Michelangelo, Pope Julius II and the Sistine Chapel

This week (Nov. 1) in 1512, the world got to view what is arguably the most famous work of art in human history as Michelangelo’s frescoes on the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome were first revealed to the public.  The work was actually the product of two men, Michelangelo, the great sculptor and painter, and the man who commissioned him to paint the Sistine Chapel, Pope Julius II.

Theirs was a rocky relationship.  Michelangelo originally refused the commission, both because he considered himself a sculptor, not a painter, and because he disagreed with Julius’ vision of what the painting should look like.  It was only after Julius agreed to let Michelangelo paint the chapel his way that he took the job.  And even then, Julius constantly complained about the slowness of Michelangelo’s progress, while Michelangelo constantly complained about the slowness of Julius’ payments.  Granted, Julius often had other things on his mind.  Nicknamed “The Warrior Pope,” when he wasn’t warring with Michelangelo he was warring against France, the Papal States and any other real or perceived threat to his authority.

The Sistine Chapel took Michelangelo four years to complete, not only because of his slow pace, but also because the eventual painting was 5,000 feet in diameter and comprised more than 300 figures.  At its center are nine episodes from the book of Genesis, which are divided into three major groups depicting God’s Creation of Earth, God’s Creation of humans and their fall from grace, and the time of Noah and the Great Flood.   Within these major themes, of course, are the famous depiction of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the most well-known depiction of all — of God giving life to Adam. Far less known, however, is that the famous finger of Adam receiving the “touch” of life is not, technically, Michelangelo’s work; that part of the ceiling cracked in the mid-16th Century and was redone by another artist.

Finally, at the rear of the Chapel is a painting many consider Michelangelo’s masterpiece, The Last Judgment, which Michelangelo painted from 1534 to 1541 under the patronage of Pope Paul III.   It depicts the second coming of the Divine Christ and the eternal fate of mankind.

Speaking of eternal fate, the Sistine Chapel has, of course, made Michelangelo immortal.  And speaking of the Divine — in particular divine intervention — when Pope Adrian VI ascended to the Papacy, succeeding Leo X, who had succeeded Julius II, he was so offended at the many nude figures in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, he decided to have the entire painting scraped off.  But as luck — or God — would have it, he died not long after, preventing him from carrying out that plan.