The Two Moons in the Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel… one of the most famous places on earth. Visited by millions of people each year. It is a Catholic Holy of Holies, where the cardinals elect the Pope, and home of course to some of the worlds most impressive, moving and enduring art by that giant of the Renaissance, Michelangelo Buonarotti. So much has been written on it. A lot of it rather bland and boring which I have always found frustrating given how glorious it is! There is also some really compelling writing on the Chapel too, that delves into the personal stories of Michelangelo, Pope Julius II and their relationship. I have provided a reading list of some of my favourite books at the end of this article.
Few visitors to Rome are aware that within this Sacred Sanctum there are actually some extremely provocative and politically risqué messages hidden within the panels of Michelangelo’s gargantuan masterpiece. Not to mention a few jokes – almost all of which are not very flattering towards the Pope, his boss!
Michelangelo and Pope Julius II had a fascinating relationship. It is often said that they loathed each other – but I don’t think this is fully the case. They definitely had an intensely dramatic relationship; they were often at loggerheads with each other, but I strongly suspect that they also grudgingly admired each other. Julius was nick named il Papa Terrible – a reference to his personal characteristic called Terribilita in Italian, which loosely translated means to have an aura of fury or anger. Think drama queen temper tantrum with foot stomping. Both men had this quality in spades. It made for a tempestuous relationship – but as I’ve said, I suspect both men appreciated this quality in the other. Michelangelo is known to have shed tears at Julius’s death for example. And after all, it was thanks to Julius’ patronage that Michelangelo’s greatest work was realized.
However, given this competitive and combustible atmosphere between them, Michelangelo was not above getting his own back on Pope Julius. Why? Well – Michelangelo had never wanted to paint the Sistine Chapel. He considered himself first and foremost a sculptor. He realized he was being thrown into direct competition with Raphael – a proven painter. He suspected a plot to make him look bad. Also – it was a 20-meter tall ceiling. A virtually impossible task!! And the poor chap spent four years standing up, painting a ceiling – imagine the pain! He wrote numerous letters and poems about the agonies he suffered in his back and shoulders. The physical enormity of the task meant he suffered from migraines for the rest of his life.
No, he was not happy. And needed all of his extraordinary ingenuity to make it work. I have a podcast on Michelangelo and the painting of the Sistine but just to give you a little taster of what hidden jokes you can expect to find on the ceiling, I want to draw your attention to this image: the creation of the sun and the moon and the plants.
This panel is situated immediately above where the Pope would stand as he said Mass. Imagine the grandiose Pope Julius at solemn prayer at the alter of the Sistine Chapel. Then imagine him casting his eyes to heaven in prayer… his vision would be filled with this panel. An almighty, bearded God, arms akimbo pointing towards the sun and the moon on the right hand side. On the left hand side of the panel God appears again; this time with his backside to Julius as he bends over to create the plants of the land. Notice the very pronounced holy buttocks. There are two gods and two moons in this panel.
Yes. Michelangelo painted God mooning the Pope.
For more on the hidden cabbalistic symbolism, political insurgency and naughty jokes of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel a great book to read is The Sistine Secrets, by my great friend and former tour guide in Rome, Roy Doliner. And for a great account of the relationship between Michelangelo and Pope Julius and to learn more about his method, this is a gripping page turner “The Pope’s Ceiling” by Ross King.