Often when people visit the Vatican Museums, especially for the first time, they have two main things on their mind that they can not miss when they visit: those are of course the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael Rooms. Other important works along the way that are of great importance are the Apollo Belvedere, the Belvedere Torso, and the amazing Laocoon group to name a few. However, there are often very important works in the Vatican that can easily be missed, mostly because there is simply too much to take in and see. As someone who has had the privilege to visit the Vatican hundreds of times, here are eight hidden gems that can easily be missed when visiting the Vatican Museums.
In room 9 in the Pinacoteca, you will find a lesser-known and unfinished work by Leonardo Da Vinci called Saint Jerome In The Wilderness. The oil painting depicts an elderly Saint Jerome on a retreat in the Syrian desert looking up at the Crucifix while holding a rock which he would beat himself in an act of penance. At the bottom of the painting is a lion which Saint Jerome has removed a thorn from his foot. The unfinished painting measuring 40 x 30 inches (103 x 75 cm) was said to be painted between 1480 to 1490 and it was purchased for Pope Pius IX in 1856. Although it may not be one of Da Vinci’s greatest works it is still a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see any work done by the great master.
The Egyptian Rooms
It can be easy to bypass The Egyptian Rooms, also known as the Gregorian Egyptian Museum, as it is a slightly longer route when making your way to the Sistine Chapel. However, this slight detour is well worth it to visit the unique collection. The Museum was founded by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839 and consists of nine rooms in total. The artifacts date between 2600 B.C. to the 2nd and 3rd Century A.D. and consist of works that were taken by many well-known Roman Emperors on their travels. Here you will find anything from tomb reliefs, wooden painted mummy cases dating from 1000 B.C to small bronze statues of sacred animals and gods. In Room V, you will find a sandstone head of Mentuhotep II who reigned from 2010 B.C. to 1998 B.C. which is in fact the oldest portrait in the museum.
Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker
Auguste Rodin is probably the greatest sculptor of modern times and without doubt, his most famous work is The Thinker or Le Penseur. Although some of you might have seen The Thinker at the Rodin Museum in Paris there are twenty casts that exist in different sizes mostly in museums throughout the world. Rodin designed The Thinker to be placed at the top of his unfinished masterpiece, The Gates Of Hell. This cast was given to the Vatican Museums by the Musee Rodin in Paris in 1959. This relatively small version of The Thinker is 72 X 30 X 58 cm in size and it can be found in the Borgia Apartments after the Raphael Rooms as you make your way to the Sistine Chapel.
Also in the Borgia Apartments after visiting the Raphael Rooms there is a small Vincent Van Gogh painting called The Pieta which the Dutch artist painted in 1889. The painting depicts the dead Christ being held by his mother, the Virgin Mary. Van Gogh painted it as a copy after an etching by Eugene Delacroix when he was institutionalized in an asylum in Sant Remy in France. The Vatican acquired the painting in 1973 where it had been donated by the Diocese of New York. Two versions of this painting exist in different sizes. The larger one is on display in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam where the smaller version in the Vatican measures 41.5 X 34 cm in size.
The Henri Matisse Room
Along with Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse is arguably the most celebrated painter of the first half of the 20th Century and there is a room dedicated to him in the Modern Art section of the Vatican Museums as you are on the final stretch to see the Sistine Chapel. Between 1948 to 1952, just before Matisse died, he was asked to design the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, Provence in France. This room is dedicated to the planning stages for this church and the works here include a bronze cast of the Crucifix and large-scale sketches in beautiful collage colors to be used to design the stained glass windows for the Chapel in Vence. These works were given to the Vatican by the Dominican Sisters of Vence and by the artist’s son, Pierre Matisse.
Francis Bacon’s painting, Study for Velazquez Pope II
Francis Bacon was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1909 but spent most of his life in London he is sometimes claimed as a British painter and one of the most important British painters of the 20th Century. Francis Bacon’s painting, Study for Velazquez Pope II is on display in the Contemporary Art Section just after the Borgia Apartments and it is one of the last paintings before you enter the Sistine Chapel. Bacon became obsessed with the Diego Velazquez painting of Pope Innocent XII which is in the Doria Pamphili Museum in Rome. Bacon was so fascinated by the painting that he painted different versions of it more than twenty times. The painting dates from 1961 and it was given to the Vatican by Gianni Agnelli in 1973.
Salvador Dali’s The Announcement
The Announcement or L’Annuncio was painted by Salvador Dali in 1960 as a study for a much larger work called “The Ecumenical Council” which is in the Salvador Dali Museum in Cleveland. The Announcement features Christ and his mother, Mary along with the Archangel Gabriel. The larger picture, “The Ecumenical Council” was a dedication to the Second Vatican Council which was announced by Pope John XXIII in 1959. The eccentric painter was born in Spain in 1905 and in the second part of his life was known to paint a number of religious paintings. The Announcement is one of three Dali paintings that hang together in the contemporary art section after you have left the Borgia Apartments. The painting is 54 X 59 cm in size.
The ceiling in the Room of the Tapestries
The Room of the Tapestries in the Vatican Museums showcases some of the most beautiful tapestries ever made. The tapestries on the left as you enter were designed by the Renaissance master, Raphael which tell us about the life of Christ in chronological order. The twelve tapestries were commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1514 and placed in this room in 1830. The tapestries on the right as you enter are less significant and tell us of the life of Pope Urban VIII created by the Barberini School in the 17th century. However, the one thing most people miss unless they are told about it is the ceiling. If you look up at the ceiling in this gallery you would simply see a sculpted relief and move on. However, a number of highly trained 18th century artists fresco-painted this ceiling, and using their expertise in shadow and light it clearly gives a 3D effect. It is definitely worth looking up at this puzzling ceiling as you enter the Gallery of the Tapestries.