Perhaps the most famous image in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, painted around 1511, is The Creation of Adam, the moment when God is a divine breath away from imparting life to Adam with the near touch of their outstretched fingers. Yet before God created human beings, Scripture tells us, he created the sun, the stars and “the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,” an act depicted in a previous panel, The Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Plants. In this dramatic scene, the radiant ball of the sun is the focal point. The depiction of the Last Judgment on the chapel’s altar wall also places Christ and the solar disc at the center of the universe. The sun’s preeminence in the chapel’s famous artwork has led to speculation that Michelangelo, with the approval and acknowledgement of his papal patrons, incorporated into his painting the contemporary theory of Copernican heliocentrism which placed the sun, and not the earth, at the center of the cosmos.
But hold on. Wasn’t Galileo dragged before Vatican authorities a century or so later and placed under permanent house arrest for defending the very same theory? Had the Church’s opinion on the science of astronomy changed so radically in the years between Michelangelo’s inspired brush strokes and the 1630 publication of Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo’s defense of Copernicus’s refutation of geocentrism? Or was there less distance than we think between the teachings of the Church and lessons of the laboratory?
This is the question that author Nicholas Spencer, a fellow at London-based Christian think tank Theos and the International Society for Science and Religion, explores in Magisteria, his intelligent, often surprising history of the relationship between science and religion throughout the centuries. This relationship was indeed sometimes contentious, but he argues that it was more often cooperative. Spencer begins his story in Alexandria, Egypt in 415 CE when a “mob of enraged Christians” dragged the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia into the streets and flayed her alive with razor-sharp oyster shells before burning her to death. Her crime? The study of ancient Greek mathematics, geometry, and astronomy—rather than orthodox Christianity—as a “way of grasping what was immutable and holy.”
While the gruesome account of her death was probably an exaggeration, the truth was that Christian bishops sat in on her lectures, not to gather damning evidence, but to gain access to the sort of classical knowledge that the Church ultimately treasured. During the Middle Ages, in scriptoriums from sunny southern Italy to the frigid reaches of Northumbria, monks busily copied and preserved “the decaying manuscripts of antiquity, Christian and pagan alike.” Thanks to their diligence, the works of Aristotle, Euclid, Plato, Ptolemy, and other natural philosophers (as they were called before the word “scientist” was coined in 1834) not only survived but filled libraries and formed the bedrock curricula of Europe’s cathedral schools and earliest universities. “In actual fact,” Spencer writes, “for much of history, religion wasn’t just ‘not at war’ with science, but it actively supported it, serving to legitimise, preserve, encourage and develop scientific ideas and activities.”