The Pope’s Funeral

Michelangelo’s Design for the Tomb of Pope Julius II della Rovere, 1505–6 Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, over stylus ruling and leadpoint; 20-1/16 x 12-9/16 in. (51 x 31.9 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1962 (62.93.1)

The Metropolitan Museum owns a quietly beautiful drawing by Michelangelo, a presentation drawing illustrating his design for a tomb dedicated to Pope Julius II. The drawing, executed in almost impossibly fine pen-and-ink lines, displays an incredible transparency and lightness, and yet the figures on the page were destined to be executed in stone. The drawing asks a lot of the viewer—to understand how the lines and figures cohere as architecture, how the parts interact to make a whole, and to translate that vision into a whole other register, to go from the drawing, so beautifully limpid and translucent, to the stolid heft and materiality of carved stone.

The drawing centers on the figure of the Pope, his eyes shut as in sleep—or death. It is a beautifully tender drawing, with Julius looking all too human, reminiscent of the tradition of emphasizing Christ’s earthly mortality in portrayals of the Lamentation of Christ.

Detail from Michelangelo’s Design for the Tomb of Pope Julius II della Rovere, 1505–6 Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, over stylus ruling and leadpoint; 20-1/16 x 12-9/16 in. (51 x 31.9 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1962 (62.93.1)

Michelangelo chose to present Julius in a rather awkward pose — feet first, starkly foreshortened, looking very much like the Christ in Mantegna’s Lamentation of 1480.

Andrea Mantegna, Lamentation of Christ, c. 1480. Collection of the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

But Michelangelo sweetens the scene by placing angels on either side of the Pope. They attempt to lift his body upwards, towards the Madonna, but his weight sags. Even in death, he is not quite ready to leave this earth.


On December 31st, 2021, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died.

Today, after three days of lying in state in St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pope Emeritus will be laid to rest in the Vatican Grottoes below St. Peter’s. Papal funerals are spectacular events that, astonishingly—or perhaps not, given the papacy’s commitment to tradition, despite some 21st-century updates, still look rather similar to the papal funerals that took place in the Renaissance. Bartolomeo Scappi, cuoco segreto[1] to two 16th-century Popes (Pope Pius IV, who served as Pope from 1559 until his death in 1565, and Pius V, who served from 1566 to 1572), described the funeral of Paul III (who reigned as Pope from 1534 to 1549) in his 1570 work, Opera dell’arte del cucinare.

The general contours of the funeral rites remain the same. Pope Paul III died on November 20th, 1549. Scappi records that “the following morning his body was borne on a covered litter through Trastevere by his usual Swiss Guard and light horse guard to Saint Peter’s Palace and into the Consistory Chamber. There, dressed in pontifical robes of white vestments as if he were going to celebrate, he was laid out on a bier which was draped with a silken pall of purple and gold with lettering which spelled out Paulus III – Pont – Max. At his feet were two cardinal’s mitres.”[2]

Pope Paul III’s lay in state for three days in Christ’s Chapel, “with his feet toward the iron grille, in full vestments […], with many rope torches burning day and night and many Priests to watch over him. At the end of the three days, he was buried behind the organ of Saint Peter’s where, during nine days fifteen torches of yellow wax burned continuously.”

Unlike the funerals for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, or for Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, Paul III did not seem to have received a funeral procession on the same scale, nor a grand public funeral. For Paul III, the most spectacular rites occurred during the Novendialia, the nine days leading up to the cardinals’ conclave, where–sequestered from the world–the cardinals would elect a new Pope. Scappi informs us:

In the middle of the church in front of the altar of the Most Holy Sacrament a Catafalque was set up, a pyramid two pikes high its top shaped like the battlements of a castle made with black-painted merlons. Every two-hands distance there was a strip of wood with long nails set half a hand apart; those strips ran from the first capital of the columns right to the top of the battlements. The Catafalque had four sides and that arrangement was on each side. On top of the battlements were four rope torches which rose up, when the Most Reverend Persons[3] entered the church, along with all the wood torches fixed on the nails set in the above-mentioned trips; every wood torch weighed at least half a pound and there were more than 1,120 of them.

On the lower capital there were six other similar rope torches on each side, and at every corner of the Catafalque was a banner of black taffeta, and likewise on the battlements. Around the lower moulding was a band of black taffeta two arms in height. The heraldic arms of the Pope, without the keys, were painted on every side of that along with lettering which red ‘Pope Paul III,’ as well as a bit of foliage in white and a few Angels painted in umber in various poses and forms.

Beneath that band of Angels were 12 columns covered with black fabric which supported the Catafalque, or castle; on each column a coat of arms of the Pope was painted. The circumference was more than a hundred hands, and beneath was a funeral couch, six hands deep and ten wide, covered with sheet of gold brocade, with border embellishments of black velvet all around; at each corner were a very finely embroidered coat of arms of the Pope and two pillows of gold brocade. At the foot of the couch were two papal tiaras of crimson velvet with their ribbons hanging right to the ground.

For nine days, the Pope’s family gathered on benches beneath the catafalque, “dressed head to foot in black, with their wood torches, large and small according to the rank and condition of the men, lit in their hand.” These were joined by five Cardinals. And they sat while “the Most Reverend Cardinal who was to the right of the Priest began to asperse the funeral couch with Holy Water, then with incense, having first made a reverence to the Cross, which was set in front of the Priest, and then to each Cardinal. That done, he said a prayer, and so did all the four other Cardinals.”

From Scappi’s description, it is easy to imagine the general atmosphere, of flickering lights illuminating the slow, solemn movements of men, in atmosphere heavy with smoke. But it is hard to visualize the papal catafalque. Perhaps it looked something like this seventeenth-century catafalque, created for the Novendialia of Pope Clement X:

Catafalque of Pope Clement X, 1676. Engraved by Giovanni Battista Falda, after a drawing by Giovanni Battista de’ Rossi. Published by Giovanni Battista de’ Rossi in Rome. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1959.

There will be no novendialia for Benedict. His successor was chosen long ago, when Benedict abdicated the papal throne. Today, the sitting Pope bid the Pope Emeritus farewell with a brief homily.


I don’t know who chose the image that ended up on the cover of the program for Benedict’s funeral mass, but it is an image that echoes and responds to Michelangelo’s portrayals of Christ. Like Michelangelo, whose Pieta he surely knew well, Caravaggio’s Deposition of Christ (1602-1603) emphasizes Christ’s mortality, his humanity, and above all, his fleshly corporeality.

Gaia Pianigiani for The New York Times

Designed as an altarpiece for Girolamo Vittrice’s family chapel in the Roman church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, Caravaggio’s painting was designed to be seen from below. In its original location, the viewer would have been closest to the bottom third of the painting. The viewer’s eyes move upwards, taking in, first, Christ’s hand, gently brushing the stone of his own tomb, and the bare feet and sturdy legs of Nicodemus, who, along with St. John the Evangelist, bears the weight of Christ’s body. Our eyes move over Christ’s body, still young, yet marred by the marks of the Cruxifiction. Two Marys weep over him–Mary Magdalene, holding a handkerchief to catch her tears, and the aged Virgin, grieving over the loss of her only son. Behind them, a third Mary–Mary of Clopas–raises her arms to heaven.

Caravaggio’s Deposition of Christ (1603-1604), oil on canvas. Collection of the
Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City. It is a large painting, 300 cm × 203 cm (120 in × 80 in) in size. The painting is sometimes called “The Entombment of Christ.”

It is an image of such dark beauty that it is hard to imagine that “All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” (Ecclesiastes 3:20)


Nothing related to the Papacy is ever done thoughtlessly, or by accident. I wonder what led to the choice of this particular Caravaggio painting. What was the message encoded in the painting, and what was the lesson I was meant to draw?


[1] The closest contemporary analog, in my mind, would be the role of the White House Executive Chef, as Pope’s cuoco segreto was responsible for overseeing the Pope’s daily meals, as well as for planning and executing state dinners and other special functions. For a brief accounting of Scappi’s life, see Edward White’s essay for the Paris Review blog.

[2] All of the English translations for Scappi’s text come from Terence Scully’s monumental translation of Scappi’s Opera, published in 2008 by the University of Toronto Press as The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570): L’arte et prudenza d’un maestro cuoco (The Art and Craft of a Master Cook).

[3] Here, Scappi is referring to the Cardinals.

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