Saul struck blind on the road to Damascus. Peter in the act of being crucified. These scenes—the last frescoes Michelangelo ever painted—face one another on the walls of the pope's private chapel in the Vatican. Michelangelo was still working on them in late 1549 when the chapel became the site of one of the most important papal elections in the history of Christianity.

At stake was the soul of the Western church: Would it remain in one piece, or would the divisions that had been tearing at its unity for a generation lead to a permanent rupture? Michelangelo's friend Reginald Pole—nemesis of Henry VIII and later Mary Tudor's archbishop of Canterbury—led in the voting throughout most of the election. He stood for a more personal, inward version of Christianity than many of his peers in Rome and sympathized with the almost unprecedented religious openness of this period. Above all, he was thought likely to seek an immediate understanding with the increasingly Protestant parts of Europe, especially Luther's Germany.

The cardinals debated the future of the papacy for over two months within the embrace of a profound artistic message. Michelangelo had designed The Crucifixion of Peter and The Conversion of Paul so that when the pope turned toward the assembly in the chapel while celebrating the Eucharist, the gaze of the soon-to-be-martyred Peter struck him full in the face. A quick glance away brought the pope into confrontation with the stricken Paul, whose temporarily blind eyes directed attention upward to Christ, the source of Paul's, Peter's, and the church's authority. Both frescoes graphically illustrated the pope's absolute dependence on God. The papacy's outward majesty and power were nowhere in evidence. This was exactly ...

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