Michelangelo unrolled his design and showed it to Pope Julius. According to Vasari it was so rich and so splendid that it put to shame every other tomb in history. Michelangelo pointed here and there to the figures—there were going to be more than forty of them—and told Julius their meaning.
Julius was so amazed that for a moment he didn’t say a word. Finally he asked: “And those two beautiful women at the top, that support my sarcophagus, who are they?”
“This one is Heaven, Holiness. She smiles, rejoicing to have such a great soul coming home to celestial glory.”
“Ah, that’s nice. And the other one?”
“That’s Cybele, the goddess of the Earth. She is desconsolate at having to remain in a world robbed of all virtue now that, well, Your Holiness has departed.”
It is easy to understand that the Pope was pleased with the spectacular design. But Michelangelo’s explanation alone might have won him over. What a mixture of ancient and modern culture it was, of Christian teaching and pagan lore!
What, for instance, was the goddess of the Earth doing in the cast of characters?
How could Michelangelo include a goddess in this representation of a Christian death; and why did Pope Julius let him get away with it?
But here is another example of a similarly puzzling shuffling of pagan and Christian belief:
After working for months, Michelangelo finally showed Pope Julius what he had been painting on the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the Pope gasped at the grandeur of the design and the brilliant colors. “Now could you explain it to me?” he asked the artist. “I recognize many of the heroes and prophets of the Old Testament. But who, for example, are those beautiful women with books along the base of the ceiling? Who do they represent?”
The Libyan Sibyl by Michelangelo, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Rome (public domain photo)
“Those are the Sibyls, Your Holiness,” said Michelangelo. “They had the same place in the Divine Plan as the Prophets of the Bible. They too foretold the Coming of Christ.”
“Ah, yes,” said the Pope. “They did indeed. Very good.” And he went on to inquire about other parts of the story on the ceiling.
Was it “very good”? Who were the Sibyls? Weren’t they pagan fortune-tellers—half-starved and half-crazy girls—who were kept like wild animals in the cellars of certain temples in Greece and Italy? Were these the “equivalent” of the great Old Testament prophets, Daniel, Ezequiel, Isaias? Who said they prophesied the Coming of Christ?
Well, this mixture of pagan and Christian culture was just what the Renaissance was all about and it had been going on long before Michelangelo and Julius were born. By the time they came along, Italy had gotten used to it, had grown fond of it; and dozens of brilliant men had made it respectable.