A triumphant vision of the Church in Rome

"Moses" by Michelangelo in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. Photo: OmiStudio/Shutterstock

by Fr. Anthony Giambrone, OP

The “Rome of the popes,” as one calls the exquisite Renaissance and Baroque version of the Eternal City — the magnificent city of churches and palazzos as we still essentially know it today — is associated above all with two great names: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564) and Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680). Both men left an enormous, unfading artistic mark upon the Urbs, yet they were not the only visionaries transforming the face of the ancient See of Peter.

Two popes, Julius II (1443–1513) and Alexander VII (1599–1677), were the far-sighted pontiff patrons, whose giant, humanistic imaginations combined with the creative genius of these two prodigious artists to magnify the Catholic faith in an age of both great confidence and great confusion. Together these four towering figures created a breathtaking vision of the Church Militant (the Church on earth) in triumph. The colossal, sumptuous glory of the Basilica of St. Peter’s is the inescapable emblem of these immensely fruitful partnerships. Michelangelo conceived the dome, and Bernini the piazza; Bernini cast the spiraling baldachin, and Michelangelo carved the mournful Pietà. An inexhaustible richness obviously fills this mother shrine of the whole Catholic world. Pilgrims stand, quite rightly, overawed, even after countless visits.

Statue of St. Paul the Apostle in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. Photo: KuLouKu/Shutterstock

Still, the surpassing artistic splendor must not distract from the simple meaning of the site. It is the tomb of the one to whom Jesus entrusted the keys of the kingdom: the death monument of the living rock upon whom Christ built his Church. The papal vision of Rome as one grandiose monument to Petrine power emerged gradually before it reached its acme during the 16th- and 17th-century renovations of Constantine’s Old St. Peter’s. Until approximately the ninth century, the catacombs were the resting place of most of the early popes. Repeated translations moved the buried bodies to Rome’s many churches and chapels, however, so that the early medieval city — no longer an underground Church — had already become a vast ecclesial expression of Eucharistic communion with an unbroken succession of high-priestly shepherds.

A few of the very early bishops of Rome had already been buried directly alongside St. Peter on the Vatican Hill: Linus, Anicetus, and Victor I, for instance. For later pontiffs, however, to be laid to rest beside the apostle was an honor reserved to the Greats, such as Gregory and Leo (and today John Paul II). In light of this perspective on Rome as a giant Petrine and papal cemetery, rather than trying to exhaust the great basilica itself, it is interesting to consider instead how Michelangelo and Bernini memorialized their own papal patrons. Each artist designed the tomb of the successor of St. Peter who stood behind him. It is a revealing exercise to overserve these funerary sculptures since the graves of Julius and Alexander measure the aesthetic distance traveled from the High Renaissance to Baroque — thus, covering the stylistic span of St. Peter’s itself. Not unlike the magnificent but very different sculptures of David by the two respective masters, the two tombs display distinctive artistic visions.


Julius II was originally to be gloriously interred at St. Peter’s, in a massive, freestanding mausoleum adorned with more than 40 life-size statues. The tomb was repeatedly downsized, however, and finally installed instead against the wall in a corner at San Pietro in Vincoli: a church patronized by Julius’ della Rovere family. This vast reduction of the once-soaring plan was one of the great, ongoing disappointments of Michelangelo’s career.

Michelangelo Buonarroti,
by Daniele da Vo lterra, circa 1544. Photo courtesy of Public Domain.

Today, half-carved statuary elements once destined for the project are scattered in museum halls, while sketches of the continually shrinking plans are the only evidence that remains of the original exuberant conception. The Hall of the Prisoners in Florence holds four famous, twisting sculptures struggling to break free of the marble — fragments of an artistic dream that never came to fruition.

One masterpiece did reach completion, however, and now stands at the center of the tomb: the great seated Moses. Nearly double life-size, the Lawgiver’s posture is closely related to the painted pictures of seated sibyls in the Sistine Chapel (another Julius II commission). The magnificent beard and facial features similarly bear a striking resemblance to God the Father in The Creation of Adam.

The famous horns upon Moses’ head are the rays of light that the patriarch emitted after he gazed upon God’s face and became radiant with the afterglow. In this way, Michelangelo’s Imago Dei (image of God) Moses has an implicit Christological form, recalling the Son who contemplates and bears the perfect image of the Father. As such, Moses enthroned is an image, not only of Pope Julius’ rule, but of his future resurrection.

The 16th-century art historian Vasari said: “Moses may now be called the friend of God more than ever, since God has permitted his body to be prepared for the resurrection before the others by the hand of Michelangelo.” The unrealized dream of a Sistine Chapel in stone adorning the interior of St. Peter’s ultimately makes the opus imperfectum (incomplete) of Julius’ tomb an eloquent witness to that work reserved for the Creator, who will accomplish it on the final day when he raises up a great multitude of glorified bodies.


The team of Bernini and Alexander VII was more modest and more successful in their funerary aspirations. The tomb is today situated in the south transept of St. Peter’s in the niche around a door. If Moses sits, poised and majestic, with just a hint of twisting motion, Bernini has passed from this High Renaissance heroic calm to full frame-breaking Baroque.

The Holy Spirit in the “Cathedra Petri” (Throne of St. Peter) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Photo: Bill Perry/Shutterstock

A triangle of vital, gestural figures defines the composition, with Alexander at the apex depicted kneeling in prayer, ample vestments spilling down around him. Beneath him are allegorized figures of Charity and Truth. The rendering of Charity as a mother with her needy infant is conventional, and her turn to the pope means to announce his massive benefactions (largely in building). More unique is the figure of Truth, who means to answer those who thought that the generous benefactor’s purse strings were far too loose. Bernini makes several references here.

First, he gestures to another sculpture that he had made earlier, titled Truth Unveiled by Time. This work shows Truth as an unclad woman, whose cloak is being pulled away by Father Time. The message is plainly that time will reveal the hidden truth. In Alexander’s tomb, Truth (like the pope’s own character) is still veiled, awaiting justification. Yet she already subtly signals to what will be revealed.

The facial features this time are of a historical person, namely Queen Christina of Sweden: an extraordinary personage, daughter of the militant Lutheran champion and king, Gustavus Adolphus, and a secret convert to Roman Catholicism. Her foot stands upon a globe covering the northern lands of Europe, lost to the Protestant Reformation. The suggestion is that Alexander’s CounterReformation pontificate signals the final victory of Catholic Truth.

Most original of all is the gold-colored bronze skeleton, whom Truth is contemplating. Like the leader of a medieval danse macabre (dance of death), winged Death springs from beneath the red stone drapery and is shown leaping out of the door, face still concealed, yet holding up an hourglass as though to say: “Your time is coming.”

The apology for Alexander’s virtue thus finally functions as an enormous memento mori (remember death). (Death is not something that this pope forgot, surrounded as he was with worldly splendor. Bernini, in fact, also made a marble skull for Alexander’s desk and a lead coffin for his bed chamber.) Death comes for all, and the light of judgment will reveal the naked truth. Charity and earnest prayer for mercy are the best hope of resurrection in Christ — even for the popes.

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