The Unlikely Figure We Have to Thank For The Renaissance’s Greatest Masterpieces

Iconic works of art commissioned by the ‘warrior pope’

The popes of the past were very different to the ones we may be familiar with today: they competed with monarchs for rule over Europe; fought bloody wars; and amassed huge wealth. In some particularly extreme examples, they even murdered, destroyed cities, had dozens of illegitimate children, and hosted orgies.

Known as the “warrior pope”, Julius II engaged in the conflicts of his day. He had his military forces end warfare in Umbria, conquered Venetian land belonging to the church, and even joined the anti-French Holy League (including Spain and England) to successfully drive French troops out of Italy.

Yet, somehow, Pope Julius II found the time in between his constant wars to sponsor iconic works like Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Rooms, and St. Peter’s Basilica. Although most of Julius II’s artistic projects were about his own ego and political propaganda, the works he helped to realize have inspired millions with their beauty, and are known as some of the greatest artworks of all time. Here are some of the most enduring masterpieces Julius II helped make a reality in Rome and Vatican City.

Portrait of Pope Julius II, Raphael, 1511 - 1512 (From the collection of Städel Museum)

Master Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo wasn’t thrilled when Pope Julius II shared his vision for a ceiling fresco at the Sistine Chapel. Not only would the work be a literal pain in the neck, Michelangelo complained that he was a sculptor first and foremost. Amazingly, Michelangelo left Rome when the Pope was summoned away on a war expedition to avoid this painting commission. Luckily for the history of Western art, Pope Julius II forced Michelangelo to accept the commission for the Sistine Chapel in 1508. The great Renaissance artist finished the ceiling frescoes by 1512.

The Sistine Chapel, Vatican City, Rome (From the collection of Touring Club Italiano)

Michelangelo was said to draw most heavily on the words of the Old Testament rather than other artists’ work as a guide for his otherworldly ceiling frescoes. Each year, about five million tourists from around the world crane their necks to enjoy the splendor of Michelangelo’s vision, all thanks to that stubborn pope.

Studies of an outstretched arm for the fresco 'The Drunkenness of Noah' in the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo (From the collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen)

The Divine Holy Places

The Milanese genius Donato Bramante was clearly Pope Julius II’s favorite architect. Bramante’s most ambitious projects under Pope Julius II were undoubtedly laying the groundwork for St. Peter’s Basilica in 1506 and the Belvedere Courtyard. Unfortunately, Bramante’s projects were so grand that they weren’t even close to completion by the time of his death in 1514.

St Peter's Square and Basilica (From the collection of Touring Club Italiano)

Bramante was able, however, to finish Pope Julius II’s commission to expand the choir in Rome’s famous Parish Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo. It’s also believed that Pope Julius II commissioned Bramante’s friend Raphael to paint The Holy Family for this church in 1508.

Basilica Parrocchiale Santa Maria del Popolo (From the collection of Touring Club Italiano)

After hanging in the church for many years, The Holy Family ended up in Chantilly’s Musée Condé, though its authenticity is not entirely certain, as there were many reproductions of Raphael’s masterpiece. One of the reproductions now resides in Nijni Taghil dating circa 1509.

The Holy Family (The Madonna del Velo; Madonna di Loreto) (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)

Raphael’s Inspired Artistry

Pope Julius II took a chance when he hired the relatively unknown artist Raphael to decorate his Vatican apartments. Luckily for Julius II, the art in these “Raphael Rooms” became some of the best examples of High Renaissance fresco-work. Considered one of his finest works, Raphael’s School of Athens perfectly embodies the core of the Renaissance movement, and its reverance to classical ideals.

The end of the Middle Ages saw a revival of the classical world, emphasizing once again philosophical reasoning, literature and humanism. The School of Athens is a fresco for Pope Julius II’s Apostolic Palace rooms depicting great minds of Ancient Greece’s classical period such as Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Socrates, Euclide and more, which triumphantly signaled the connections between contemporary artists (i.e. Bramante, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and, of course, Raphael).

The School of Athens by Raphael (From the collection of the Touring Club Italiano)

Over the years, Raphael became well-liked by Pope Julius II for his awe-inspiring talent and his affable personality. So beloved was Raphael by the Pope that Julius II allowed the young artist to paint his famously pensive portrait, which is now housed in Germany’s Städel Museum.

Portrait of Pope Julius II, Raphael, 1511 - 1512 (From the collection of Städel Museum)

Raphael’s last great work, the Sistine Madonna, was also commissioned by Julius II. This time, however, Julius II gave the work to a group of monks in Piacenza. Eventually this painting wound up in Germany, this time in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister. Believe it or not, this work is so powerful that the Hindu saint Swami Vivekananda reportedly wept when he saw a photo of it.

The Sistine Madonna, Raphael, 1512 - 1513 (From the collection of Old Masters Picture Gallery, Dresden State Art Museums)

Michelangelo’s Moses Tomb

From the outside, the San Pietro in Vincoli near Rome’s Colosseum may not look like much, but it holds one of Michelangelo’s most famous artworks.

Basilica of S. Pietro in Vincoli, Rome (From the collectiono of Touring Club Italiano)

Pope Julius II’s last great collaboration with the great artist resulted in the Moses, originally commissioned for the Pope’s very own tomb. When Michelangelo was given this commission in 1505, he wanted to create a huge work with at least 40 major figures. Unfortunately for Michelangelo, they ran out of money. The aging artist was forced to scale down his vision from a tomb housed in St. Peter’s to a smaller work in San Pietro.

Although he was upset about this change in direction, Michelangelo reportedly believed his sculpture of Moses was one of his best.

[Moise by Michael Angelo, central sculpture of the Tomb of Julius the Second] (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)

You might be wondering why Michelangelo depicted Moses, this holy prophet, with devilish horns. This is likely due to a mistake when the Bible was translated from Hebrew into Latin, which implies that Moses was growing horns rather than radiating light.

Moses by Michelangelo, Robert Macpherson, 1850s (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)
Words by Sarah Frohmberg
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