The tragedy of the tomb

  • Eline Ronde - Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences
  • Liana Wobben - Faculty of Science and Engineering

The tomb of Julius II [9]

In 1505, pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo Buonarrotti to build his tomb [1]. At the start of the project, the plans for the tomb were big. People were questioning the legitimacy of the papal power. Julius wanted to stop this questioning through his art, but he became overenthusiastic. This led to Julius expecting too much from Michelangelo. The tomb was an enormous project. Moreover, in the meantime, Michelangelo also had to paint the ceiling and the alter piece of the Sistine Chapel. Besides, Julius was very meddling. This resulted in a big nightmare for Michelangelo. In one of his letters, he describes how he left Rome, to escape from the meddling. 'If I stayed in Rome, my own tomb would be made before the pope's. And this is why I left so suddenly' [2]. He spent 40 years of his life making the tomb. After the death of Julius II Michelangelo went on with his work, even though he still was very frustrated (which he expressed in his letters). For Michelangelo, the biggest problem was the interference and the interruptions by the popes. Pope Julius himself was not the only cause of interruption, the successors of Julius II also commissioned Michelangelo for other works and interfered with the design of the tomb. For that reason, Michelangelo moved to Florence to continue his work in peace.

1. The changing plans of the tomb
1.1 The first project (1505)
1.2. The second project (1513)
1.3 The third project (1516/1517)
1.4 The fourth project (1532-1545)
1.5 Oversight of the projects
2. Marmor und Geist

The changing plans of the tomb

Due to the insecurity and meddlesomeness, Michelangelo had to change his plans repeatedly. The sketches of the different plans of the tomb show this.

The first project (1505)

The design of the first project

At first, the tomb was planned to be placed in the back of the Saint Peter's Basilica. On the main floor of the tomb, there would be multiple statues of captives which represented Liberal Arts, Paintings, Sculptures and Architecture [3]. This probably must have indicated that these virtues were prisoners of death, together with pope Julius II. There would be a door in the front and in the back of the tomb. Inside the tomb, there would be a little chamber with a sacrophagus wherein the dead body of pope Julius II was to be laid. There would be four large figures on the first floor, one in every corner. The figures were the Active Live (living in society), the Contemplative Live (living isolated in order to deal with God), Saint Paul (c. 5-67) and Moses (c. 1400-1202 BCE) [4]. On the top, there would be a statue of pope Julius II, supported by a grieving Goddess of the Earth, Cybele, and a smiling God of the Sky, Caelus. The main floor would stand for the people and the middle floor for the prophets and saints. The top would represent the surpassing of the man and the saints in The Last Judgement [5]. In this design of the tomb, Julius placed himself as a connection between normal people and God. He would connect the people by teaching them about religion (like St. Paul), by being a lawgiver (like Moses), by showing the people how to live close to God (the Contemplative Live), and by being close to the people and supporting them when necessary (the Social Live). This design could cancel some of the questions. This design would show the people that, instead of the bible, the pope is the fundamental source of their religion. The best way to go back to the sources ('Ad Fontes'), is to listen to the pope!

The second project (1513)

The design of
the second
project [11]

In 1513, after the death of pope Julius II, Michelangelo signed a new contract [6]. The Tomb would be smaller, but would still contain 40 larger-than-life sized statues. The tomb would be placed in the Saint Peter's Basilica, between the tomb of Saint Peter, the high altar in the east and the altar of the main choir. The tomb would no longer be free standing, but would be placed against the wall. In a later design (also sketched in 1513) the size of the tomb was reduced again, to only 31 statues.

The third project (1516/1517)

The design of the
third project [12]

In the next plans, the tomb would be placed in the Church of Peter in Chains, instead of in Saint Peter's Basilica. Antonio del Ponte a Sieve executed the architectural parts of the tomb (lower zone, front) [3]. The decoration of the main floor was probably the same, as the decoration in the first and second projects. Pope Julius II would no longer be on top of the tomb. He would lie on the first floor, with four angels around him. Behind him there is a large statue of the Madonna and baby Jesus. The tomb would no longer contain a chamber with a sarcophagus.

The fourth project (1532-1545)

The design of the
fourth project [13]

This is the final the project. Eventually, the tomb is be a marble statue, placed against the right wall, in the back of the Saint Peter in Chains Church. It contains seven marble sculptures, with Moses as the centerpiece. Rachel and Leah represent the contemplative live and the active live. Cybele, Madonna and baby Jesus and a prophet are in the top of the tomb. In front of the Madonna, there is a sculpture of pope Julius II. When looking at the tomb, the sculpture of Moses immediately attracts all the attention. This sculpture is not only larger than the other sculptures, it is also much more detailed. The left side of the body of Moses is in rest and the right side of his body is active. It looks like he is going to move. The facial expressions of Moses are remarkable. He has a strict and determining expression on his face. When looking at him, it is important to keep in mind that Michelangelo wanted him to sit on the middle level, so he should actually be watched from below. In this way his proportions will be normal and he would probably look less angry.

Oversight of the projects

To show a clear summary of the projects, the four projects are shown in the chart below. Hereby, the constant reducing of the tomb becomes clear and accessible.

Tomb design [6] Size (meters: length x width x height) Number of story's Number of statues
1: 1505 10,55 x 7,03 x 9,38 3 47
2: 1513 7,82 x 6,70 x 13,00 3 31
3: 1516 6,70 x 6,70 x 9,60 2 20
4: 1532 0,15 x 6,70 x 8,27 2 7

Marmor und Geist

Moses' rigid muscle [14]

In 2014, Frommel et al. published the book 'Michelangelo Marmor und Geist' [6]. In this book, Frommel et al. wrote a review about the tomb of Julius II. Frommel et al. analyzed the four projects and all the sculptures and drawings which were made for the tomb. During their research they discovered that Michelangelo changed the sculpture of Moses after it was finished. The sculpture was made between 1513 and 1515, but when Michelangelo decided to make the statue of Moses the centerpiece, it needed to be changed. Michelangelo started to change the Moses in 1532 and finished it in 1544. The head of the statue was turned and one leg was bent. The changes can be seen in the beard and the neck of the statue. The beard of the statue does not match with the different designs of the beard in the sketches. Moreover, a rigid muscle is visible at the left side of the neck which could prove the changes after the finishing of the statue.

The design of the tomb was changed multiple times, some say even seven times [7]. Even after the sculpture was finished, Michelangelo has changed the position of Moses [6]. Moses was sitting in a passive, straight forward looking position. Michelangelo changed this to an active and direct position. All the changes say something about the size and the difficulty of the problems which had to be tackled. By comparing the first design with the finished tomb, there can be concluded that one of the main problems was actually never really solved. Michelangelo was a man who wanted to do everything perfect. His tomb had to be better than anything ever seen in Italy. Eventually Michelangelo had to make compromises, something he usually never did. The tomb had to be smaller and less detailed and had to be placed in a church which is far less seen then the St. Peters Basilica. Michelangelo couldn't stop thinking and worrying about the tomb. Even though there are lots of great works he never finished, he did finish the tomb after 40 years [8].

Even though the design of the tomb changed multiple times and many sculptures were never made or finished, one thing came back in every design: Moses. There are different plausible reasons for this decision. First of all, Moses was already made between 1513 and 1515. This was during the second design of the tomb, just before or just after the death of the pope. Moses would be one of the main figures of the tomb and he was already finished before they decided to use less sculptures. But Michelangelo also began making the sculptures of the slaves without finishing them, so this doesn't mean he had to put Moses on the tomb. Secondly, Moses is the most important prototype of Julius II [6]. Julius protected the people from disgrace, just like Moses did. Thirdly, Michelangelo identified himself with Moses. Michelangelo and Moses both felt isolated, unresolved and in danger. Moreover, they both were enlightened by God. Moses as a leader, Michelangelo as an artist.


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