MICHELANGELO'S intimidating fresco of the Last Judgment towers over the altar in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, where the princes of the Catholic Church will gather in four weeks' time to choose one of their own as God's representative on Earth.
The 117 voting cardinals will come to the altar one by one and swear to God to make the right choice, as above them Christ judges the souls of the dead.
They return to the altar to cast their vote, confronted by the damned and unworthy being plunged into hell, claimed by hideous, grinning demons.
Those ''saved'' rejoice (with some relief) in heaven.
By all reports the fresco's symbolism is not lost on the cardinals - elderly gentlemen, contemplating mortality and their eternal souls as they make one of the biggest decisions of their lives.
The election process, known as the conclave, is not a swirling debate. There are no speeches, concessions or promises. There is silence and prayer. ''If you could watch what happens inside, you'd be bored to tears,'' Cardinal Franz Konig once said.
However the lead-up to the conclave will be ''the most brutal three weeks up there in centuries'', said one well-connected Vatican observer, gesturing towards the Holy City.
Beware the Ides of March, indeed. This is not just a church solemnly electing its leader. It is a geo-political crossroads, a choice that will crystallise the conscience, beliefs, politics, governance and direction of the church and its billion-strong flock. Fallible men must make a man infallible.
Over the past year the Holy See has been riddled with scandal, leaks and infighting, appearing a church in crisis. ''The reputation of the pontificate is on the line,'' a source said
Canon David Richardson, head of the Anglican Centre in Rome, says the decision has wider implications.
''The Roman Catholic Church has people in every country of the world and over a billion followers, and so it is a force to be reckoned with politically,'' he said. ''The person who is the centre of that is very important for the world.''
John McCarthy, Australia's ambassador to the Holy See, literally sits at his desk and looks at the Pope's private apartment windows.
Despite a push to choose someone from Latin America or Africa ... the likely candidates at this stage are mostly European.
"The Holy See promotes peaceful co-existence and international development," he said. "Australia works with the Vatican, and the pope, on issues such as human rights, disarmament and food security."
According to doctrine, the conclave is guided by God. But, as one cardinal told the National Catholic Reporter's John Allen: ''I was never whapped on the head by the Holy Spirit. I had to make the best choice I could, based on the information available.'' Cardinal Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict, told Bavarian television in 1997: ''There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have picked.''
So, these are men, in a room, making a choice, under pressure to find a candidate before Easter in the deadline imposed by Benedict's shock resignation. The conclave is quiet and serene, at least to the eye. The debate takes place in the weeks before, as the cardinals gather from around the world. There are official meetings at the Vatican, a General Congregation to review issues facing the church.
No individual candidates - ''papabile'' - are discussed at the congregation. That happens privately, in an ''informal, subterranean'' process as friends and allies meet in private apartments, in colleges and ecclesiastical facilities, over dinner, espresso and cigarettes.
It is inappropriate to argue for yourself, though you can frame the needs of the church to favour your candidacy. One source told me few want the job: ''It is a lonely and very frightening position,'' he said.
Others disagree. ''[The cardinals] are sincere people praying in God's gardens but they are also worldly and ambitious. There will be jockeying, that's inevitable in any election. There will be gross lobbying and backstabbing.''
The cardinals will critique the past eight years. ''Do they regard [Benedict] as a success or a failure?'' a source explained. ''If the latter, do they want to do something about it, do they want a substantial course correction?''
Many who spoke to Fairfax considered Benedict an intellectual, humble and caring man who had not lived up to the hopes of eight years ago. ''Some say the only great gift to the papacy was his resignation,'' a source said.
One of the biggest concerns is the state of the Vatican itself. Benedict, an ageing academic who never wanted the job, wrote beautiful words and anchored the faith on a strong conservative base, but lost sight of the people around him.
Last year the head of the Vatican Bank stepped down because of ''failure to fulfil the primary functions of his office'' and suspicion of money laundering. In last year's ''Vatileaks'', documents leaked to Italian journalists exposed power struggles, intrigue and infighting within the Vatican, allegations of corrupt contracts and abuses of power. The Pope's butler was arrested, found guilty and pardoned. He said he had stolen private papal documents and passed them on, to fight ''evil and corruption''.
''The cardinals will robustly discuss this,'' Fairfax was told. It suggests the need for a canny administrator-pope, to pull things into line.
One thing the cardinals may not discuss - though sources disagree - is whether the church needs to modernise, even liberalise its views on issues such as abortion or contraception. ''Don't bother with that,'' one person said. ''That's outsider stuff. This is a meeting of insiders.''
Another said: ''One view is that the church doesn't need to modernise, it needs to hold firm to traditional faith.
''The other is that they are looking to have someone who can, while not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, speak to the contemporary world in a language they can hear. This is a fundamental argument that is going on in the Vatican.''
A pope must be a communicator who can stand on the world stage. ''The Pope doesn't just administrate the bureaucracy, he is a world figure,'' a source within the Curia said.
Another said: ''Benedict was not a performer, he was an academic and solitary.'' After the magnetic John Paul II, it was a bitter comedown.
The Italian newspaper La Stampa editorialised that the next pope should be technologically literate, in tune with the 24/7 news cycle. ''The Pope's [resignation] was almost an act of surrender before the world which is changing at a rhythm which a man born in 1927 could never have imagined.''
One of the most polarised debates concerns the age of the new pope. Some argue the resignation changed the game: the best man for the job could be old, give his last good years, then step down.
Others say the opposite. ''They will be looking for somebody maybe a little younger, so as not to repeat the circumstances of the last two days.''
One thing is certain: Australia's George Pell is an unlikely candidate. ''Pell was one of the prime backers (of Cardinal Ratzinger's papacy),'' a source said - just as Ratzinger was close to John Paul II. He is an intellectual and influential force in Rome who knows a lot of cardinals. But this is not eight years ago: half the cardinals have been through this before and have less need of guidance, so Pell's influence may have waned.
Anyway, Australia is too close to the US. ''There is a long understanding in the college of cardinals that it is not in the interests of the church to have a Pope from a superpower or its allies - and that may go for Anglophones as a whole, Australians, British, Canadian,'' one source said.
''Though that doesn't mean they can't be kingmakers.'' Despite a push to choose someone from Latin America or Africa, to acknowledge that more than half the world's Catholics are in the southern hemisphere, the likely candidates at this stage are mostly European.
Some say this is a shame. ''The Pope lives here and rarely gets out, he is surrounded by Italian and European culture,'' one said. ''While the Pope lives in Vatican City he won't understand the needs of the church.'' Don't rule out a surprise factor. Last time it was the ''funeral effect''. The incredible worldwide focus on John Paul II's funeral - millions in the streets of Rome, hundreds of heads of state in attendance - stunned the cardinals, making them turn to the candidate with the most formidable reputation, Ratzinger, the only cardinal who could possibly follow such a legacy, despite his age.
This time, obviously, there will be no funeral. That may lessen interest in the changeover, leaving the cardinals wishing for a figure who could attract global attention.
One unknown factor is Benedict himself: still around to subtly influence the process, despite the Vatican saying he will play no part.
From now his every word will be scrutinised. On Ash Wednesday, he told a public audience the faithful must continue to oppose abortion, euthanasia and ''the selection of embryos to prevent hereditary diseases''. It was interpreted as the church's wisest head pointing the tiller firmly in the direction of tradition.
Finally a word of caution to those predicting a revolution in the Vatican. ''There's nothing extraordinary about this at all,'' a dry voice from the Vatican's Curia said over the phone. ''If you are talking to Romans on the street their attitude is ''Il Papa is dead [or resigned], so we will get another.''
''The Roman Catholic Church, after all, has survived two millennia. There's not much around that the church hasn't seen before. It will take it all in its stride.''