Michelangelo And Pope Paul III

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Without the artist, there is no art. Without the patron, there also is no art. Creating beautiful humanist tombs, pious frescos, and monumental architecture is the result from a collaborative effort from both the artist and the patron. Residing on the wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel lies Michelangelo Buonarroti's Last Judgment, a fresco that depicts the event of Christ’s second coming to pass judgment during the world’s end times as according to the Bible of the Christian faith. Michelangelo, a once rigid sculptor had evolved into a master of painting, especially in regard to his painting of the human figure. On the other side of the relationship, Pope Paul III was the one who commissioned Michelangelo to create this masterpiece. To correctly understand the underlying narratives of the Last Judgment, I will investigate the relationship between Michelangelo and Pope Paul III. Before doing this however, I will answer the question as to how this relationship commenced in the first place. Michelangelo rose to fame from his work in sculpture during his time in Florence.

In 1505 he was summoned by Pope Julius II to Rome to design and craft the pope’s own tomb consisting of as many as forty statues. However, a year later the project was put on hold and then in 1508 Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo, who was primarily known for his sculpting capabilities, begrudgingly took on the task. It was here where he had once again proven himself a master of yet another form of art: painting. However, this project serves as an example of his rocky relationship with Pope Julius II.

Julius took full advantage of Michelangelo, often commanding him to drop a project on a dime and go work on something else for the “warrior” pope. He was also paid at a very inconsistent rate during his times in Rome, sometimes even being charged for lodging when he had not yet been paid. Taking nearly four years of hard and demanding labor, the ceiling was complete, and Michelangelo had shown that he was more than capable of handling the brush.

With continued demand by Julius and his heirs for their tomb projects to seal their dynasty in the history books, I would argue that the pope used his authority to treat Michelangelo in a way that resembled a relationship of a master and slave. Michelangelo did not have much say in what he worked on, or how much he got paid. All of those decisions were made by the pope, and who was Michelangelo to challenge the pope? It reminds me of a boss who is always over the worker’s shoulder, making sure the work is done “properly”, and that same boss then sets the worker on a new task before the original task was even complete. I imagine this relationship between Michelangelo and Julius took a significant toll, both physically as well as emotionally toll on Michelangelo.

Years later in 1534, Pope Paul III took over the Papacy in Rome. This was at a time where the Catholic Church was in a state of unrest, or some might say in a state of crisis. The Sack of Rome had occured not too long before (1527), leaving the city fragile and broken. Furthermore, the Protestant movement had gained significant momentum thanks to Martin Luther and his push for reform of the Catholic Church. Paul had some major issues on hand that needed to be addressed in order to rejuvenate the Catholic church’s credibility. Remember, by this time Michelangelo was easily recognized as one of the greatest artists of his era, plus he had obviously completed numerous works commissioned by previous popes. Pope Paul III planned on using the visual arts to help spread his message, and Michelangelo was not a hard choice for picking the right man to carry out his goal.

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Now being up to speed on Michelangelo’s past and Pope Paul III’s situation, I will start by arguing that the relationship between the two was much healthier in regards to collaboration. From Michelangelo’s perspective, I believe this a breath of fresh air, with him getting a chance to start over with a new pope. Secondly, considering the state the Catholic Church was in, Paul had more pressing matters to take on. Knowing Michelangelo was the finest at his craft, I have a feeling that Paul, very aware of Michelangelo’s reputation, hired him trusting that he could portray his message the way it needed to be, while at the same time continuing the restoration and beautification of buildings, such as the Sistine Chapel.

Now, I have mentioned Paul’s message a couple of times, so I will now address exactly what it was. Pope Paul III believed it was time for the Catholic Church to return to its roots and respond to the Protestant movement in that the Catholic Church was still legitimate. Previous popes had put forth messages of dynasticism, such as Leo X and his relatives who were Cardinals, which was clearly nepotism in its purest form. Others tried to send political messages, with the boundary of authority between church and state sometimes becoming blurred. Pope Paul III’s message was allegorical and political at the same time. He wanted to return to piety, and send a message from the top down. In layman's terms, it was time for the leadership of the church to step up and get their stuff together. There was no better place to do this than inside the Sistine Chapel, where the pope held the mass of the cardinals, and where the cardinals met to select the next pope.

The piece to send this message, eventually named Last Judgment, tells the story of when Christ comes back to earth and judges the souls of both the living and the dead, deciding their ultimate fate of either ascending to heaven, or descending to hell. Paul’s focus on the resurrection of the human body plays into his goal for returning to Orthodoxy, because the events of the last judgment is the pinnacle of Christianity. The entire reason the Papacy was established was to lead the church and preach about an event like this, so Christians can live their lives in preparation for this exact moment. This focus on the soul and body is just another reason as to why Michelangelo was selected for this fresco, because of his expertise at recreating the human body. Now from my point of view, if I were in Paul’s situation, this makes me think where I am running around all day scrambling to get important things done, and then leaving my assistants to the tasks that are more of their specialties.

Paul has evidence of Michelangelo’s quality of work, so he knows what he is getting from him. I would say to Michelangelo something along the lines of, “I don’t care exactly how you do it, as long as you get it done.” I know from first hand experience with working in landscaping that when a client trusts your work, they will occasionally check on your progress, but they won’t impede on your methods to completing the work. Paul knows he is no artistic genius, so he leaves Michelangelo to it, giving him the time and space he needs to create a proper masterpiece for his own agenda.

Visually analyzing Last Judgment, there are numerous examples of Michelangelo adding his own personal touch to this religious narrative. First and foremost I notice how even the dead bodies, that should really be souls based on the biblical story, have just as much form and physicality to them as the bodies of those that are still alive in the flesh. Clearly a different element when compared to the story, this makes sense as once again Michelangelo was known for creating dense and muscular figures to represent the human body. Another difference from word of the Bible comes from figures such as the creature with elongated ears and an off colored body using his oar to push the damned off of his boat (located middle-right on the bottom). With this figure obviously not being the devil, I couldn’t think of what biblical figure this thing represented.

After researching it, I found that this figure was actually Charon, a figure in Greek Mythology. With that being said, it shows another example of how Michelangelo pushed the boundaries of the story through portraying the event of the last judgment through his own imagination. I believe he was able to add his own twists to the narrative because teamwork was present in their relationship.

Finally, I think the work done by Michelangelo on Last Judgment either met or surpassed all expectations set forth by Pope Paul III. The reason for this claim is that later on in 1547, Paul appointed Michelangelo as the lead architect for the reconstruction of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Again drawing from personal experience, this reminds me of when a client is so happy with the work done for their flower beds being mulched, afterwards they ask if your group does any construction, even though it is not your company’s forte. I am positive Paul felt that with Michelangelo, where he didn’t care that he wasn’t a specialist in architecture, but he wanted him to lead the project strictly based on his track record and having that established relationship of collaboration and trust. Michelangelo in return, was happy to be Pope Paul III’s one stop shop for art projects during in reign in the High Renaissance.

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