Scala/Art Resource, New York, NY

Michelangelo’s “Rachel” And “Leah” (shown here, compare with photo of Michelangelo’s “Rachel”). The two marble sculptures stand in niches in the monumental facade of the intended tomb of Pope Julius II in Rome (see photo of tomb of Pope Julius II in Rome). Michelangelo followed Dante’s description of the two women as representing the active and contemplative life. Rachel, in nun’s garb, with hands clasped in prayer and eyes raised heavenwards, embodies pious contemplation.

Earthy, stolid Leah symbolizes the vigorous life of good works in Michelangelo’s rendition.

The Christian tradition of equating Leah with the active life and Rachel with the contemplative life is exactly opposite to an interpretation by some Jewish mystics. They equate Rachel with the visible stage of the people Israel’s task, pointing out that she was Jacob’s beloved mate while he contended with worldly tasks; Leah, the mystics observed, was Jacob’s only partner (Rachel having died in childbirth) when his efforts turned to spiritual tasks.