Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling


Ross King has crafted a remarkable slice of history centered around the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine chapter. In this book we have architecture, art, history, and sociology all wrapped up in the story of how the fresco was conceived and painted.

At the time of the painting Michelangelo had had little experience painting frescoes. In a chapter that discusses what frescoing is and what it entails the author makes clear to us just how difficult the art form is and how rapidly one has to work with an area that has been prepared in order for the fresco to "take." So in addition to being a remarkable work, it is also an act of providence and grace that the work ever occurred, given the difficulty of the medium.

But in addition to discussing the painting of the fresco, we also learn about Pope Julius. The insights into his reign as Pope help immeasurably in understanding why Martin Luther eventually broke from the Church. It also helps immeasurably in understanding that today's crisis in the Church is nothing new. The corruption and large-scale sin of the past is simply projected into the present.

It is helpful to know for example that while not explicitly ordered, the slaughter of an entire city of people (Prato) was condoned and even celebrated by the Pope as a great victory. It is further helpful to realize that at the character of Julius II shaped much of what was happening in the Church and church politics. The Church was both a religious institution and a secular kingdom. If anyone wishes a cogent argument against a theocratic state, the reign of Julius II might well be invoked.

In addition to all of this, we learn a great deal about the rivalry between Raphael and Michelangelo. For example, at one point it seems, Raphael jockeyed to be able to complete the ceiling. Ultimately his suit was rejected.

If I have one criticism of the book it is that the photographs of the ceiling are far too small to make out the details that King wishes to discuss. If color plates were limited, it would have been better to leave out the Raphael frescoes (which while important in the discussion, were not the centerpiece) to allow for some larger pictures of the Chapel ceiling.

Overall, a wonderful excursion into the world of the Popes and Renaissance Italy. Well worth your time and attention.


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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on March 2, 2005 7:48 AM.

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