Episode 41: Michelangelo, the Warrior Pope, and St. Peter in Chains
We move from one basilica devoted to St. Peter to another, and this one requires that we get to know better the greatest sculptor of the Renaissance and a pope who wore armor into battle and also promoted the finest art of the Roman Renaissance.
Our last episode was on the Necropolis of St. Peter’s, and I’m following it up with another episode involving St. Peter in part to emphasize the importance of this man for Rome. We have devoted several episodes to Garibaldi, Mussolini, and Augustus, and St. Peter may be even more influential on Rome than any of these, even if his influence is owing to tradition as much or more than to known history. In fact, the known history of what Peter did in founding the Church in Rome is almost as mixed with colorful stories as the career of Romulus in founding Rome itself, and yet in both cases these stories influenced the thoughts and deeds of later centuries.
The importance of St. Peter for the Roman Catholic Church is reflected in the size and magnificence of the two great basilicas that have been dedicated to him in the Vatican, one in the fourth century and its successor in the 16th and 17th. Other architectural signs of his influence are the three other important churches dedicated to him in Rome. Most of the structures Augustus built fell into ruin within a few centuries, but those dedicated to Peter and other saints have generally been maintained, so some have stood for almost two millennia.
Saying “the basilica of Saint Peter” almost always refers to the papal basilica in the Vatican, but it can also refer to the churches of St. Peter in Prison, St. Peter in Chains, or St. Peter on the Hill. (That is, San Pietro in Carcere,San Pietro in Vincoli, or San Pietro in Montorio.) Today we’ll spend most of our time on a first look at St. Peter in Chains. Doing so will also help us keep an eye on Peter while also introducing two men of crucial importance for the Renaissance in Rome. One is Michelangelo; the other is Pope Julius II. We will return to both the artist and the pope over the course of several different episodes. St. Peter’s in Chains also helps to emphasize the importance of relics in the early Church, as did our last episode, which noted the debate over the bones of St. Peter in the Vatican Necropolis.
Peter’s importance for the papacy in Rome derives first from his position as the Prince or leader of the Apostles in the New Testament, where Christ spoke of him as the rock on whom he would build his Church. Nevertheless, the New Testament never mentions that Peter was even in Rome, unless a reference to Babylon is a figurative way of referring to Rome. It occurs in 1st Peter, chapter 5, verse 13, The Bible’s relative silence about Peter’s presence or activities in Rome is perhaps compensated for by early affirmations by Fathers of the Church that the Bishop of Rome’s authority derives from Peter, but for stories of what Peter actually did in Rome, we must turn to non-Biblical stories. Several of these converge on San Pietro in Vincoli.
The name San Pietro in Vincoli refers to two sets of chains, or vincoli, which mark two occasions on which the saint was reportedly imprisoned. In the first, which is recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 13, Peter was imprisoned under heavy guard by King Herod, who was disposed to hand him over to the Jewish people to punish as they wished. But the Christian community prayed earnestly for Peter, and when he was sleeping soundly, an angel appeared and instructed him to get up and follow, at which point his chains fell away. Even Peter wondered whether this miraculous event was really happening, but when the city gates opened spontaneously and the angel disappeared, he declared, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent his angel to rescue me from the power of Herod and from all that the Jewish people are expecting.” Thus were divine providence and the power of prayer affirmed.
Peter’s second imprisonment is not reported in the Bible, but a tradition has it that he was imprisoned in Rome. One version of it includes the well-known story that became the basis for the 1951 Academy Award winning film, Quo Vadis. Told in the apocryphal book of the Acts of Peter, this story reports that Peter had preached chastity so successfully that a couple of powerful husbands were out to get him for having taken the joy out of their evening hours. Peter was then persuaded to flee Rome in disguise to better serve the Lord elsewhere, but he met Christ coming the opposite direction carrying his cross. When Peter asked, “Quo vadis, Domine? [‘Where are you going, Lord?’],” Jesus answered, “I am going to Rome to be crucified a second time.” Peter got the message and did an about-face. He was then imprisoned and killed on his return to Rome. Other stories have it that Peter was crucified upside down as one of Nero’s scapegoats for the devastating fire that swept through Rome in 64.
The chains said to be from Peter’s first imprisonment were held to be important relics, and they reportedly remained in the Holy Land for four centuries, but in the fifth the Bishop of Jerusalem gave them to the consort of one Roman Emperor, and she handed them down to her daughter, Eudoxia, who was the wife of the succeeding Roman Emperor. Eudoxia then gave them to Pope Leo the Great, so these chains found their way from Jerusalem to the pope in Rome.
San Pietro in Vincoli: Chains beneath the altar, miraculously joined according to tradition (Original photo by Raja Patnaik, post-processed and uploaded by Alessio Damato [with permission of the author], CC BY-SA 3.0)
When the chains from the east were brought together with those from Rome, a pious tradition has it that the two were then miraculously fused together. When pilgrims came to Rome during the Middle Ages, they went first to St. Peter’s in the Vatican, but their second stop was often to venerate the chains in this other St. Peter’s. The chains had the great advantage that a few filings from them constituted a highly portable relic, and other churches devoted to relics of the chains of St. Peter sprang up around Europe. If Wikipedia is reliable on this, there are over 50 such churches in France, 20 in England, 12 in Italy, 12 in Germany, and 6 in Belgium, among others. But the original relic is the chain preserved in the illuminated gold box under the altar in Rome’s San Pietro in Vincoli.
To anyone who knows the current reputation of this church, the five paragraphs I’ve devoted to these traditions will seem to miss the point, for today the church is known mostly as the location of Michelangelo’s justly famous statue of Moses. But one of my main goals in this series of podcasts is to illustrate how profoundly Rome has changed over the years, not only in its look but also in what Romans and visitors hold to be most important. Today, tourists flock to see the Michelangelo statue and, generally speaking, view with faint curiosity or amusement the old stories of angels, fused chains, and visions of Christ. But it was precisely to hear these stories and see what then looked like the physical proof of God’s providential supervision of our world that pilgrims came to this church for more than a thousand years. And some still do, of course, but part of visiting a church in Rome today is watching where the crowds go and what they do. When crowds enter St. Peter’s in the Vatican, they go sooner to see Michelangelo’s Pietà than to use the holy water font, and when they enter St. Peter’s in Chains, they go first to see Michelangelo’s Moses and may never note at all the chains that are encased beneath the church’s altar. The great art of the Renaissance and Baroque periods was intended to serve the faith, and I think it did, but today its beauty seems a source of wonder that rivals or even eclipses that of Christianity’s mysteries. Many sources affirm that the Modern West has turned away from its religious traditions, and this metamorphosis is reflected even in the way visitors visit the sites of Rome.
Michelangelo’s statue of Moses raises many important interpretive questions. Surely it is based on a moment after Moses has spoken with God and descended
Michelangelo’s Moses (CC BY 3.0 Wikimedia)
from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, whereupon he finds that the Jews have broken their vows and are worshiping the image of a golden calf they have made themselves. But is he holding the first set of tablets, which he smashes in disgust at his fellow Jews (Exodus 32), or is he holding the second set, after he has persuaded God to have mercy on his people (Exodus 34)? What emotions is he experiencing, and how does Michelangelo represent them? And why does he have two horns on his head?
But I’d like to postpone these questions and first introduce the circumstances and cast of key characters that surround the Moses. The men behind the statue are fascinating in themselves, and they will also help us to understand both this statue and the other works of art involving Michelangelo or Pope Julius II—and these include some of Rome’s very finest, such as the two most admired sites in the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael Rooms.
Michelangelo’s Moses is not a stand-alone work but is part of a funeral monument for Julius II. The pope offered the commission to the artist fairly early in his career, just after he had become famous for having sculpted the Pietà, which he finished when he was 24, and the David, which he finished five years later. Julius’s monument represented a great opportunity for the brilliant young sculptor, for it was to have been a large and freestanding work of architecture populated by about 40 statues, enough to keep the artist busy for a long time. But no sooner did Michelangelo finish spending eight months in the marble quarries of Cararra, where he selected the best stone and arranged for its transport to Rome, than the pope backed out of the deal and did not seem to mind insulting the artist in the process. Having imagined that he would enjoy the opportunity to pursue his artistic passion on a well-funded project perfectly suited to him, Michelangelo was suddenly left with a mass of marble on his hands but without the support he needed to give it form.
I do not think that the pope, who could be impetuous and irascible, ever explained the reasons he reneged on his plans for the monument Michelangelo wanted so much to create, much less that he apologized for the reversal, thus embittering the artist. But two possible reasons for his decision help us get to know the pope better. One is that soon after he contracted with Michelangelo for his huge funeral monument, he and Bramante decided to tear down the old St. Peter’s and to build a new one. This was no minor undertaking and required enormous sums of money. It even led Julius to approve the selling of indulgences, that is, official promises that in return for cold cash, deceased relatives and friends would suffer less time being punished for their sins in purgatory. Put more generally, Julius had big plans to make Rome again a splendid capital city, and toward this end, he supported such great artists and architects as Bramante, Sangallo, Perugino, Raphael, and Sodoma. Nor did he simply dump Michelangelo: rather, he changed how he wanted him to use his talents in glorifying Rome and himself.
Soon after putting aside the plan for his funeral monument, the pope proposed that Michelangelo paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We know now that this worked out well, but it was not the challenge Michelangelo wanted at the time: he was, he said, a sculptor, not a painter, even to the point that he and his friends suspected that Bramante, a rival artist, had persuaded the pope to give him the job of painting the ceiling so he would fail and thus damage his growing reputation. Fresco painting is extremely difficult, especially on a vast ceiling, and no less an artist than Leonardo da Vinci had recently failed while attempting to paint a large fresco of a vast battle scene for the main government building in Florence, for his colors did not adhere properly and dripped from the wall. So Michelangelo refused the commission and kept a safe distance from the angry pope.
A second possible reason Julius decided not to go ahead with his funeral monument is that he decided to go to war, and this too shows us something of his character. As pope, Julius also ruled the Papal States as their king, but a leading family in one of the subordinate jurisdictions might rebel from papal control, or some foreign power, such as Venice, France, or Spain, might intervene and peel a city or two away from the pope’s domain. While Michelangelo was selecting marble in Carrera, Pope Julius was planning a war to bring, Perugia, Bologna, Rimini, and Faenza back under papal rule, and war also requires money and attention.
So attentive was Julius to this war that he announced to his Cardinals that he would be leading his troops in battle and, as if this weren’t disturbing enough, declared that they too would join in the march and battles. Less than two weeks after these shocking announcements, Julius, 26 cardinals, and lots of soldiers, many of them Swiss, solemnly marched out of Rome on route to Perugia, the closest of the renegade cities. Soon thereafter, the clan that had been ruling Perugia surrendered without a fight, and after briefly enjoying the victory, Julius marched on to the next offending city, Bologna. Weather and terrain made the march more difficult, but the result was similar: the ruling family did not resist, and the local population rejoiced. More triumphal arches were erected, albeit of the temporary variety, and Julius started to become known as “the Warrior Pope,” for he did don armor when battle was expected. It is not for nothing that when he became pope, he took the name “Julius,” showing his admiration not for a saint but for the man who conquered Gaul for Rome and united a vast empire under his own leadership. And like Caesar and his adopted son Augustus, Julius also wanted to beautify Rome and make it look the part of being a capital city.
Julius also had the nickname, “Il Papa Terribile,” “the terrifying pope,” and so it was that, instead of apologizing to Michelangelo, the pope compelled the artist to beg forgiveness for having left Rome and for having declined to paint the Sistine Ceiling. Now, after his dramatic victory in Bologna, the pope had another proposal for the young artist: “you are a sculptor, so sculpt a bronze statue that honors me for my conquest of Bologna.”
This sounds like a nice opportunity, though it would mean devoting one’s art to the honoring of a single warrior pope rather than to the numerous religious figures that were to adorn the funeral monument, but Michelangelo’s expressed reservation was that he did not sculpt by casting bronze: his art was that of sculpting marble. Casting bronze required knowledge of how to mix a proper alloy, what clay to use for the model, how to use wax, and other skills not required for working in stone, while casting a large statue adds the difficulties that come with needing a large furnace in which to melt the metal and keep it at a proper and uniform temperature. If you are curious enough about these challenges to read a short excerpt from Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography, which is free online, chapter 75 offers a wonderful description of the dramatic day he cast his statue of Perseus, which now stands in the main piazza of Florence. So I think Michelangelo was not just being difficult when he balked at the pope’s order that he sculpt and cast 10,000 pounds of bronze to create a 14-foot tall statue of the pope to go over the main door of Bologna’s main basilica, San Petronio.
The pope got his way, however, and Michelangelo took up the challenge. Of course he had to decide how to represent the pope, and a wonderful story of uncertain origin has it that Michelangelo asked him if he wanted to be shown with a book in his hand, which I take to mean a Bible, which is directly derived from the Greek word for “book.” But Julius is said to have replied, “Why a book? Give me with a sword!” Now that’s a warrior pope!
After a little more than one year of work and one failed attempt to cast the statue, Michelangelo surpassed all expectations, perhaps including his own. Unfortunately for us, we cannot see the statue for ourselves, for it became a victim of political animosity. When the pope’s enemies later regained control of Bologna, mobs pulled the huge statue down, and its bronze was used to make an enormous cannon, which got the nickname, “La Giulia.” It amazes me that I see no reference to this sad event in Michelangelo’s letters.
After his successful casting of the statue of Julius for San Petronio in Bologna, Michelangelo would go on to accept another challenge well out of his comfort zone, the fresco painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which would occupy him for four years. We will follow him to the Chapel, but not until after we return to the statue of Moses, which became the central feature of a much diminished but still impressive funeral monument for the Warrior Pope.