Michelangelo and the Tale of the Empty Tomb

Posted on September 11, 2020 by Martin Oaks under Community, Hello world, Memorial, Resources
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“Tombs are clothes of the dead,” R. Buckminster Fuller said.  “A grave is a plain suit, while an expensive monument is one with embroidery.”

There are many examples of heavy-duty embroidery:

–The Taj Mahal in Agra, India, a mausoleum which is the final resting spot for Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his fourth wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

–The Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow, dedicated to publically displaying the Russian revolutionary’s embalmed body since his death in 1924.

—The more than 100 pyramids in Egypt, architectural marvels that were constructed with methodology far ahead of the time.

None of these has as convoluted a backstory as the tomb created for Pope Julius II by the incomparable Michelangelo.  It involved a four decade struggle between two willful men–and concluded with a beautiful, but empty gravesite.

One of most celebrated figures in the history of art, Michelangelo Buonarroti was born March 6, 1475 in the mountain town of Caprese in Italy. In an extraordinarily long life — he died less than a month before his 89th birthday — Michelangelo sculpted such masterpieces as the statue of David and the Pieta; he painted ceiling frescoes and the altar wall in the Sistine Chapel; and he created the architectural design for the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Pope Julius II, born Giuliana della Rovere, was a volatile visionary. He took his papal name as a reference to Julius Caesar, a leader whose style and determination the pope patterned himself after. One of his principle aims was to remove barbarians from church lands: to the amazement of everyone, Pope Julius, on at least two occasions, led troops into battle.

But the “Warrior Pope” had a great appreciation for the arts and a disposition of grandiosity. That’s why he and Michelangelo crossed paths.

It was in 1505 that Julius first saw the Pieta. He instantly believed that Michelangelo was the artist who could create a tomb worthy of the pope’s stature.

Michelangelo was summoned to Rome: he and the pontiff let their imaginations go into overdrive. The sculpture was planned to rise 50 feet in height, more than 30 feet in width. Over 40 statues would be featured, topped by a 10-foot Pope Julius in full papal regalia.

Roused by the drafting sessions, Michelangelo set off to the quarries of Carrara in search of the finest stones available. He spent over a half a year in pursuit of appropriate marble:  during this time, Julius’ attention strayed to other projects, including the construction of St. Peter’s.

When Michelangelo returned to Rome, he was not granted an audience with the distracted pope. Some have suggested the reason for the brush off was intrigue within papal circles — one of Michelangelo’s competitors supposedly suggested to the pope that building a tomb while being alive was bad luck.

As Michelangelo had shipped, using his own funds, 100 tons of marble back to Rome, the snub was infuriating. He returned to his home in Florence, vowing never to complete the work.

Seven months passed before the two were to reconcile in Bologna — there Michelangelo agreed to a new project, a 14-foot, 10,000-pound bronze statue of Julius. It took 14 months to complete — unfortunately, in 1511, enemies of the pope destroyed it, bringing yet another chapter in the tomb saga to an unhappy conclusion.

When once again summoned to Rome in 1508, Michelangelo was diverted to another commission: painting the Sistine Chapel, whose nine scenes from Genesis remain timeless works of art.

So it went for years.  Michelangelo took on other assignments, while the vision of the tomb remained just a vision. When Julius died in 1513, he was buried in St. Peter’s.

Finally, in 1545, Michelangelo worked with the pope’s heirs to finish the project, now much diminished in size, but not grandeur. The tomb is dominated by a sculpture of Moses, a piece Michelangelo had been carving for more than 30 years in his workshop.

Two new sculptures, Rachel and Leah, were Michelangelo contributions, but other artists he hired finished much of the carvings.

Unfortunately, the tomb never fulfilled its original purpose — the scaled-down version was installed in Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli, while Pope Julius’ remains stayed interred in St. Peter’s.

While Michelangelo may not have completed his initial conception, it was said that he was very proud of the detailed Moses. So proud that he exclaimed, “speak,” and slapped Moses’ right knee with his hammer. No one is sure if this legend is true, but there is a clear indentation on Moses’ knee which appears to be the result of a hammer blow. Perhaps it was just frustration after more than 40 years of turmoil.


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