Debating a Vatican Cover-Up

Vatican restorers cleaning Michelangelo's last frescoes didn't remove later overpainting, dividing art historians and prompting an appeal to a higher authority.

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, 1542–50. Michelangelo painted the saint nude, but another artist later added a wisp of concealing drapery and three black nails binding him to the cross.


When the Sistine Chapel reopened in 1994 after a 20–year restoration, the Vatican convinced critics that the bright colors of the ceiling, revealed by the removal of layers of grime, were Michelangelo’s original hues. Today the Vatican is finding it more difficult to convince them that the $4 million restoration of two other monumental frescoes by Michelangelo was equally successful. The issue this time isn’t color but content.

The two frescoes in question, The Conversion of Saul and The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, in the Pauline Chapel, were the last paintings ever executed by Michelangelo and are considered his spiritual testament in art. The fresco to the right of the altar shows Peter on a cross, upside down and naked except for a wispy white wrapping that conceals his penis. He is depicted as remaining vital in body and mind despite his great pain. Three large black nails bind him to the cross.

However, both white drape and nails were added subsequently by an unknown artist who missed the point: Saint Peter willingly offered himself as a martyr—hence the lack of nails—and was nude—as both heroes and the humble were depicted—because he was naked before God, a man among other men, yet capable of spiritual grandeur. That these were later additions was confirmed by the Vatican’s chief restorer, Maurizio De Luca.

“It is a form of total censorship,” art historian and conservator Antonio Forcellino, the author of biographies of both Raphael and Michelangelo, told ARTnews. “This was the first conceptual work of art in history. Michelangelo was being provocative, saying that only faith, not the nails, can sustain Peter, and that faith is interiorized.”

German art historian Christoph Luitpold Frommel, a member of the international advisory commission on the restoration, told the Italian weekly Il Venerdí di Repubblica that most members of the commission preferred removal of wrapping and nails. “The wrapping isn’t so bad; probably Gregory XIII had it added,” Frommel said. “It’s understandable that popes might not want such a large completely naked man in the chapel, but the nails are very serious.”

“They look like cockroaches,” one of the restorers protested. He also admitted privately that keeping the wrapping over the penis was “far harder than removing it.”

A different view was expressed by William Wallace, the Barbara Murphy Bryant Distinguished Professor of Art History at Washington University in St. Louis and author of Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and His Times, published by Cambridge University Press last October. Wallace, who conferred with Vatican experts on the restoration of the Sistine Chapel, said, “The same controversy arose during the conservation of The Last Judgment—there were numerous additions to the fresco not painted by Michelangelo but added later.” A number of people on the committee advising the Vatican wanted to remove all subsequent additions, but one member warned that “we can never reverse history, nor should we; the subsequent additions were also part of the history of the fresco, and while they speak of the concerns of different persons and different times from the artist, they are not to be discounted but, rather, respected.”

Who made the decision? According to Frommel, the commission “decided that the Holy Father would have the last word, but I don’t know if he has yet pronounced on the question and if those nails will remain. I’m still hopeful that, in the end, the pontiff will say that Michelangelo is too important for his interpretation to be modified.”

The two frescoes, each about 20 1/2 by 22 feet, cover the side walls of the Pauline Chapel (named for its patron, Pope Paul III), which lies only steps away from the Sistine Chapel inside the Apostolic Palace. As the private chapel of the popes, it is off–limits to the public, and its masterpieces by Michelangelo are therefore relatively little known.

Paul III commissioned the architect Antonio da Sangallo to build the chapel to house papal conclaves, and in the mid–1540s he asked Michelangelo to decorate it. The artist was in his late 60s and was overwhelmed with important commissions, but he and the pope had been friends since youth, so he agreed. He worked on the project on and off for eight years, painting in a mixed technique: mostly in true fresco with water–based pigments directly on wet plaster, but also on half–dry plaster or directly on a dry wall in some places.

The first painting illustrates Saul—later Saint Paul—on the road to Damascus at the precise moment when he is overwhelmed by his conversion to Christianity. The second and last painting was originally intended to show Saint Peter receiving the keys that empower him and his successors on the throne of Saint Peter as the legitimate leaders of Christendom. Given their promotional thrust, both themes were favorites of church authorities and recur throughout Rome and the Vatican. But Michelangelo rejected the propagandistic theme for the spiritual one of Peter’s crucifixion.

The restoration revealed that at some point Michelangelo had second thoughts about the figure of Peter. “The most important thing we learned during the restoration regards the crucifix scene, in which Michelangelo corrects himself, modifying the perspective of the cross that he had already painted. In fact, the horizontal right arm shifts upward while a new left hand appears, changing the position of the head,” De Luca said at a Vatican press conference.

In the final version, the proud, glaring face of the martyred Peter twists unnaturally outward as if he were sending a message to onlookers, who would be, as Michelangelo knew, the cardinals gathered for future conclaves.

“It’s a sort of manifesto of a heretical spirituality,” according to Forcellino. “Michelangelo was being censored, and this is clear from the fact that in 1549 the Vatican declined to pay him to complete the frescoes in the chapel, finished by others in 1572.”

In The Conversion of Saul, on the opposite wall, Michelangelo painted a line connecting Paul to God. This amounted to heresy because it echoed Lutheran ideas of cutting out intermediaries, said Forcellino.

A month before his death, in 1549, Paul III climbed up on the scaffolding with Michelangelo to see the frescoes, which were at that time considered acceptable, according to Forcellino. Soon after the pope’s death, however, the frescoes began to be dismissed as the shoddy work of an old man, a view that survives today. Speaking to the press last summer, when the restoration was on view to the foreign (mostly American) sponsors who had paid for it, Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, said that the range of colors and the plasticity of the figures “are very much those of The Last Judgment, yet with even stronger dramatic tension and expressionist extremism.” Nevertheless, Paolucci added, the frescoes show a “pessimistic” artist who was lacking in “tranquility, equilibrium, concentration, and coherence.”

Michelangelo lived another 14 years and produced in that time around 1,000 works in sculpture and architecture, not least the drawings for the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica. But it is clear that in completing his last painting, in 1550, he was anything but tranquil. He belonged to a small but influential reformist group within the church known as the Spirituali, who met in secret to discuss spiritual life and the possibility of theological rapprochement with the Lutherans. These “evangelicals,” as they have been called, who hoped for the spiritual renewal of the church, included the poet Vittoria Colonna, her friend Giulia Gonzaga, and the English cardinal Reginald Pole, the last archbishop of Canterbury before England’s definitive breach with Rome, under Henry VIII.

After the pope’s death, the cardinals met in the Pauline Chapel for nine excruciating weeks to choose his successor, a member of the del Monte family who took the name Julius III. (One of the candidates who came close to being elected was none other than the English cardinal and Spiritualist Pole.) Under Julius III, the Inquisition gathered strength, and it became dangerous to be associated with the Spirituali; many adherents were later tried by Inquisition courts.

Only a few years later, when the Council of Trent met for a third time, all hope of rapprochement between the Catholic and Protestant worlds ended, and in 1563 the council issued an edict limiting, among other things, nudity—or even excessive beauty—in paintings. It was, the council decreed, unsuitable for ordinary people of “limited education.”

Judith Harris is the author of Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery.

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