The Sistine Chapel is, without a doubt, the most famous attraction inside the Vatican Museums. The Chapel is completely covered in artwork, including incredible frescoes by Michelangelo. The art is just one reason to visit because the Sistine Chapel also plays a central role in electing the new Pope, and still serves for special religious ceremonies.
When I first started giving tours of the Vatican I was sometimes asked: “if this is the Sistine Chapel, where can we find the other 15 chapels?” In fact, the Sistine Chapel simply gets its name from Pope Sixtus IV who was the Pope that had the chapel built.
The chapel was designed by the architect, Baccio Pontelli under the supervision of Giovanni de Dolci between the years 1475-1480. Despite the magnificent fresco paintings, the chapel itself is fairly simple, measuring over 40 meters in length, over 13 meters in width and over 20 meters in height. The first mass took place inside the Sistine Chapel on the 15th of August 1483 for the Feast of the Assumption. Today, it welcomes millions of visitors every year who are still captivated by the beauty all these centuries later.
Want to learn more about the Sistine Chapel? Here is a complete guide to the history, what the chapel is used for, and the artwork you will see when you visit.
Although mass is still said in the Sistine Chapel, the main reason behind building the chapel was conclave. Conclave is the critical moment when the college of cardinals meet to vote on who becomes the next Pope. These votes are then burned inside a special stove that is set up inside the chapel. The chimney is attached to lead out of the Sistine Chapel, and if the smoke is black, it signals that a Pope has not yet been elected. However if white smoke escapes the chapel, it lets us know if we have a new Pope. The first conclave inside the Sistine Chapel took place in 1492 with the election of Pope Alexander VI. It is still where conclave and this special ceremony take place today. If you happen to visit the Vatican during the rare times when conclave is taking being held, the Sistine Chapel will be closed.
Although Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are the big draw today for tourists, it is worth noting that there are numerous other works by well-known artists painted in the Sistine chapel as well. Pope Sixtus IV commissioned five of Florence’s most famous artists (known as the Quattrocento masters) to paint sections almost halfway up the walls of the Sistine Chapel.
The north wall tells the life of Christ while the South Wall tells the life of Moses. The artists who worked on these walls were Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino (Raphael’s master) Pinturicchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio (Michelangelo’s master) and Cosimo Rosselli.
In 1515, Pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to design tapestries telling the story of St. Peter and St. Paul but these were taken during the Sack of Rome in 1527 and are still lost today. The sketches for these tapestries still exist today in London in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Above all this, the ceiling before Michelangelo worked on the frescoes was of an expensive blue color with gold flit stars.
The Sistine Chapel Ceiling
In the year 1508, Pope Julius II asked the sculptor Michelangelo Buonarotti to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Originally artists such as Raphael and Bramante were asked but they both declined. It is possible that Raphael and Bramante suggested Michelangelo being aware he was a sculptor and the task of painting the ceiling of the Sistine would probably be beyond his artistic abilities.
Michelangelo did originally refuse to paint the ceiling because he had very little experience in fresco painting but even Michelangelo could not disobey the Pope. The Pope wanted the 12 Apostles painted on the ceiling but Michelangelo felt he should have more artistic license and it was agreed that he would paint the story of the Old Testament concentrating on the early chapters of Genesis.
The ceiling is broken up into nine stories starting from the east side (or the side opposite from where you will enter in). In order from here, the ceiling depicts the Drunkenness of Noah, The Flood, Sacrifice of Noah, Expulsion from Paradise, Creation of Eve, Creation of Adam, Separation of Land from Water, Creation of the Moon and the Sun and the Separation of Light from Darkness.
Surrounding the stories of the Old Testament are twelve figures who are the Prophets and the Sibyls – prophetic women from classical times who lived in temples or shrines and who could predict the future. The figures starting from the wall at the very back and going counter-clockwise are Zechariah, Joel, Eritrean Sibyl, Ezekiel, Persians Sibyl, Jeremiah, Jonah, Libyan Sibyl, Daniel, Cumaean Sibyl, Isaiah, and Delphic Sibyl.
On the four corners of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, starting on the left on the far side as you enter and moving counter-clockwise are the story of David and Goliath, Death of Haman, Moses and the Serpent of Brass and Judith and Holofernes. Beside each Prophet and Sibyl you will see figures in triangles, these are the Ancestors of Christ.
Michelangelo and Sistine Chapel Ceiling
Michelangelo Buonarotti was born in 1475 and trained under the artist Domenico Ghirlandaio. At the young age of 24, he completed his first masterpiece, The Pieta which is today in St. Peter’s Basilica. He became a true master after completing the Statue of David in Florence and was summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II to design his tomb.
After Michelangelo quarried the marble for the monumental tomb, Pope Julius II changed his mind and at the age of 32, Michelangelo was asked to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This annoyed Michelangelo as he would have much rather continue creating the Pope’s Tomb.
The ceiling took Michelangelo just four years to complete (1508-1512) but this achievement did not come without many hardships. First of all, Michelangelo had to build his own scaffolding. The architect, Bramante was originally supposed to design the scaffolding but Michelangelo laughed at the designs, knowing it would create holes in the ceiling, so he undertook the additional job himself.
To make matters worse, although Michelangelo started with many assistants, he believed he would be better off doing the work alone. Michelangelo was famously bad-tempered and did not have much time for other human beings. Michelangelo’s health also suffered very badly from standing throughout the day and leaning at odd angles to paint the ceiling. His eyesight also suffered due to paint pigments falling into his eyes. Also, his relationship with the Pope was very unstable because of Julius II’s impatience that the ceiling would not be finished before his death.
Michelangelo started the ceiling from the East end (the opposite end as you enter). You will notice that the figures are quite small and difficult to see. This was because Michelangelo could not see what he had painted due to the scaffolding being in the way. He did realize this and you will see the figures becoming clearer and larger the further you look down towards the chapel.
Michelangelo also had to work at great speed due to the technique of fresco painting. Fresco painting is the Italian word for fresh which meant that Michelangelo had to work on wet plaster and anything he painted must be complete before the plaster dried. In fact, his most important and most well-known fresco on the ceiling was the Creation of Adam and this was said to be completed in just nine days.
Raphael was also working in the Vatican at the same time as Michelangelo. These two artists did not get on well, mostly due to Michelangelo’s bad temper. But Raphael was one of the few people allowed to view the ceiling at its halfway point. He was so impressed with the result that he added a figure onto his masterpiece, The School of Athens. The great artist added the likeness of Michelangelo to his famous work.
It is also worth noting that Michelangelo got paid quite handsomely for the ceiling. A total of 3,000 ducats which is around 80,000 US dollars in today’s terms. Quite an amount for the early 1500s in Rome.
The Last Judgement
Michelangelo finished the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the age of 36 but was summoned back once again to the Sistine Chapel at the age of 61 to paint the Last Judgment on the large alter wall as you enter into the Chapel. As said above, Michelangelo at just 32 was not happy to paint the ceiling and even less so to come back in his 60s.
The Last Judgement was to take five years in total to complete, telling the story of Christ separating who will enter into heaven and who will enter into hell. The main figure just above the center of the wall is a beardless Christ alongside his mother Mary. They are joined by hundreds of figures on a blue background, painted with the pigment, lapis lazuli, an extremely expensive pigment from Afghanistan. Some have even made the suggestion that Michelangelo chose this as the background knowing how much money this would have cost the church.
One of the most striking things about the Last Judgement is the muscular nude figures that are almost reminiscent of Ancient Greek and Roman statues. There are a few reasons for this. We do know that Michelangelo used some of the Ancient statues throughout the Vatican as his models. The figure of Saint Bartholomew is modeled on the Belvedere Torso which is still today on display in the Vatican museums. However, even the female figures look as though they are professional bodybuilders. This is due to Michelangelo’s fascination with anatomy and we do have records of Michelangelo cutting open corpses to study muscle structure to assist him with his sculpting of nude figures.
The nudity in the Last Judgement did not go unnoticed by the church. In fact, the Pope’s Master of ceremonies, Biagio da Cessna, took particular offense, suggesting the wall would look more appropriate in a brothel or a tavern rather than in the Sistine Chapel. These comments angered Michelangelo so much that he painted the Biagio da Cessna on the bottom right of the fresco as Minos, the judge of the underworld. His portrait is complete with donkey ears and a snake wrapped around him, biting his genitals. Biagio protested to the Pope but the Pope said there was nothing he could do as Pope when it came to the subject of hell. Later, the year after Michelangelo’s death in 1465, Pope Paul IV had the artist Daniele de Volterra cover many of these figures up and these painted draped clothes are still in place today.
There are many figures in the Last Judgement to look out for, including St. Bartholomew who is sitting on a cloud holding a knife up towards Christ while holding his own skin. The knife is the weapon which he was martyred and in his left hand he is holding his own skin, however, the face inside the skin is not of St Bartholomew, but of Michelangelo himself. Many say that this is the artist showing us how he felt working for the church for all these years.
It has also been suggested that the Last Judgement is designed to look like one huge skull, which is the symbol of death. Stand back and look at the effect of all the figures arranged together. The angels at the top on either side creating the eyes, Christ being the nose, the clouds with the two figures sitting being the nostrils with a mouth underneath.
The brilliant state of the Sistine Chapel that you see today is thanks to an extensive 20th-century restoration. The restoration began on the Sistine Chapel in 1980. After hundreds of years, the chapel’s incredible artwork was hidden behind layers of grime. The ceiling alone took eight restorers nine years to clean, even though it had taken Michelangelo just four years to paint. The overall restoration took fourteen years. This was financed by the Japanese TV Company, Nippon in exchange for the copyright of the images until the year 2019. This is one of the main reasons why there is no photography in the Sistine Chapel. Here are some more rules to know about photography inside the Vatican.
How to Get to the Sistine Chapel
The only way you can get to the Sistine Chapel is by first entering the Vatican Museums. You can do this by buying skip the line Vatican tickets in advance or you can line up and buy your ticket after you go through security (though be prepared for a long wait). There is no additional cost or ticket to visit the Sistine Chapel, it is included in your museum admission.
You cannot exit the Vatican Museums without having visited the Sistine Chapel so just follow the crowds and you can’t miss it. You will pass through several other important areas of the museum before you reach the famous chapel so be sure to enjoy them because the Museums are a one-way system. Most people come to the Sistine Chapel after visiting the Gallery of the Maps and the Raphael Rooms.
If you are unsure, the Vatican Museums have many signs directing you towards the Sistine Chapel. It may be listed on the sign by its Italian name “la Cappella Sistina.”