It tells the story of the creation of the ceiling fresco paintings for the Vatican's Sistine Chapel in Rome. The film is also the story of the trails and tribulations of the artist Michelangelo Buonarroti (Charlton Heston) and his patron, Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison), as they spar over money, Michelangelo's art, inspiration and a bit of the politics of the time.
See also Sin, another film exploring Michelangelo's tribulations at the time.
The film has examples of:
- Age Lift: Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici is portrayed as being a bit older than his actual age - mid 30s - that he was when the ceiling was painted.note
- Berserk Button: Michelangelo and Julius II both manage to hit each other's pretty hard.
- Early in the movie, Julius forces Michelangelo to abandon his sculptures and paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a move that almost causes the artist to flee Italy and take up work in Turkey. Fortunately, for all concerned, he reconsiders.
- Near the end of the movie, when Julius is bedridden and apparently near death, Michelangelo comes to see him. He then manages to enrage the Pope through sheer insolence, spurring Julius to rise from his bed and return to his post.
- Celibate Hero: Michelangelo's love is not women, but art, as Contessa D'Amici learns by the end of the film. Legend has it this was done as an alternative to examining Michelangelo's alleged homosexuality.
- Church Militant: The goal of Julius II is to expand control of the papal states, in his belief that a more independent church shall better be able to create peace through Europe.
- Corrupt Church: Receiving "donations" in order to create cardinals.
- Deadpan Snarker: Julius II has his moments. For example, after reading a Take That! sonnet that Michelangelo wrote early on in the film:I have been compared to Lucifer, Beelzebub, the Antichrist... but never before Medusa! [...] This "presumptious Florentine" has been described as the master artist of the world... certainly a better artist than he is a poet.
- Deuteragonist: Pope Julius. He and Michelangelo might antagonize often each other but ultimately they want the same goal, a great painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
- Intermission: A rather short film to have one. This occurs when Michelangelo finds inspiration from the clouds.
- Last-Name Basis: Julius II usually calls Michelangelo "Buonarroti", and rarely uses his first name.
- No Social Skills: For all his artistic greatness Michelangelo has little to no understanding of what makes people tick.
- The Noun and the Noun: In this case, "agony" and "ecstasy"
- Prolonged Prologue: The film starts with a 12-minute mini-documentary showcasing Michelangelo's greatest works. It was slightly abridged in general release and on the initial videocassette release to remove a dating comment about the then-whereabouts of the Pietà of St. Peter's.
- Unflinching Examination: Michelangelo and Julius II meet as the pope prepares to invade a city so they can discuss Michelangelo's new ideas for the chapel ceiling. As they go over the sketches, enemy artillery goes off around them.
- Warrior Monk: Julius II is introduced in the movie as a knight first and as the pope second.