There was only one way for anyone to reach the ceiling scaffold: through a door on the upper rear wall, next to Ghirlandaio’s fresco of Pope Gaius. Michelangelo always kept the door locked so no one could surprise him, watch him work, or see what he had done.
Of course, there was not a lock or door in the Vatican that Julius could not have opened when he wished.
One morning in late May, while Michelangelo was busy at work, Julius climbed the arched scaffold. At the flat top of the ceiling he glanced at the two Genesis scenes there, then made his way to the rear wall where he found Michelangelo painting the folds of a large figure sitting on a white marble throne. When Julius looked at the face he smiled, pleased that Michelangelo had chosen to show his better side.
“Which apostle am I to be, then?” the pope asked.
The voice behind him sent a shiver through Michelangelo. He peered over the platform edge to see Julius, standing alone in a white gown. Slowly Michelangelo stepped down to the scaffold and bowed. “A change of plan, Holy Father. This man is a prophet.”
Julius glowered. “You promised me apostles.”
“I know, My Lord, but when you understand what I’m doing I’m sure you’ll agree that these men must be prophets.”
“The ceiling tells the story of the Old Testament, not the New. Prophet after prophet comes, yet no one listens. God sends his message but no one changes. It’s a story of anticipation. Of the need for the Messiah to come. That is why I believe they must be prophets.”
Julius considered the logic, then studied his likeness. It was good. He also liked the look of the throne. “If I am to be a prophet,” he asked, “who would I be? Isaiah? Jeremiah, perhaps? Or Elijah. Yes, Elijah will do.”
Michelangelo cleared his throat. “I thought about this with great care. I see you as Zechariah. The prophet who called for the need to rebuild the temple and restore Jerusalem to its former glory. Is that not how you want to be remembered?”
Julius looked at the figure again. “Me, a minor prophet,” he mused aloud. “It’s not what I had in mind. But I suppose no one would ever be able to distinguish between whether I’m an apostle or a prophet.”
Only after he had spoken did he catch sight of the pendentive to the right. A plaque was painted beneath the feet of the Prophet Joel, naming him. To the left Julius saw the face of a woman, dressed as the Delphic Sibyl.
His face flushed deeply. “Pagan sibyls in the pope’s chapel! Are you mad?”
“Your Holiness, the Christian writers speak highly of the sibyls and their prophecies of the coming of a Messiah. It’s all related to my whole vision for this work.”
“They’re women! They’re pagans! This one even looks like my daughter.” He paced back and forth. “It’s outrageous.”
Michelangelo stood still and speechless as Julius paced and pounded one fist into the palm of the other hand. Suddenly he stopped and whirled around to Michelangelo. “Are you trying to humiliate me?”
“Of course not! Holy Father, I’m trying to honor you.”
“Bramante said you would fail me.” Julius shook his head. “And so you have.”
As the pope stormed off the scaffold, Michelangelo imagined him marching off to find Bramante and tell the architect everything. Bramante would whisper lies into the pope’s ear, and Julius would listen. The biggest risk was that Bramante might suggest the pope take away Michelangelo’s commission and give it to Raphael.
That night Michelangelo didn’t sleep. The ceiling was part of him now, and far more than a collection of old stories. He vowed to fight for the project to remain his. But he wasn’t certain how to fight a pope — especially an unhappy, distracted pope — and win.
He wished he could tell Julius exactly what he was feeling. Yet he knew he would wither before the pope’s fury. Instead he tried to express himself in a letter, but the wording didn’t seem to come out right. Finally he tried poetry. All night he worked on a sonnet until he found the right words.
A Sonnet for Pope Julius II
If any ancient proverb is true, my Lord, it’s this:
Nobody wants to do the thing he can.
You have believed what’s fabulous and false
and rewarded one who is truth’s enemy.
I am and have long been your faithful servant,
bound to you like rays to the sun;
but you don’t suffer or care about my time,
and the more I exert myself the less you like me.
Once, I hoped to rise up through your eminence,
And the just scales and the powerful sword
were what was needed, and not an echoing voice.
But heaven is the one that scorns all virtue
if it puts it in the world, and then wants us
to go pluck fruit from a dry tree.
Michelangelo never shared his sonnet with the pope. If Bramante heard about the prophets, and urged the pope to pass the commission to Raphael, Michelangelo never knew.
Julius fumed about the chapel ceiling for a few days, but he didn’t say anything more. Eventually Michelangelo took the pope’s silence as a sign of approval.
He had won. First he was relieved, and then pleased. He tried to work faster. The thrill of his victory, and the thrill of his vision able to be realized, began to change him.
Next: David and Judith (1)