Michelangelo and Raphael's Fresco Challenge for Julius II

Michelangelo and Raphael's Fresco Challenge for Julius II

A Story by Well Blow Me Down!

"My Word" type of longish setup for a pun.


This historical lesson helps us to learn about the dangers of overconfidence and the importance of thinking before you speak.

This happened in Rome in 1507. Pope Julius II had a huge cathedral wall that he wanted decorated as a fresco depicting the Israelites' flight from Egypt. He knew, of course, that Raphael was generally considered the master of fresco artwork, but there was a new, up and coming artist that he was interested in, known as Michelangelo. Not only was his sculpture amazingly beautiful, but his rates, as a younger and less experienced artist, were lower. The Pope decided to commission a smaller work from each of the two, and based on his evaluation of those in two weeks' time, he would choose an artist for the larger-scale work.

Raphael was already well aware of Michelangelo's growing reputation as a sculptor, and in a smaller way, as a painter, but he considered himself fairly safe, for Michelangelo had scant experience at painting frescos, whereas Raphael himself was an old and sure hand. He was already at work on a grand fresco, in fact, and focused his attention on a depiction of the Virgin Mary holding the Baby Jesus. The deadline was coming, but he was not worried. At last, with only one evening left to him, he sketched out a painting, relying on his innate talent and experience, feeling certain that Michelangelo, as a beginner, could still not match his artistry, try as he might.

But Michelangelo was eager to please and intent on pleasing the Pope, feeling sure that His Holiness would surely be an excellent patron, and a patronage with him might lead to more commissions from the wealthy Medici family. He went home after receiving his commission, thinking intently about a suitably impressive subject that would be beautiful without taxing himself too much. He was aware of his relative unfamiliarity with frescos, but trusted that with industry and patience he could delight the Pope and win the larger commission. Every day he spent hours on his design, some of which, drawn in red chalk, still exist today. After six days, he began to apply himself to his section of wall which would in a little more than a week need to have his completed fresco on it; this was despite his other demanding projects elsewhere in Rome. However, after the time was up, an exhausted Michelangelo sat against the wall, shrouded in darkness except for the lantern he had brought, and the fresco was finished in glorious style.

Next morning, the Pope rose with a sense of excitement, for he was sure that, no matter what, he had two new and admirable frescos to view and to own. The two walls were opposite each other, but with a screen in between so that the artists would not be able to view and copy each others' work. He came first to Raphael's hastily done work. While it was evident that Raphael had skill and experience, as well as a great artistic sense, the careless nature of this piece somehow communicated itself to the Pope, and he was less than enthusiastic. Crestfallen, Raphael followed His Holiness around the screen to view his competition. Not only the Pope was amazed by the work; Raphael was almost overwhelmed himself! For the small section of wall, now long since destroyed, was a gloriously beautiful and intricately detailed illustration of Noah leading the pairs of animals into the Ark. Everywhere the animals and even the plants were vibrant with lively feeling and emotion. Noah's face was urgent and alarmed as he beckoned for the elephants to hasten as the waters seemed to visibly rise higher, and all animal life on earth was in immediate danger of drowning. Raphael was devastated. The Pope saw that there was no real contest here; Michelangelo, beckoned like the elephants he had painted, came to the Pope's arms and was embraced, and immediately offered a patronage and the large-scale fresco job.

However, Raphael was not ready to be defeated so quickly. "Does His Holiness not like my fresco?" he asked plaintively. I am sure, Papa, that the impact of my own carefully-done fresco on the wall of the cathedral will be much better. Michelangelo has indeed created a work of great beauty, for which I must congratulate him as a fellow artist" (here Raphael bowed to the younger artist, who returned the bow graciously), "but think! Michelangelo has been working hard on this for an entire two weeks! He works too slowly! I have to admit that I was not as diligent as I should have been, Your Holiness, but you do know my work. When I concentrate I can create frescos that are surely quite as good as this, and I can do so much more rapidly! Why, by Easter the work can be complete for a gala celebration, whereas young Michelangelo is apt to keep working on every small detail until next Christmas or later! Please, Your Holiness, reconsider." And with this frankly exaggerated statement, Raphael laid himself on the floor in a position of supplication, showing a humility that was rare in him.

The Pope had to consider this argument, however, and make the wisest choice under the circumstances, for the elder artist had a point. Time was of the essence, truly. "Well, Raphael, get up and let us consider this. Your words are true, of course, insofar as we do need to see this project's completion this year, hopefully in fewer than six months. I am not certain that Michelangelo is as slow working as you suggest." Michelangelo shook his head urgently, but he was not granted the right to speak at that time. "And, Raphael, consider. Michelangelo took this competition seriously, and you did not. It is clear that he won it fair and square. I am not saying that you are the inferior artist, my child, but in this case the agreement we all had was plainly written and we all were in accord as to its terms.

"But Your Holiness, you see what work I can do even in the space of..." he blushed a little but told the truth, "four hours. If I had even had double that time, I could have..." But he trailed off as the Pope scowled at Raphael's work, the screen having been moved away by servants.

"Raphael, this figure's pose is quite nice...and Methusula's expression is quite vivid, I can see that. The background is pleasing, too. Look at this tree here, it's clearly a pine. Quite well done." The Pope, with an expression of bland beneficence, smiled upon the elder artist sympathetically, not wishing to be cruel.

But Raphael would have none of this damning praise. "I am a man of pride, Your Holiness," he said, standing upright and looking the Pope in the eye. "Do not patronize me."

"As you wish, Raphael," answered the Pope mildly, turning to the eager-eyed Michelangelo. "I shall not patronize you. I am hereby declaring myself Michelangelo's patron." He looked back with some distaste at Raphael. "You, sir, may go."

Michelangelo kissed the Pope's hand gratefully. "Patronize me all you want, Your Holiness," he offered, turning to shoot a sweet and mocking smile at his senior artist.

Raphael, realizing he had designed his own downfall, slunk away. As he left, a voice near the door intoned, "Thank you for your patronage." Raphael was less than elated. "Go to the inferno," he responded blackly.

© 2012 Well Blow Me Down!

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Added on November 23, 2012
Last Updated on November 23, 2012
Tags: Raphael, Michelangelo, wordplay


Well Blow Me Down!
Well Blow Me Down!

Yunlin County, Central Taiwan, Taiwan

I'm a college professor of lit and music, an expatriate from the USA. I'm into all sorts of creativity. (function () { document.write("");} () ) more..