Pope and Circumstance

When the pontiff dies, the rituals commence. How many in favor of "pope Kevin"?

Contrary to popular opinion, the commission to repaint the Sistine Chapel was no great gift. Ceiling painting was usually left to relatively minor painters employing simple motifs—more complex paintings, like Mantegna's famous ceiling fresco in Mantua's ducal palace, required an extreme foreshortening that was exceedingly difficult to master. Michelangelo—who signed letters "Michelangelo, sculptor"—was not an experienced painter when he received the commission, and even less experienced in the special atmospheric and perspectival requirements that such a fresco would demand. He was thus angry when he received the commission from il papa terrible, "The Terrifying Pope," Julius II. The two reasons he accepted the commission were a moderately grounded fear for his life and a desire for something he did want to do: construct his tomb, a commission that he ardently sought, both for the sculptural challenges it offered and because the idea of Julius's eventual death was a consoling one. Raphael was working—with more warmth—in an adjoining room to the Sistine Chapel and took inspiration from the figures Michelangelo was painting on the ceiling. (A less enthusiastic Leonardo, working in the Vatican a few years later, said they reminded him of great "sacks of nuts.") Contrary to many expectations, the ceiling was a resounding success. Even the impulsive Viterbians wouldn't try to remove the roof whose underside bore Michelangelo's great work.

In Roman Triptych, his 2003 book of poems, Pope John Paul II wrote about his inspiring experiences during the two 1978 conclaves in the Sistine Chapel that led—shocking everyone including himself—to his papacy. In the prolific pope's final work, Memory and Identity (just out from Rizzoli), we see a different side of man and pope. The book's epilogue, "Someone Must Have Guided That Bullet," refers to the assassin Mehmet Ali Agca's bullet diverted from its fatal trajectory in the attempt on the pope's life in front of St. Peter's Square in 1981. The professional assassin engaged to ice the pope was to receive a visit singular in the annals of contract killings: his intended victim visiting him in prison—to pardon him. This personal and papal pardon was followed, nearly 20 years later, by a secular one and Agca was returned to his home country, where he immediately began serving a sentence on an earlier murder charge.

The preceding chapters of the pope's book tell of what the magic bullet, which "someone" must have guided, saved him to do. Elsewhere, the pope discusses the fall of Nazism and Communism, regimes built upon "ideologies of evil." The "forms of extermination" they practiced lead him to another form of "extermination" that has not yet been brought to an end: "the legal extermination of human beings conceived but unborn." He says of pro-choice and gay marriage advocacy that "it is . . . necessary to ask whether this is not the work of another ideology of evil, more subtle and hidden, perhaps, intent upon exploiting human rights themselves against man and against the family."

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  • The reader might easily wonder whether the aging pope was capable of justifying such an analogy. "Over the years," he writes, "I have become more and more convinced that the ideologies of evil are profoundly rooted in the history of European philosophical thought." By grounding a philosophy that gives pride of place to the cogito over the sum, to an ens cogitans that eclipses the esse illuminating the philosophy of Aquinas, the seeds for the "ideologies of evil" that ravage our present day were sown. A darker dialectic of enlightenment would be difficult to imagine (one almost can understand why Brown's illuminati are ready to blind the Vatican with their science).

    On Friday, April 8, the pope's body—along with a sealed text in Latin detailing his reign and a pouch full of papal coins for his journeys—was laid to rest. In the coming days the conclave of cardinals will convene to cast their ballots. No Viterbian contingent will force a vote, and a decision will come soon enough. A plume of white smoke will rise from the Sistine Chapel and a cry will come forth: "Habemus papam!"


    Leland de la Durantaye is an assistant professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard University.

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