Red and white silhouette, intractable sovereign, man of intrigues and fights, but also of pleasures and pomp, Julius II is the pope who launched the construction of Saint-Pierre, had the Sistine Chapel painted and instituted the Swiss Guard in Vatican. Here he is, in Horace Vernet’s painting, a formidable and imperious man, surrounded by three of the greatest artists of his time: Michelangelo, in a green coat, recognizable by his black beard; Bramante, who presents the plan of the future basilica; and Raphaël, from the back, who is waiting to show a project of what the history of art will retain under the name of “Chambres de Raphaël”.
We are in 1506. The construction site is titanic: it is a question of building, for colossal sums, soli Deo gloria, the largest religious building in the world. We are also on the Vatican Hill, where in ancient Rome stood a circus built by Emperor Caligula. It is there that, according to tradition, the apostle Peter was crucified upside down, and there again that his remains were buried in a necropolis before the Christian Roman emperor Constantine, in the IVand century, had a first basilica built in honor of the saint, which would become a place of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. When the pope moved to Avignon, at the beginning of the XIVand century, the basilica was gradually abandoned, so that in 1378, when the Sovereign Pontiff returned to Rome, it was in ruins. The urgency is to restore. It will take more than a century to complete the work which overlooks the supposed tomb of the apostle. The phenomenal cost of the work pushes the Church to reintroduce the trade of indulgences, a practice which will be at the origin of the Protestant schism in Europe.
The historical episode is well known. Around the pope, an architect, a sculptor and a painter of genius are summoned not to decorate a church already built, Rome has hundreds of them, but to build a new church, and not just any church: the largest, most spectacular of all time. Rome, the Eternal City. Curious name given to the city of the Caesars and, later, that of the popes, which, in fact of eternity, has only lived for periods exceeding only a few centuries! Doubtless the formula only served as a metaphor, under Augustus, to designate imperial power. All the same. Applied to the Rome of the papacy, it appeals to the durability of Christianity, that is to say to the infinity of time.
Really ? What we call eternal is perhaps nothing other than the need we have, poor humans, to hope our beliefs will last longer than us, to dream them in any case more capable than us of surviving the ravages time. And that’s where you have to revisit Horace Vernet’s painting, because the scene seen today can take on new meaning. This new Church which we ardently hope to build, to show that of yesterday that something else can be done, it is up to us to build it. Something else that will be done, not with architects and painters this time, not with plans and images, but with women and men eager to build a future that lives up to Pierre’s legacy.