The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

One of the good things about growing up in a family that loved reading was that even as a child, I was surrounded by books—novels, of course; and treatises on everything from Wordsworth’s poetry (thanks to my mother) to gardening and homoeopathy (thanks to my father). Those books, big tomes that were all words and no pictures, were of no interest to a 6-year old who wasn’t too deeply into literature.

My favourite book from my parents’ vast collection was a large Readers’ Digest coffee table book called Family Treasury of Great Painters and Great Paintings. This one was a fascinating book. You didn’t need to be able to read much to be able to enjoy it, because it was full of the most amazing paintings. That was where I first saw The Music Lesson, La Grande Jatte, The Arnolfini Wedding, Sunflowers… and The Creation of Man. I don’t even need to open that book now to see what The Creation of Man looked like, spread across the top half of two pages. It took my breath away.

The Agony and the Ecstasy is about how Michelangelo came to paint The Creation of Man (and the rest of the Sistine Chapel ceiling). And no; it isn’t just a painting lesson. In fact, it’s not really a painting lesson at all. It is, instead, a wonderful look into early 16th century Italy, the strange relationship between an artist and his patron, a man and his passion for the work he creates.

The film begins with a 10-minute introduction to Michelangelo. The camera takes us to the modern Vatican City, to Florence, and to a sleepy little town in Tuscany: some of the important places in the life of Michelangelo Buonarotti (AD 1475-1564). Michelangelo was born in Caprese, Tuscany, and in his childhood itself developed a love for stone carving. Still a teenager, he went to Florence, where he also learnt the art of painting…

… but went on, eventually, to specialise in his first love, which was sculpture. His first major work, a bas relief called The Madonna of the Steps, was created when he was 15, and by the time he was 21, he had arrived in Rome—where he proceeded not just to carve the famous David:

But also the Pietà, at the Basilica of St Peter, which had been commissioned by Pope Julius II.

And this is where our story really begins. Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) is not so much a pious pope as a warrior pope; he’s as comfortable in his armour and on his horse as he is in his vestments. Now he’s back in Rome after another important victory on the battlefields.

While he’s holding court, dismissing a disgruntled French ambassador and dealing with recalcitrant cardinals, Julius also finds time to meet the sculptor he’s commissioned to create a grand tomb for the Pope. This is Michelangelo (Charlton Heston). Michelangelo has a complaint to make: Julius has not paid him some of the money due for his work so far.
Julius, however, nurses a greater grudge. During his campaign, he has come across a poem (and pretty bad poetry, too) that Michelangelo has written about him, the Pope.

Julius proceeds to read out the poem, in which Michelangelo has compared the Pope to a Medusa. He’s also—not in writing, though—called Julius a freebooter and a conqueror. Julius is (and no surprise, this) not happy.
But he has made a decision about Michelangelo and his work. The tomb can wait for now. Instead, Julius has something else for Michelangelo to do.

Bramante (Harry Andrews), the architect who’s working on St Peter’s, doesn’t get along too well with Michelangelo, but right now he is as flummoxed as the sculptor. What does the Pope have in mind?

The Pope leads both men—along with a small entourage of the pontiff’s—into a modest chapel that is part of the papal palace. This, explains Julius, is a chapel very close to his own heart. It was built by Julius’s uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, and is therefore known as the Sistine Chapel. This is where Julius likes to hold daily prayers, and where he feels most comfortable.

Unfortunately, over time, the decoration of the Sistine Chapel has deteriorated a good deal. The paint on the vaulted ceiling has peeled and is patchy, unsightly.
It is now Michelangelo’s task to redo the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Paint it. Decorate it with large portraits of the twelve apostles, with suitable patterns to fill up the spaces.

Michelangelo is aghast. He is a sculptor, for heavens’ sakes, not a painter. But he did learn painting (and was very good at it; his work has been acclaimed and commissioned by people in Florence), says the Pope. Yes, but that is not what he wants to do, protests Michelangelo. He will not do it.
Julius II refuses to listen. “I am your pontiff, Buonarotti!” he bellows. “Would you refuse me what  you did not refuse the bankers and politicians of Florence?”

Michelangelo is left with no choice.

Or is he? This man is an artist, after all. And a temperamental one. So, that evening, he packs his trunk and some more of his belongings, piles them into a cart, and leaves town. On the way, though, he decides to make a brief stop at the plush villa of Contessina de’ Medici (Diane Cilento), where a party is in progress.

Both Contessina and her brother Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici (Adolfo Celi) have been good friends of Michelangelo since his days in Florence.
Michelangelo tells them what has happened—Julius’s crazy demand—and now springs a surprise of his own. He shows them a letter, a commission from the Sultan of Turkey, for Michelangelo to build a bridge across the Bosphorus at Constantinople. The Sultan has even sent Michelangelo an advance for the project. That’s where Michelangelo is headed.

Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici tells Michelangelo that if he accepts the Sultan’s commission and leaves for Turkey, there won’t be any returning. Julius will never allow that, because Michelangelo, by rejecting his commission, will have rendered him the greatest insult ever.
The cardinal tries to reason with Michelangelo, but is called away elsewhere just then—so Contessina is left to “tell him he’s mad.”

Which Contessina does—in a more tactful way than her brother. [It is indicated during this conversation, that there has been and may still be some hint of a romance between her and Michelangelo, though Contessina is now married and a mother].
Contessina, at least, is able to goad Michelangelo into admitting the truth: that he is terrified of the Sistine Chapel job. It’s a huge task, and he thinks his forte is sculpture, not painting.

This is now a matter of Michelangelo facing up to his own fear of working on the Sistine Chapel—and he takes up the challenge. Along with five Florentine assistants, he gets to work creating the cartoons for the frescoes of the apostles.

He quarrels with Bramante and the Pope himself about the scaffolding that Bramante’s erected to let the artists reach the ceiling (Bramante’s method is to knock holes in the ceiling, so Michelangelo says he’ll build his own scaffolding).

And finally the work begins of painting the frescoes.

Not that it’s fulfilling work. Michelangelo, though he and his assistants make good progress, is unsatisfied. He doesn’t say anything to anyone, though—but there’s a niggling something somewhere, that irritates him.
Eventually, one evening, on his way home from the Sistine Chapel, a weary Michelangelo stops over at a crowded tavern. Listlessly, he sits down at a table, orders wine, and quickly sketches an old man at a nearby table.

…and, at the first sip of wine, discovers it’s sour.
The tavern keeper, when Michelangelo calls to him, says he’s opened the cask just ten minutes back. How can it be sour? But the man does taste the wine, and has to admit it is sour.
He then walks back to the cask, and cracks it open, allowing the wine to gush out all over the floor.

While the rest of the crowd in the tavern rushes to drink the wine flowing freely, enlightenment suddenly dawns on Michelangelo. What’s the use of wine that’s gone sour?

So, instead of going back to the stuffy little house he’s rented from the Pope, Michelangelo goes back to the Sistine Chapel—where he systematically tears up the cartoons and destroys the painted frescoes. Before leaving Rome.

The next morning, when the news reaches the Pope’s ears, Julius II is furious. Michelangelo’s assistants are clueless; they have no idea where he’s gone. Soldiers scour Rome, and are sent to Florence to look for the fugitive artist, but he’s nowhere to be found. They also go looking for him in his home in Tuscany, but again with no luck.
They nearly run into him at the marble quarries of Carrara, where Michelangelo is helping cut blocks of the stone.

The other quarrymen, however, are able to create a diversion that allows Michelangelo to escape into the hills before he’s spotted by the soldiers.
Michelangelo spends the night in a cave, and wakes up to see the curving roof of the cave in the morning light… and when he steps out onto the mountainside, this is what he sees:

And suddenly, Michelangelo knows what he has to put on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

But it’s going to be a long, difficult task—especially as Michelangelo insists that he will work only with two men to help him. All the painting he will do himself. There lies a long and arduous journey ahead. Not just for Michelangelo, who will have to face everything from Julius’s own impatience to see the work finished, and his cardinals’ disapproval of Michelangelo’s work…

…to the fact that the artist himself is after all only a man, and physically capable of doing only so much. But somehow, somewhere, the artist and his art will triumph. And we will see how one of Europe’s most spectacular works of art (and a World Heritage Site) came to be.

What I liked about this film:

Just about everything. The acting, especially of Rex Harrison and Charlton Heston, is superb, and their chemistry (I can’t find another word for it) is excellent—the confrontations between Michelangelo and the Pope, the fact that deep down they really know each other, and their unity in their love of art. Considering that Harrison and Heston didn’t get along at all, it says a lot for their skill as actors.

The humour, especially the sarcasm in Julius and Michelangelo’s interactions. Very witty. For example, this is what Michelangelo says when he Julius shows him the Sistine Chapel for the first time and asks him what he thinks about its architecture: “…no more architecture than a cow barn.”

The scope of the film. Yes, this is basically a film about art and artists and the love that binds an artist to his/her work to the point of no return—but it’s also a film about much more. It’s about power and ego, about a little bit of Italian history, and about the beauty that can outlast us, if only we have the talent and the will to create it.

The sheer beauty of the film. Of course. The Vatican, Tuscany (incidentally, the marble quarries of Carrara where Heston is shown working are the actual quarries from where Michelangelo obtained the marble for his work), Italy—and the paintings. By the way, the film crew was not allowed to film inside the Sistine Chapel, so a replica was created at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios.

What I didn’t like:

The Contessina angle, which seemed rather forced. This film—unlike, say, the 1952 film Moulin Rouge (about another artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec)—dwells very little on the personal life of Michelangelo, or even on his career before and after the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Contessina ends up being rather intrusive, her only function being to convince us that Michelangelo prizes his art even above this woman, who is willing to put aside everything else for him.

Still, a fantastic film. It’s absorbing, a good insight into what it takes to be creative—and an entertaining film too. A must-watch.

50 thoughts on “The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

  1. I didn’t even know a film existed about the painting of the sistine chapel.
    Thank you DO for taking one through this journey (as depicted by the film) of the creation of this fine art.
    I have to say it is a humbling sight. You just stand there in awe staring at the ceiling.
    I don’t know if ever I’ll be done with seeing these treasures in Europe.
    The pietà was what I thought would be the one to overwhelm me, it did, but the sistine was something else.
    To get to the chapel one has to pass rooms upon rooms of painted walls etc and it begins to get boring and heavy till you reach here.
    Lying on his back day after day must have been the most tiring thing for his back and eyes. I believe there is some legend about that too (maybe true, I don’t know).

    Thanks once again. Very well written and described…as always :-)


    • Thank you, pacifist!

      Yes, the Pietà is amazing, isn’t it? But the Sistine Chapel is something else.

      The odd thing for both Tarun and I when we first entered the Sistine Chapel was that we’d expected it to be much larger (God knows why) – so finding it the size it was deflated us somewhat. And we were in the midst of a crowd of very talkative tourists, who kept chattering so much that it diluted the experience a bit. And then everybody was shooed out quickly by the guards on duty… so we didn’t get much time to really admire the ceiling or the altar wall as sufficiently as we’d have wanted (which would probably have taken a good few hours!!)

      The movie, incidentally, shows a lot of Michelangelo actually up close to the ceiling lying flat on his back and painting. Just looking at Heston (even though you know it’s only a movie) is enough to give you an idea of how terribly arduous this man’s job was.

      You should really try and see the movie if you have the time – it’s very well made, and since you’ve seen the Sistine for yourself, you’ll be able to appreciate it even more.


      • I’ve found a good link online and will watch it this weekend :-)

        I also have in mind to visit again in the lowest season time.
        I went in July with a friend visiting me from India, and yes, the crowds were unbelievable. Somehow I could shut them out and observe without feeling their presence, because I told myself I’ve got to see this perfectly.

        The small size didn’t surprise me actually. The word ‘chapel’ had prepared me.


        • I envy you! Of all the cities I’ve visited, either in India or abroad, the only one that I yearn to return to is Rome. When we’d gone, we’d budgeted for three days in Rome, and the same number each in Venice, Vienna and Salzburg. The other cities were fine for three days – but I keep telling my husband that I want to go back to Rome. Maybe the next time we do it, we’ll combine it with Florence – didn’t get the time to see that.


          • I always have this strong urge to visit films, and places a second time (or more) if they impressed me beyond a certain point.

            I won’t even tell you how many times I watched The Artist :-D
            It’s not as if it’s just a repetition. There are things one sees/notices only on further views.
            One thing which I doubt I’ll ever do are the catacombs, because I suffer from claustrphobia, but I can imagine the atmosphere down there, all gloomy and scary, and


            • I didn’t have the nerve to visit the catacombs, and I doubt if I will, either. My sister, though, visited Rome last year and was telling me about an amazing museum that included ancient Roman mosaics – and I’ve made up my mind I have to go back to Rome, just to see those (and the many other places and experiences I loved in that city – including the gelati near Trevi!) :-D

              The problem with earning in INR is that you have to plan holidays abroad so very carefully, and there’s so much to see – my husband and I always go somewhere new, just so we can try and fit in all that we can. We’ll never manage it in this lifetime, but there’s no harm in trying, is there?


  2. PS:
    Also known as sixteenth chapel, I think we had to go through the 15 before arriving here, or less, though it seemed like 1500.


    • Did you take the ‘quick route’ through the Musei Vaticani, the route that ends at the Sistine Chapel? I know we did – because we were already so tired after walking for hours, we’d just about run out of steam. ;-) Didn’t realise there were supposed to be 15 rooms before the chapel, though… I suppose Tarun and I are just so fond of museums, we enjoyed even the galleries we were obliged to go through to get to the Sistine!


      • I’m fond of paintings too, but I’m mad about architecture. Cottages, half timber houses and all the historicals etc
        There is this world heritage site in Greece where there are these ancient monastries mysteriously built on cliffs.


        • pacifist, you’re a woman after my own heart! I love architecture too, especially the historical stuff. I’ve had people look at me with narrowed eyes when I wax eloquent about architecture (especially some of my friends and relatives, who like to travel only to shop or to relax on a beach)… but that’s what I like.

          That’s an intriguing photo of the Greek site. Reminds me vaguely of the ancient city of Jericho:

          (You can see why the walls came tumbling down so easily!)


          • The special case here is that these are pinnacles with sheer drop around. There are several of these elongated rocks with about 4/6 of them having a monastry each at the top.

            Couldn’t find a good picture of all like the one I have on a calender from an angle which gives the clear idea of its uniqueness.

            But a picture of one may give the general idea.


            • Oh! Okay, now I get the idea.It is impressive.

              I was reminded of something else: have you been to Cappadocia, pacifist? That’s another place on my bucket list. My sister visited it a couple of years back, and couldn’t stop raving about it. Looks amazing:


              • I haven’t been there DO, though I’ve been to Turkey. These look like the pinnacles in Australia.

                These of course fall much shorter in height and breath, than the high cliffs of the meteora.


                • Probably some sort of geological phenomenon behind those pinnacles, I guess – similar conditions of wind, and similar rock structure – that causes these pinnacles in different parts of the world.

                  Now I want to visit this part of Australia too! (All I’ve seen is Melbourne and some of the Victorian countryside).


          • >pacifist, you’re a woman after my own heart! I love architecture too, especially the historical stuff.

            :-D I know. Remember those emails I used to send you?


  3. Pacifist is right, the Sistine Chapel is out of the world! I loved it, though the St. Peter’s cathedral didn’t impress me at all. It looks so sterile and when one compares it with the other churches in Rome (like Santa Maria Maggiore) it really pales.
    But coming back to the film, it sounds good. Just imagine, Charlton Heston, playing Michelangelo. But Rex Harrison, must be superb as the Pope.
    did they mention that Michelangelo had painted Christ and others naked in the Last Judgement. It being the 60s, they surely left it out.

    “Michelangelo prizes his art even above this woman”
    Knowing Michelangelo as he was, it is not very surprising, is it? ;-)


    • Ah, something finally that we can disagree about, harvey! I loved St Peter’s (even though I did like Santa Maria Maggiore too). Perhaps it was because Tarun and I had the good luck (literally; it was luck) to end up getting an excellent – and very good – guided tour of San Pietro. It’s a good hour and a half’s tour, organised by a group called Icon. Very good, since they explain the most obscure and interesting facts about San Pietro. If we’d simply wandered in (as we did at Santa Maria Maggiore), perhaps we’d not have appreciated this as much. As it happened, we had our minds blown by the time we finished with San Pietro. It was awesome.

      No, The Last Judgement isn’t covered in the film, because it ends at the Pope telling Michelangelo that his next assignment is to begin work on the altar wall of the Sistine. But the mere fact that Michelangelo paints naked figures in the ceiling itself is a matter of great ire among a couple of the cardinals in one scene.

      You know, I’ve come across very divergent views about Michelangelo vis-a-vis women. May be, may be not. ;-) At any rate, he doesn’t seem to have had much time for either…!


      • Dustedoffffffffffff! I’m crying now! I’m crying! I just heard that Rab Ne Bana De Jodi song! And… and they savaged Dil Ka Bhanwar! I was about ready to knock myself out before anything else happened! I’m crying nowwwwwwwwww! STUPID SONG! Looks like… looks like SRK got to my favorite song before I did…


          • The one with the chorus that says, “Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke (AGAIN DEV’S SONG!), phir milenge chalte chalte.”

            This is what happened:
            Song: “Bol radha bol sangam hoga ki nahin”
            Me: “:/ Why are they doing this to Raj Kapoor’s songs?”
            -chorus continues and I keep playing my game-
            And then there’s the part where they replicated the music in, “Yeh Dil Na Hota Bechara” (I’ve heard it enough times to know), and I stop. Then I kicked, yes, kicked the laptop across half the living room, held my breath, fell over and cut the power supply to the laptop, AND THEN I HEARD IT.

            The way they said Dil Ka Bhanwar Kare Pukar… No, I cannot describe it. It drove me mad, really, I took off right into the room, screamed at least five times into my pillow, banged myself anywhere possible, and then I started crying. Crying and crying.

            I couldn’t stop crying, and the damn song continued and continued, and when I finally mustered up the courage to go shut off the radio, I GOT YELLED AT. WHAT THE HECK?

            I swear, I really, really, really swear, I want to chop SRK’s head off now.


            • Blank. It. Out.

              Let it go. Nothing deserves so much rage. It’s not going to affect anyone but you. Channel that energy into something positive. (Write, maybe? Begin that novel).



                -takes a deep breath- Now do you know how I react to remixes? And my foot and head hurt so much now. Argh.


  4. I remember reading the book a long time ago. The movie deals only in a very specific portions of the book and does not dwell on the other aspects of his life such as his rivalry with Bernini.

    The whole painting of the Sistine chapel is easier to understand visually through the movie though the book goes more technically in depth of the whole process. I suppose to get a true flavour of the whole story of the painting of the Sistine Chapel one must see the movie and read the book.

    Reading your review makes me want to go back to Rome once again


  5. I was on a forced exile (exiles are never voluntary) thanks to my computer’s decision to go on a vacation to the service centre.
    Thanks for the reminder, what reminder? Well reminding me about Agony and Ecstasy. Like you ,right from my childhood I too was surrounded by art and literature thanks to my parents and my brother who is a self -taught artist. I was therefore not a stranger to the works of Michael Angelo. You can therefore imagine my frustration when Star Movies decided to screen this film at the odd time 1pm when my brother was obviously at work, thankfully my hours were flexible so mum and I saw the film. I was bowled over and then Charlton Heston is one of my favorite actors. Surprisingly the film was never repeated although some movies are repeated ad nauseam. Thanks to your review it suddenly struck me why don’t I try YouTube and sure enough it was there. Now my brother can see this beautiful film.


    • I’m so glad I finally found someone else who’s seen this film and loved it, Shilpi! It is fantastic, isn’t it? And I’m quite a Charlton Heston fan myself – his epic films (especially Ben Hur and this one) are among my favourite films. I do hope your brother manages to watch it on Youtube before Youtube takes it into their heads to delete it from there – they’re always doing that!

      I hope your computer comes back soon! Have been missing you. :-)


  6. On a VERY banal note, I had to paint the ceiling of a staircase in my flat. goes from floor level up in a slant. Had to do it lying on my back on the floor.
    That is when I TRULY appreciated the actual act of painting the Sistine Chapel….


  7. Oh Great! I finally managed to post my comment. I have been unsuccessfully trying to post my comment for the past 2days but I have not been able to every time I click the post button nothing would happen, glad to be back.


    • And I’m glad to have you back, Shilpi!

      WordPress seems to have been playing up or something – because all our comments (I think about five) appeared in the Spam folder. I read them, and because I could see that you’d said approximately the same thing in all, I junked four and retained one – I’ve replied to that, above.


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