Michelangelo's decoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling did not stop with the series of panels running along the flat space in the centre. On either side, where the ceiling arches to meet the side walls, he painted a row of figures, which seem to be seated in sculptured niches. There are twelve of these figures in all, and seven of them are Hebrew prophets.

The prophets were holy men of old, who walked with God, and carried his messages among men. They were men of great courage and conviction, fearlessly denouncing the sins of their times. Sometimes they were great reformers, bringing about by their preaching an improved condition of things. Often their mission was to arouse hope in discouragement, to strengthen faith in a happier time to come. They looked forward to a future day, when the Prince of Peace should reign in the earth.

Jeremiah was a prophet of Judah during the corrupt and troublous times in the reigns of Josiah, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah. He has been compared by a recent writer[22] to "a Puritan living in the age of the Stuarts, to a Huguenot living in the age of the Medici, or a Savonarola living in the age of Pope Alexander VI." He was born in Anathoth, a little village of Judæa, and being the son of a priest was consecrated to the priesthood from birth.

[22] Lyman Abbott in Hebrew Prophets and American Problems.

He was still very young when it was borne in upon him that to be loyal to God he must stand forth and speak the truth more boldly than other priests were doing. Shrinking from such a task, he besought God to spare him. "Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child."

And this, writes Jeremiah, is the answer he received:[23] "Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak. Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the Lord. Then the Lord put forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth. See, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant."

[23] Jeremiah, chapter i. verses 6-10.

Thus Jeremiah became a prophet, and from that time on his life was "one long, hopeless protest against folly and crime." Earnestly he besought his people to return to God before it was too late: "O Jerusalem, wash thine heart from wickedness, that thou mayest be saved;"[24] but prayers and threats were alike of no avail, and misfortunes began to afflict the land. Then Jeremiah shows himself a true patriot. Though his people refused to hear him, he still loves them and pleads their cause. In the horror of famine, he prays to God in their behalf.

[24] Ibid., ch. iv. v. 14.

JEREMIAH. Sistine Chapel, Rome.
JEREMIAH. Sistine Chapel, Rome.

Please click here for a modern color image

There are times even in the midst of disappointment when Jeremiah has some gleam of hope for the future. He predicts the days when "a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth."[25] Such times he himself was never to enjoy. He lived to see the Babylonian invasion, Jerusalem besieged and laid waste, and his people taken captive. The reward of his faithful warnings was to be cast into prison by the ungrateful King Zedekiah. Finally he was carried by the remnant of his people into Egypt, where he died in a sad and lonely old age.

[25] Jeremiah, chapter xxiii. verse 5.

Once in a moment of discouragement early in life, his grief had burst forth in words which might well express the feelings of his old age: "Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!"[26]

[26] Jeremiah, chapter ix. verse 1.

All the pathos of these words is conveyed in Michelangelo's wonderful figure of Jeremiah. The story of his life is written in his face and attitude. He is an old man, with long gray beard, but he still has the splendid vigor which comes from plain and simple living. He sits with bowed head, lost in thought, his long life passing in review before his mind's eye. His message is spoken, his race is run; he is weary of life and longs to die. There is something inexpressibly moving in his profound melancholy.

The painter has placed just behind the prophet two little figures which are like attendant spirits. They seem to sympathize with Jeremiah's sorrows. The figures ornamenting the sculptured niche remind us of those in the background of the Holy Family and have a similar decorative purpose.

Those who have studied the history of the times in which Michelangelo lived may find in this figure of Jeremiah an expression of the artist's own character. Like the old Hebrew prophet, he lived in the midst of a corruption which he was helpless to remedy, and which saddened his inmost soul. His own life was full of disappointments. In his lonely old age he wrote a sonnet, which is not unlike some of Jeremiah's utterances, and which is a clue to the meaning of the picture:—

"Borne to the utmost brink of life's dark sea,
Too late thy joys I understand, O earth!
How thou dost promise peace which cannot be,
And that repose which ever dies at birth.
The retrospect of life through many a day,
Now to its close attained by Heaven's decree,
Brings forth from memory, in sad array,
Only old errors, fain forgot by me,—
Errors which e'en, if long life's erring day,
To soul destruction would have led my way.
For this I know—the greatest bliss on high
Belongs to him called earliest to die."