[contd from below] and, since we saw the dome, i am pondering 'the apotheosis of washington' by constantino brumidi (1865). perhaps some of the people on our tour were a bit surprised to see washington approved of by roman gods rather than jesus, for some believe we live in a christian nation. but you'd have to say, looking around the mall, that the imagery is fundamentally pagan: consider lincoln enthroned in his parthenon like a trans athena. the tour guide did his little rap about roman republicanism, and how appropriate this fresco is to the next great republic after rome, etc.
but, when you get the whole thing straight, it's about elevating washington to the status of a god, and the best roman parallel would be...caligula and all those political leaders who claimed and enforced their godhead or that of their predecessors by decree. this sort of worship of human beings goes well beyond paganism into sheer groveling.
the iconographic program is likely based on vasari/zuccari's ceiling for the duomo in florence, which, like the italian renaissance in general, apparently represents a wildly incoherent new religion in which jesus cavorts with the roman gods.
in particular, 'the apotheosis of washington' subs in gw for christ enthroned at the last judgment, which appears at the analogous place in the (much larger) duomo composition. we've gone very far very fast from 'all men are created equal.'
one thing i believe we can safely say: this cannot be an iconography of republicanism.
so this has just fully struck me, but the italian renaissance really did develop a new syncretic religion. however, the combination of christianity with the classical gods is quite literally absurd, on so many grounds i am not going to enumerate them now. ummmm, what did jesus say in the gospels about your little warrior and sex gods etc? or how about the stuff on humility?
i say, looking at it squarely, that the religious beliefs of a michelangelo, as expressed in his work, are an unbelievable historical, conceptual, and spiritual mess. try his apollo/christ on for size. he's back! a big beefy sexy channing-tatum christ who's all geared up for that assignation with venus or mars, or an earth girl of either gender.
it's not that this didn't occur to people at the time, one way or another: martin luther was quite clear about it, i think. or savanarola and sandro botticelli: he realized after awhile that his art had been obviously incompatible with his professed christianity and that of his continent. of course, just seeing clearly the actual iconography does not entail that one starts burning its products. but the tensions would have been hard to miss for anyone, and the reconciliations took a lot of work. they'll take a lot more, because these things are irreconcilable.
this is part of what necessitated a counter-reformation, and one might look at caravaggio's work after the initial wave of pagan/homoerotic images. the depictions of christ and all the associated figures are relentlessly human, peasant, humble, and yet exalted. it is a rechristianizing of art and of catholic europe in the face of the new, flatly heretical religion (which was the religion, mind, of an ultra-corrupt papacy). at that moment, and until we get to the neo-classical phase, we seem to be less in need of flitting cherubim and all the accoutrements of the greek pantheon. the story of jesus is the story of god becoming human, not of humans becoming gods.
of course, just because the belief system underlying it is a farrago of irreconcilable confusions and bizarrely conflicted psychological complexes doesn't mean the art doesn't have something going for it.