Thanks to the extraordinary talents of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), the Sistine Chapel (Cappella Sistina) in Vatican City has become one of the most famous art galleries in the western world.
Michelangelo's famous Sistine ceiling depicts scenes from Genesis in dramatic and moving detail, while The Last Judgment on the end wall is striking and powerful. As if that were not enough, the side walls are covered with important Renaissance frescoes by other artists, depicting biblical scenes and contemporary popes.
But the Sistine Chapel is more than the sum of its artistic wonders: it is a symbolic statement of papal authority and the place in which papal elections in conclave are held to this day.
History of the Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel was commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV, from whom it derives its name, in 1475. It was designed to be - and still is - the pope's chapel and the site of papal elections. The Sistine Chapel was consecrated and dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin on August 15, 1483.
In 1481 Sixtus IV called to Rome the Florentine painters Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli and the Perugian Pietro Perugino to decorate the walls with frescoes. Luca Signorelli may have also been involved in the decoration. The fresco project took only 11 months, from July 1481 to May 1482.
The Sistine ceiling was originally painted by Piero Matteo d'Amelia, who included a star-spangled sky. But in 1508 Pope Julius II della Rovere commissioned Michelangelo to repaint the ceiling.
Michelangelo was called away from his work on the pope's own tomb and was he not happy about the change. He had always insisted he was a sculptor and was contemptuous of fresco painting. The result are glorious depictions of human bodies that could only be created by a sculptor, and the project Michelangelo hated so much (at least at first) ironically became his most well-known work.
Michelangelo was asked to paint the Twelve Apostles and a few ornaments on the ceiling of the chapel. But as he began work on the project, Michelangelo conceived grander designs and ended up painting more than 300 figures.
He worked on the project between 1508 and October 31, 1512, in cramped conditions high on a scaffolding and under continous pressure from the pope to hurry up. The project would permanently damage the artist's eyesight.
Michelangelo was in his 60s when he was called back to the chapel, again against his wishes, to paint The Last Judgment (1535-1541) on the altar wall. The work was commissioned by Pope Clement VII (1523-1534) shortly before his death, and Clement's successor, Pope Paul III Farnese (1534-1549), forced Michelangelo to complete it quickly. It was the largest fresco of the century and is still an unquestioned masterpiece.
For important ceremonies, the lowest portions of the Sistine Chapel's side walls were covered with a series of tapestries depicting events from the Gospels and Acts. These were designed by Raphael and woven in 1515-19 at Brussels.
In recent decades, the Sistine Chapel has been carefully cleaned and restored, beginning with the 15th-century wall frescoes in 1965. The cleaning and restoration of the lunettes, the ceiling and the Last Judgment, a painstaking process using computer analysis, lasted from 1980 to 1994. The restoration included removing several of the "modesty" drapes that had been added over some of the nude figures.
The end result of the restoration has been controversial: Critics say a vital second layer of paint was removed, and argue that many of the restored figures seem flat compared with the originals, which had more shadow and detail. Others have hailed the project for saving Michelangelo's masterpiece for future generations to appreciate and for revealing the vibrancy of his color palette.
What to See at the Sistine Chapel
Located at the southern end of the Vatican Museums and just north of St. Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel is of no great architectural interest. It is a barn-like simple rectangle, 40.93 meters long by 13.41 meters wide - the exact dimensions of the Temple of Solomon as given in the Old Testament. The chapel is 20.70 meters high and roofed with a flattened barrel vault. There are six tall windows cut into the long sides, forming a series of pendentives between them.
The Sistine Chapel was originally divided into two equal sections, a nave for the laity and a presbytery for the clergy, by a marble screen and the pattern of floor mosaics. In later years, the screen was moved to make the nave smaller and the presbytery much larger. The walls are decorated with frescoes by Renaissance masters and are divided into three horizontal levels.
The wall frescoes, though often missed by visitors captivated by the ceiling, are stunning in their artistic beauty and fascinating in their meaning. The fresco cycle consists of scenes from the Old Testament on the left wall that correspond with scenes from the New Testament on the right wall.
The New Testament fulfillment of Old Testement "types" is a common theme in Christian theology and church art, but in the Sistine Chapel there is another layer of meaning. Pope Sixtus IV wished the entire cycle to illustrate the legitimacy of his papal authority, running from Moses, via Christ, to Peter.
The portraits of the popes, beginning with Peter, above the biblical scenes further emphasized the ancestral line of the popes' God-given authority. Originally there were 28 portraits of early popes who had died as martyrs. (Four of them, the portraits of the first four popes on the altar wall, were painted over by The Last Judgment). The two rows of popes do not appear in chronological order, the sequence moves back and forth between the north and south wall to form a zigzag pattern.
In two of the wall frescoes - Perugino's "Christ Gives the Keys to Peter" and Botticelli's "The Punishment of Korah," the Arch of Constantine can be seen in the background. This also underlined papal authority, for Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, was traditionally held to have bestowed on the pope secular authority over the western world. The inclusion of Constantine's triumphal arch thus alludes to Sixtus' view of himself as not only the successor of Peter, but the successor of the Roman emperors.
The famous Sistine ceiling is divided into nine sections in which nine stories of Genesis - from the stages of Creation to the Drunkenness of Noah - are depicted. The scenes begin from the altar wall and proceed toward the entrance; Michelangelo painted them in reverse order since he started from the area near the entrance wall. The twisting ignudi or male nudes that decorate the corners of the ceiling were highly controversial at the time. In total, Michelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel includes:
Michelangelo's other great work is The Last Judgment, on the altar wall. This powerful work centers on Christ the Judge, who compels the damned to hell with his left hand and lifts up the saved to heaven with his right. Surrounding Christ are the planets, the sun and saints.
Notable among the details is Minos, the Judge of Souls, shown in hell with the ears of a jackass. He is a portrait of the papal Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, who frequently complained to the Pope about the nudity of the painted figures, saying:
When Biagio complained to the pope about his consignment to hell in Michelangelo's painting, Paul III is said to have replied that he has no jurisdiction in hell.
Michelangelo's self-portrait appears twice in The Last Judgment: in the flayed skin held by St. Bartholomew and in the figure in the lower left corner, who is watching the dead rise from their graves.
Quick Facts on the Sistine Chapel
|Names:||Cappella Sistina · Sistine Chapel|
|Categories:||chapels; World Heritage Sites|
|Dedication:||Virgin Mary (Assumption)|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||41.902924° N, 12.454280° E|
|Hours:||Mid-Mar to late Oct: Mon-Fri 8:45am-3:20pm; Sat and last Sun of the month 8:45am-12:20pm|
Late Oct to mid-Mar: Mon-Sat and last Sun of the month 8:45am-12:20pm Closed national and religious holidays except Holy Week.
|Lodging:||View hotels near the Sistine Chapel|
- Personal visit (July 17, 2006).
- Frommer's Rome, 17th edition
- Web Gallery of Art - "Visit to the Sistine Chapel in Vatican"
- Photos of the Sistine Chapel - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City
Below is a location map and aerial view of the Sistine Chapel. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.