The Tomb of Pope Julius II — An Underrated Masterpiece

Considered as one of Michelangelo’s finest works, the Moses statue for Pope Julius II’s tomb is displayed inside San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains) in Rome. This basilica also houses the chains that bound Saint Peter during his imprisonments. Legend has it that when Empress Eudoxia brought the chains that held St. Peter during his imprisonment in Jerusalem to Pope Leo I as a gift, they miraculously fused together with the chains that bound St. Peter in the Mamertine Prison in Rome. The tomb serves as a glorification of Michelangelo and his skills rather than a reminder of Pope Julius II. Guidebooks and tourists refer to it as “Michelangelo’s Moses” and, though Julius II is remembered for much of his other accomplishments, mention of his name is often lost at San Pietro in Vincoli.

The combined chain is prominently shown in a special reliquary at the high altar. The impressive statue is one of the seven that make up the tomb. Flanking Moses on the left and right are the Old Testament sisters, Rachel and Leah. Rachel is in a position of prayer, representing the contemplative life, or faith. Leah, on the other hand, represents active life or good works. These three statues are all on the lower tier and are the only ones by Michelangelo. The rather strange effigy of a reclining Julius II was carved in an Etruscan manner by Tommaso di Pietro Boscoli and is centered on the second tier. Raffaello da Montelupo, one of Michelangelo’s assistants, sculpted the Madonna and Child (top center) and the sibyl and prophet on either side. The tomb is considered a relatively large and impressive structure — until, that is, one learns of Michelangelo’s original plans.

The tomb of Julius II was to have been a three-story freestanding monument and may have included as many as forty-seven large figures carved of Carrara marble. According to the iconographic plan, this was to be an outline of the Christian world. The lower level was dedicated to the man. The middle level was dedicated to the prophets and saints. And, the top level was dedicated to the surpassing of both former levels in the Last Judgement. At the summit of the monument, there was to have been a portrayal of two angels leading the Pope out of his tomb on the day of the Last Judgement. After the death of the Pope in 1513, Michelangelo and the Pope’s heirs reached a new agreement concerning the tomb. They have agreed that the tomb was to be smaller and placed against a wall. After several further changes and simplifications, the tomb was finally set up in San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome in 1545.

The focus of the monument is obviously the nearly 8-feet tall Moses statue, front and center on the first tier. He is seated, looking off to his left while simultaneously holding the Ten Commandments and touching his beard with his right arm. Moses is slightly disproportionate when looking at him straight on, but based on sketches, Michelangelo did this on purpose because it was supposed to be on the second tier. Moses also has a pair of horns on his head because Saint Jerome mistakenly translated the Hebrew word for ‘shine’ with a similar word that meant ‘horn’. The most striking part of the statue is his facial expression. People have described his expression as angry, pensive, and foreboding, among others. A commonly accepted idea is that Moses, after coming down Mount Sinai and seeing his people worshipping the golden calf, is about to jump to his feet in anger and the tablets about to slip from under his arm.

Located at the St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Michelangelo’s Tomb of Julius II was made in the long-overdue process of forty years. Although the wall tomb made for the late Pope Julius II was not executed as planned due to various reasons, Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses, alongside with the two other sculptures which feature two male slaves, greatly exemplifies the excellence that the piece has despite not being built the way it was intended. Initially, the sculpture of Moses would appeal to have used a humongous piece in terms of its mass and the space it consumes. Comparing it to the figures on the sides which are sculptures of Rachel and Leah, Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses is relatively bigger in comparison to the other figures mentioned. Despite its massiveness, the sculpture of Moses innately emanates a sense of gloriousness while at the same time signifying the monotheistic belief of Christianity. People may wonder why Michelangelo sculpted Moses instead of an effigy of the late Pope Julius II, which was sculpted by a different sculptor. This simply shows how Michelangelo gives so much regard to biblical characters which could be observed in his sculpture of David and on his decision to sculpt a figure of Moses, instead of the patron of the piece, on a wall tomb where he was commissioned to do. Proceeding with Michelangelo’s Tomb of Julius II and its excellence as a piece of fine arts, we can see, through the sculpture of Moses, how Michelangelo incorporated a sense of movement in a position that suggests idleness. We can observe that despite the fact that Moses is sitting, we can still notice how the different parts of Moses’ body suggest alternating movement down from his left foot to the direction of where his knees are pointed, his torso, the way he pulled his beard towards the right, and to the direction where his head is tilted and directed to. This contradicting movements from Moses’ different parts of his body somehow show and suggest potential energy as if Moses himself is about to pounce and move abruptly. The way the sculpture of Moses and the sculpture of David seem to look at a specific direction that is distant further suggest that both pieces are looking at something present. In the case of Moses, it is believed that his gaze is directed towards the Israelites who were worshipping the golden calf which is a practice of polytheism. Given that Moses signifies monotheistic belief, this regard to monotheism somehow reflects the late Pope Julius II views on monotheism and his great contributions to the Christian faith. Michelangelo managed to create an intense, energetic figure even though Moses is seated. While the marble itself is still, it seems as though his beard is moving and flowing and that his muscular arms and torso are about to shift. In comparing Michelangelo’s Moses to an Early Renaissance sculpture by Donatello, it is easy to see the difference between the Early and High Renaissance ideals. Donatello’s relaxed figure St. John really lacks the power and life of Michelangelo’s sculpture. Think about how you’re sitting right now at the computer. Perhaps your legs are crossed, as mine is as I write this. What about if you were not at the computer? And what to do with the hands? You can see that this could be a rather uninteresting position. Yet Michelangelo has given the entire figure energy and movement, even in a sitting position. (Khan Academy, 2017)

Michelangelo’s process of creating the Tomb of Julius II was also referred to as the “Tragedy of the Tomb ‘’ since it took him a long time to create the multiple scales and concept of the tomb. Michelangelo faced a lot of interferences and failures in the process, however, he did not settle down until he produced different concepts and/or sketches. In addition, this ensemble is an amalgamation of many elements of Michelangelo’s work. There are herm figures, figures of victory, and so much more. One underlying ideology was his interest in the power of the human body and the interior self. Power is a keyword here. In the sculpture Moses, despite his seating stance is no ordinary because you can obviously feel the power and energy, given the positioning of his arms, legs and head, in conjunction with his pose. Each part of the body moves in opposition. His straight gaze in the distance indicates a sense of continuity, with confidence despite the odds, somewhat like Michelangelo’s David sculpture.

In relation to the current pandemic situation in the world, this sculpture is a staple of the ideal paradigm to go about living life. Take the example of the Moses centerpiece in this tomb, he is relaxed, yet powerful, confident and full of potential energy, ready to be released. His gaze is strong, yet uninterrupted, looking to the future. In today’s overly agitated world, it is best to hold every situation with a sense of control. Despite not having the ability to control the world’s situation, we can always control ourselves and our perspectives — the way we view things in life. Taking into account the visual nuances of this tomb sculpture, we get enlightenment on how we may stay strong and hopeful, always looking at the rainbow after a storm, and internally powerful despite feeling powerless.

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