.
© Maureen Mullarkey