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 the view that Pole developed during the election, concluding that the pope should model himself after the crucified Christ. Since Pole also refused to campaign, arguing that anyone who did automatically made himself unworthy of the office, he had a radically different understanding of the papacy than any of his immediate predecessors.

These two frescoes have often been criticized as the efforts of a failing artist no longer capable of the magnificent work he had done in the adjoining Sistine Chapel. Seen in their proper context, however, they were in fact part of Michelangelo's last testament, along with the Rondanini Pietà. The views that Pole theorized in writing and Michelangelo painted were shared with their bosom companion, Vittoria Colonna. Before she died in 1547, the three had known each other for almost 15 years. Their common, highly personal faith represented a broad and deep challenge to the current state of the institutional church in favor of a return to a simpler, purer version of New Testament Christianity.

Reform is in the air

It was one of the most tumultuous periods in Christian history. A principal cause was the state of the papacy. Once the arbiter of Christendom, it had suffered a serious decline in prestige. Since the 13th century, the papacy had gained an enviable position of authority (and sometimes power) by promising Europeans that they could bring any and all problems to Rome and the pope would solve them. This promise proved wildly popular but difficult to keep—and, by the late 15th and early 16th centuries, impossible.

After the French invasion of Italy in 1494, the popes struggled under increasing political and religious pressures. Not least among these was the movement of renewal launched in Florence by Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola believed that the Apocalypse was rapidly approaching, and that the Antichrist was the pope. He preached the importance of inner faith, as well as the necessity of restoring the republic in Florence.

Savonarola is only one example of a climate of radical religious experimentation not seen since perhaps the 12th century. The most well known of these experimenters today is Martin Luther, who insisted that ordinary believers could be saved through faith in God's grace, which they could know by reading the Bible. But these ideas were not unique to Luther. They had much in common with a broad spectrum of Christian thought in the late Middle Ages derived more or less directly from the letters of Paul, often read (as Luther did) through the lens of the early church father Augustine.

The popes were slow to respond to these challenges. On the one hand, they saw Luther as just another apostate monk, and on the other hand, they failed to recognize the potential in the religious renewal going on in their immediate vicinity. As a result, they lost some of their ability to provide central direction and provoked serious questions about prevailing notions of authority. But under the leadership of Pope Paul III, the foundations of what is sometimes called the "Catholic Reformation" began to be built. Paul III appointed reform-minded people like Pole as cardinals and called the Council of Trent, which met intermittently from 1545 to 1563 to discuss the need for reform and to formulate a response to the Protestant challenge.

The free gift of grace

As external institutions seemed near collapse, Michelangelo's faith grew more and more inward-focused. He used his art—whether painting, sculpture, drawing, or poetry—to recover an understanding of Christianity rooted in the believer's own experience.

Following the apostle Paul, Michelangelo conceived of salvation as entirely dependent on God's grace. The believer's best efforts, even a believer as driven as he was, could contribute nothing: "all my efforts apart from your blood do not make a man blessed" he wrote in a poem. Outward rituals and observances do not save, although it is unclear how much of a role Michelangelo and his like-minded friends saved for the sacraments. They all sought a deeper relationship with Christ that became almost mystical.

Like Savonarola, whose hymns were kept alive in Dominican nunneries in Tuscany long after his execution as a heretic, Michelangelo and Colonna wrote poetry as a form of intensely personal prayer. They may never have quite reached the apocalyptic urgency of Savonarola's "O soul, by sin made blind" with its refrain "Alas, alas, alas, fear of the Lord is dead in us," but all three shared the solution put forward in the hymn's final stanza: "Go back to Jesus Christ—and to His Mother dear." While Colonna, like Savonarola, probably never lost her devotion to Mary as mediator, by the mid-1540s Michelangelo zeroed in on Christ's grace. As he put it in a sonnet probably from 1547:

My dear Lord, I call and appeal to you alone
against my blind torment
You alone can renew me, within and without …
Without you, Lord, I lack every good
Or this, probably from the last decade of his life:
The thorns and nails of both your palms
with your benign, humble and merciful face,
promise the grace of repenting much
and hope of salvation to my sad soul … 
May your blood wash and cleanse my sins,
and the older I grow, the more may it abound
with prompt help and complete pardon.

Michelangelo expressed his point in the language of the unconditional gift, both real and metaphorical. At first, Colonna had trouble grasping the concept that "grace cannot be bought" (as Michelangelo wrote in a letter). When words literally failed him, Michelangelo turned to the more congenial medium of art. He invented for her the "presentation drawing," a drawing intended to be finished and given to someone rather than used as a model for another work of art, as was usually done. Through their subjects, Christ crucified and the Pietà, as well as his refusal to accept anything in return, Michelangelo showed Colonna the unconditional nature of Christ's gift. Colonna at first tried to reciprocate by presenting him with manuscripts of her poetry or asking for copies of his work for others, completely misunderstanding his purpose. Eventually she understood his point so well that she could convert it into words in "The Lament on Christ's Passion," stating that the gift of grace through Christ's suffering and death was the only means of salvation.

These beliefs were summarized in the poetic, Christ-centered language of the most important work of the Catholic Reformation in Italy, the Benefit of Christ's Death (1543). Its final form was produced under Pole's direction by another poet and his intimate friend, Marcantonio Flaminio. Colonna, whom Pole called his "second mother," was with both of them during the writing. The book's main point was put in simple, biblical-sounding language at the end: "But blessed is he who imitates St. Paul, renounces all his own justification, and wants no other justice than that of Christ." The book frequently calls this "benefit" a gift, just as Michelangelo and Colonna did.


The similarity of these beliefs to Protestant tendencies did not go unnoticed. From the safety of Geneva, the reformer John Calvin challenged those in papal territories with similar views to throw off the mask of conformity to Catholic authority and profess their convictions openly. He addressed this appeal to "Nicodemites," an allusion to Nicodemus who had wished to follow Jesus but refused to visit him except by night. Calvin may have touched a nerve with his accusation, especially if it is true that Michelangelo represented himself as Nicodemus in the Florence Pietà.

Calvin and many other Protestants viewed reform as necessarily having a public component. But for Michelangelo it was a more internal matter of personal renewal, expressed in private poetry shared only with his closest friends and in art such as the frescoes of Paul and Peter that few people ever got to see. More observers were exposed to Michelangelo's most notorious painting, The Last Judgment, especially his fellow artists who flocked to see it. But Michelangelo coded its message in such a way that most of its meaning is still disputed. In this painting, everyone stands equally before the judgment seat. Even Peter, diffidently returning his keys to Christ, seems uncertain whether he will be accepted into heaven. All is in motion, all is entirely dependent on Christ's command, represented by his upraised right arm. No one could know whether they were saved, but they could rest secure in Christ's promise of grace.

Ironically, the most conservative Roman Catholics saw eye to eye with Calvin on the danger Michelangelo and his friends posed in their rejection (or at least avoidance) of doctrinal authority and the necessity of institutions. At this point in time, there was a wide range of theological options. The division between "Catholic" and "Protestant" did not yet even come close to being black and white. But that was starting to change.

"Make the world a suitable place"

Throughout the papal election in 1549, Cardinal Reginald Pole was the favorite candidate. But he lost—by one vote. A marvelous opportunity for unity was missed, and shortly thereafter the ruptures between Catholic and Protestant did indeed become permanent.

It was not until 1563, a year before Michelangelo's death, that the Council of Trent finally concluded its work, leaving behind it official doctrinal definitions that the church had never had before. Among these was justification as a matter of faith and works, of private belief and public action. The Benefit was put on the Index of Prohibited Books, and some of Michelangelo's most high-profile work came under severe criticism, including censorship in the form of repainting.

This especially befell The Last Judgment, in large part because of its nudity. Paul IV (who had been the first head of the 1542 Roman Inquisition before he became pope) even proposed to destroy the painting, masking his objections in architectural, not religious terms—the Sistine Chapel was too small for the increasing number of cardinals. It also suffered from Trent's new insistence that religious art correspond with literal reality and that its ideas be clearly understandable. Faced with Paul's hostile demand that Michelangelo make his work "suitable," Michelangelo replied with a pithy summary of his attitude as a Christian artist: "Tell the pope that this is a small matter and it can easily be made suitable; let him make the world a suitable place and painting will follow suit."

Interestingly enough, the Pauline frescoes did not attract this kind of criticism, perhaps because they were insufficiently well known. But that popes of the counter-reforming rigor of Pius V (1560-1572) found nothing objectionable in them suggests that Michelangelo had touched a very deep chord at the papacy's heart.

By Pius's time, public expression of views like Michelangelo's became imprudent. Nevertheless, Michelangelo himself remained an almost untouchable icon. He had invented a new role, the artist-creator, free to do whatever he or she wished, in whatever domain, unhampered by any constraints other than the limits of his or her genius. Michelangelo's art was a tremendous contribution to the history of Christianity that survived and flourished precisely because it could be read in so many ways.

Thomas F. Mayer is professor of history at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.

And the dead shall be raised.

The theme of salvation by grace runs throughout the complicated content of Michelangelo's Last Judgment, commissioned by Pope Paul III. The massive fresco is filled with dozens of mostly nude figures. The redeemed ascend to heaven as the damned are dragged into hell. The focus is on the "one mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 2:5) through whom comes salvation.

Georgio Vasari says the gigantic wall painting filled viewers with awe when it was unveiled in 1541. But it also sparked criticism. Some thought the nudity unseemly and better suited to a bathhouse than a chapel. After the Council of Trent imposed restrictions on art, one of Michelangelo's former pupils painted patches of cloth over the offending parts of the human anatomy. But for Michelangelo, unclothed figures belonged in a resurrection scene: He did not believe in a nebulous immortality of the soul. This is the resurrection of the body. Before our Maker and Judge we stand stripped of all that covers us in this world.

Michelangelo did not exclude himself from this but portrayed his own face in the stripped skin held in the hand of St. Bartholomew, who according to tradition was martyred by being flayed. The limp, withering skin hangs under the gaze of Christ on the axis between heaven and hell, facing the possibility of salvation or condemnation. The image evokes Job: "For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last day he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God."

—Laurel Gasque