Antonio Pollaiolo, "Tomb of Pope Innocent VIII," ca. 1492-1498, Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica

Fig. 3. Antonio Pollaiolo, “Tomb of Pope Innocent VIII,” ca. 1492-1498, Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica (source – artstor.org)

Redefining Papal Tombs: Precedents in Tomb Design

Hannah Ridenour

Before the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire, papal tombs were unadorned crypts in catacombs. Over the centuries, the tombs became more elaborate and grand, until Pope John Paul I, who died in 1978, began the trend for a return to unsophisticated design, free of ostentation. St. Peter’s Basilica is the most common choice for burial, with the vast majority of popes since the mid-fifteenth century interred in its walls. While the majority of tombs from the thirteenth century

Michelangelo, "Deign for the Tomb of Pope Julius II," ca. 1505 (source - artstor.org)

Fig. 4. Michelangelo, “Deign for the Tomb of Pope Julius II,” ca. 1505 (source – artstor.org)

to the present day survive, those destroyed during the building of new St. Peter’s or from disasters such as fires have been recorded in drawings.[1]

By the Late Gothic and into the Early Renaissance, grand tombs were either wall tombs (usually including relief sculpture) or freestanding sarcophagi with a horizontal effigy of the figure carved onto its lid.  The tombs designed and created by Gianlorenzo Bernini follow a tradition that began with the monument for Pope Innocent VIII (fig. 3).  The rise of humanism in the Renaissance led to a change in funerary art.  Religious themes now melded with secular ideals and virtues.[2]  This is apparent in Innocent’s tomb, completed in 1498 by Antonio Pollaiolo.  The pope likeness appears twice on the wall tomb variant.  In one form, Pope Innocent lies as if asleep on a sarcophagus, while in the other, he sits above the faithful as he raises his hand in benediction.  Relief images of virtues flank the enthroned pontiff, another trend that will grow throughout the Renaissance and Baroque.[3]

Perhaps known best for commissioning the paintings in the Sistine Chapel, Pope Julius II (r. 1503-1513) originally had elaborate plans for his funerary monument.  As seen in Figure 4, it was to be a structure within the

Michelangelo, "Tomb of Pope Julius II," ca. 1513, Rome, San Pietro in Vincoli (source - artstor.org)

Fig. 5. Michelangelo, “Tomb of Pope Julius II,” ca. 1513, Rome, San Pietro in Vincoli (source – artstor.org)

protection of a church, a massive structure depicting bound slaves, Biblical prophets, and his elevated sarcophagus.  The entire monument was designed by Michelangelo, but was never completed in its intended format due to budgeting difficulties.  The resulting Michelangelo cenotaph is, at its essence, composed of a pair of figures flanking a central figure of Moses, with the entire composition as a part of a larger architectural feature (fig. 5).  The style of Michelangelo’s papal tomb was not nearly as influential for future constructions as were the tombs for Lorenzo and Giuliano de’Medici (fig. 6).

Michelangelo, "Tomb of Lorenzo De' Medici," ca. 1519-1534, Florence, San Lorenzo (source - artstor.org)

Fig. 6. Michelangelo, “Tomb of Lorenzo De’ Medici,” ca. 1519-1534, Florence, San Lorenzo (source – artstor.org)

The Medici tombs, which function as one cohesive narrative, were designed, sculpted, and installed between 1519 and 1534 in Florence’s Church of San Lorenzo.  The figures accompanying the elevated Medici are the four times of day, not the personifications of virtues, which would become the norm.[4]  Each sarcophagus provides a rest for two of the nude figures.

After the tombs of Michelangelo, Panofsky argues that artists either copied his style or reverted to the style of the late medieval tombs. 

Guglielmo della Porta, "Tomb of Pope Paul III," ca. 1540, Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica (source - artstor.org)

Fig. 7. Guglielmo della Porta, “Tomb of Pope Paul III,” ca. 1540, Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica (source – artstor.org)

Bernini was the first to challenge and improve upon the work done by Michelangelo.[5]  One such “copy” of Michelangelo’s compositions is the Tomb of Pope Paul III (r. 1534-1549), completed by Guglielmo della Porta around 1540 (fig. 7).  Della Porta uses the three-figure method of Michelangelo as well as personifications of virtues, to display the

Alessandro Algardi, "Tomb of Pope Leo XI Medici," c. 1634, Vatican, St. Peter's Basilca (source - artstor.org)

Fig. 8. Alessandro Algardi, “Tomb of Pope Leo XI Medici,” c. 1634, Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilca (source – artstor.org)

pope’s positive attributes.  But in keeping with Michelangelo’s stoic heroism of the figures, the virtues exist in a space separate from the enthroned pontiff.  The fact that they are carved from marble while the pope’s image is cast in bronze only furthers this separation.  Bernini would break down this barrier and engage all of the figures of the funerary composition with each other.

Pope Leo XI Medici was elected pope in 1605, but would only live for twenty-seven days into his papacy.  His funerary monument in St. Peter’s was not completed until 1634, and as such has Baroque qualities (fig. 8).  In many ways, Bernini’s design of the monument to Urban VIII is a direct descendent of this composition, which would have been seen by both Bernini and Urban VIII.  Much in the same manner as Bernini will sculpt the figures on his tombs, the accompanying figures of the pope are no longer bound to an architectural setting. Instead, they work as fluid attendants to the pontiff, who uses the sarcophagus as a rest for a throne upon which he can look and bless the viewers.  The niche is shallow, allowing the group to burst out into the basilica and out from under the Medici crest.


[1] Wendy J. Reardon, The Deaths of the Popes: Comprehensive Accounts, Including Funerals, Burial Places and Epitaphs (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2004), 10-12.

[2] Erwin Panofsky, Tomb Sculpture: Four Lectures on Its Changing Aspects from Ancient Egypt to Bernini (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1992), 67.

[3] Ibid., 86.

[4] Estelle Lingo, “The Evolution of Michelangelo’s Magnifici Tomb: Program versus Process in the Iconography of the Medici Chapel,” in Artibus et Historiae 16(1995), 98.

[5] Panofsky, 93.