Thesis: Visions of Papal and Ecclesiastical Supremacy: Michelangelo

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Visions of Papal and Ecclesiastical Supremacy:

Michelangelo, Raphael, St. Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Tempietto

The traditional world was one of connection and unity. The medieval church represented the intersection of the mundane with the sacred, the coming together of the institutions of humankind with the institutions of God. Like God on high, the Church was a focal point, the center of all things, the point from which all came and to which all returned. The spiritual mingled with the material and so represented the entirety of possible existence and experience. The human world, like the divine cosmos, was multilayered, the different classes of beings forming a careful hierarchy. Subcultures existed within larger cultures. Local communities were microcosms of the larger society that contained them. At the heart of the medieval Latin Church was the Pope with his seat at Rome. In the very heart of Rome was St. Peter's Basilica, the chief church of Latin Christendom. Inside St. Peter's was the chapel that came to be known as the Sistine, the one that par excellence was associated with the popes in their role as spiritual and temporal leaders of Christianity. St. Peter's itself was a symbol in stone of the physical world. Its architectural arrangement and decorative scheme called forth notions of church history and Biblical prophecy. The present basilica is actually a replacement for an earlier church on the site that was order destroyed by Pope Julius II in 1505. The original church was built over the supposed burial place of St. Peter, the apostle who is considered the father of the Western Church. Construction of the present St. Peter's occurred largely at a time when the supremacy of the one universal Western church was being challenged by the forces of the Protestant Reformation. The current structure is meant to embody the idea of universal supremacy and indivisible unity as expressed in the continuing reign of the popes as heads of the Roman Catholic Church.

As old St. Peter's was beginning to crumble through centuries of neglect, Julius II gave orders that it be torn down and replaced, rather than be repaired. The new basilica represented; therefore, as much a break with tradition as its continuation. The pope desired a structure that would be even larger and grander than the old, and one which give graphic to the power and splendor of the Catholic Church. The greatest architects and artists of the time would create the plans for the basilica and contribute to its decoration. Both Michelangelo and Raphael were leading figures of the art world of the early Sixteenth Century. Michelangelo would work on the frescos of the Sistine Chapel, with Raphael contributing a set of tapestries. Michelangelo, Raphael, and also Bramante, would wrangle over St. Peter's final architectural form, each suggesting and fine tuning specific aspects of the finished structure. Numerous other artists and architects also contributed to the finished basilica. It is thus a tribute to the greatest artistic minds of the age, a work that includes many works, and stands as a symbol of great technical skill fused with extraordinary beauty. Within its overall harmonies, one may read the Biblical history of the Cosmos, together with the story of the Church and the political world. A monument as much to the popes as to God, St. Peter's is a story in stone, marble, paint, and various precious and semi-precious materials. Out of a contest of very human wills was born a testament to worldly ambition and talent coupled with divine faith.

The Building of St. Peter's

After the tearing down of the Constantinian basilica, work on the new church was first entrusted to Donato Bramante. Bramante chose an idealized Greek Cross plan, the idea being to represent the centrality of the church, the equal arms of the cross creating a sense of absolute harmony and balance. A great dome was to rise over the center of this cross at the west end of the old basilica and directly over the supposed site of St. Peter's tomb. According to Vasari, the idea was to place the dome of the Pantheon over the Basilica of Maxentius.

The concept was in keeping with Renaissance ideals in which works of the Classical world were used as models for present-day structures and artistic creations. Taken as ideal forms, they could be adapted to the liturgical uses of the Church while serving as a visible monument to Church's political and social worldview. The Pantheon had been a temple to all the gods, just as St. Peter's would hopefully serve as a center for all Christians. The dome's circular form could convey the idea of perfection as it's a figure without beginning or end, a shape without edges that can also be seen symbolically as a kind of crown sitting atop the church and the world. Below, the cruciform sanctuary reaches its arms out in the four cardinal directions, extending the benefits of the church to all the peoples of the globe.

Yet, after Bramante's death, his pupil Sangallo altered Bramante's idealized form, adding a nave to the Basilica. And when Sangallo also died, Michelangelo was given, and reluctantly accepted, the task of continuing work on the massive church. As Michelangelo began his contribution, the central piers of the Greek cross had already been built, and some of the arms of the cross had already been vaulted thus at least partially confining Michelangelo to a pre-set plan.

Still, Michelangelo sought to restore the harmony of Bramante's original design. He truncated the nave and reduced the complexity of the already completed area by incorporating it into a simple arrangement of square vaults around the Greek cross.

In a letter of January 1547, Michelangelo praised Bramante's design for its adherence to ancient ideals, "He it was who laid down the first plan of St. Peter's, not full of confusion, but clear, simple, luminous and detached in such a way that it in no wise impinged upon the Palace."

Indeed, one of Michelangelo's criticisms of Sangallo's changes was that it blocked out the light to the main part of the structure, creating "so many dark lurking places above and below that they afford ample opportunity for innumerable rascalities."

The chief church of Western Christendom should be free and open and filled with natural light, much as God's light was mean to illuminate the hearts of men and women, and to animate the thoughts of the Church's rulers, the popes. By eliminating the certain overly complex aspects of the earlier plans, Michelangelo was also sending a message that straightforwardness and simplicity were best. Still, the grandeur of Bramante's original conception had been meant to serve the ego of Julius II. It was Michelangelo's original design for Julius II's tomb that had provided the inspiration for re-building St. Peter's. Apparently Julius felt that such a grand monument to himself deserved an equally grand setting.

Conflicts of opinions between Pope Julius II and Michelangelo would quickly turn into a battle of wills as Michelangelo pursued one project after another in connection with St. Peter's. Long before the artist was given primary responsibility for the structure's architectural appearance, he was already fighting with Julius over the appearance of the tomb and the Sistine Chapel.

Like the Roman Catholic Church itself, the St. Peter's was an ensemble comprised of numerous smaller sections. The papal palace joined directly with the various chapels in a visible statement of the blending together of the secular and the sacred. The Sistine Chapel, because of its large size was used for many of the major church ceremonies. Its redecoration under Julius II followed the same rules of aggrandizement as that of the rest of the basilica. Heavy use of gold and precious and semiprecious materials linked concepts of temporal wealth to ideas of the greater glory of God… and of Julius II. Among the many battles between pope and painter, was Julius II's complaint that Michelangelo was not employing gold and ultramarine lavishly enough on his Sistine ceiling.

Such disagreements cut to the deeper argument over the real natural of artistic representation, and the greater meaning of the Sistine Chapel and the Basilica. Typically, Michelangelo chose his materials based on what would be most effective in terms of his own vision of the final product. Michelangelo had, in fact, gilded the balusters in the first half of the ceiling, but then seeing -- as described by Alberti -- their distracting effect, he switched to a dull brownish yellow for the remaining balusters, employing only small gold highlights. On two of them, he used no gold at all.

Michelangelo had little patience for those he did not appreciate the finer points of art, or worse still, those, who seemed to misunderstand its fundamental concepts. A papal memorandum of 1549 gave Michelangelo absolute control over the works at St. Peter's, a condition he no doubt felt necessary if he was going to have any hope of repairing what he saw as the "errors" of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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