It has been wowing people ever since as one of the masterpieces of all time. The Sistine Chapel is one of those must see unavoidable experiences of every cultural traveler.
What is the Sistine Chapel?
A big space inside the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel was intended for the personal use of the Pope and as the space where the Papal conclave gathers to elect a new Pope.
It is from here that the white smoke that signals that “Habemus Papam” (We have a Pope) is produced.
The chapel was named after Pope Sixtus IV who had it restored between 1477 and 1480, adding frescoes by very important painters to its perimeter.
The frescoes depict the life of Moses and Jesus. The ceiling was then painted in blue with gold stars.
About the Sistine Chapel ceiling
The Sistine Chapel ceiling is one of the most impressive features of the chapel and it holds a very interesting story.
After building campaigns nearby the chapel during the 15th century, the original frescoes and structures had been damaged.
Bramante was a relative of Raphael’s and they both had a rivalry with Michelangelo. So the suggestion for the Pope had the intention of humiliating the famous sculptor.
Michelangelo didn’t want to do it
Michelangelo had never painted using the fresco technique and regarded painters as lesser artists than sculptors.
But the Pope wasn’t going to take no for an answer and he had to put on some hard work to convince Michelangelo to take the job.
In the end, he told the artist that this way he could transform the chapel into the jewel of the Vatican.
Michelangelo accepted, but he insisted on designing the project his own way.
Instead of the twelve huge apostles that the Pope wanted, he created a new much grander and ambitious vision.
Oh, the pain
Michelangelo had some problems with this particular project. For starters, it’s a ceiling, on a six‑story space, so he had to design special scaffolding.
He didn’t know the fresco technique, so he had to hire some assistants to teach him. Once he got the hang of it, he fired them and finished the job himself.
He painted standing up, with his head thrown back and the light of a candle flame, for four years.
Paint would droop onto his face, he fell from the scaffolding twice and his sight was never the same. This job nearly killed him!
The fresco technique works by painting on fresh plaster before it dries. This means that you can only paint small portions of the surface at a time.
However, it seals the colors in, in all their magnificent glory, as it would be seen after the restorations that ended in 1999 when they removed layer after layer of oil lamp, dust and dirt.
Before going any further, you might want to check out the 360° Virtual tour from the Vatican website to see the chapel in all its high resolution glory.
And if you’d like, you can visit Wikipedia’s page on the Sistine Chapel ceiling for more detailed information.
And here’s my version of the layout:
The ceiling is basically four topics:
- A central spine depicting nine scenes from the Book of Genesis.
- Prophets and sibyls on the sides.
- Lunettes and spandrels with the ancestors of Jesus.
- The pendentives with scenes of the people of Israel.
The central spine
Scene 1: Separation of Light from Darkness.
Scene 2: Creation of the sun, moon and plants.
Scene 3: Separation of Land from Sea.
Scene 4: Creation of Adam.
Scene 5: Creation of Eve.
Scene 6: Original Sin and the Banishment from the Garden of Eden.
Scene 7: Sacrifice of Noah.
Scene 8: The Flood.
Scene 9: Drunkenness of Noah.
Michelangelo started painting the scenes of Noah first and halfway to the altar, he decided that his figures needed to be more dramatic and forceful.
Which is why the scenes with God depict bigger figures, more movement, more dynamism, more volume, going a bit into the beginnings of what would be the baroque movement.
The central panel is the famous and exquisite Creation of Adam, with some innovative elements like God being presented on the same visual level as Adam and the balance between the two spaces connected by the delicate touch of God’s finger passing on the spark of life to Adam.
The prophets and the sibyls
Being the first to predict the coming of Jesus, the prophets and sibyls are represented with a text label below them.
The prophets saw the coming of Christ for the people of Israel, while the sibyls, not really Christian but pagan, are there to symbolically extend this grace over all mankind.
The figures are Prophet Zachariah, Prophet Joel, Erythrean Sibyl, Prophet Ezekiel, Persian Sibyl, Prophet Jeremiah, Prophet Jonah, Libyan Sibyl, Prophet Daniel, Cumaean Sibyl, Prophet Isaiah and Delphic Sibyl
The lunettes and spandrels
It is unclear still whether the figures in the triangular spandrels are part of the ancestors of Christ as named below in groups of three on the lunettes.
- Zerubbabel, Abiud, Eliakim
- Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz
- Rehoboam, Abijah
- Salmon, Boaz, Obed
- Jesse, David, Solomon
- Asa, Jehoshaphat, Jehoram
- Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon
- Josiah, Jechoiachin, Shealtiel
Michelangelo decided to illustrate four Biblical passages related to the salvation of Israel in these triangular areas at the corners of the ceiling.
- The Brazen Serpent
- The Punishment of Haman
- David and Goliath
- Judith and Holofernes (I read that the head of Holofernes is a self-portrait of Michelangelo).
As you can see, the figures showcase an intensity and drama that would be the beginnings of baroque with the classical elements of the Renaissance.
And the more they go towards the altar, the more expressive and powerful they become. Also notice that even female figures have male characteristics like the muscles of the arms.
The Sistine Chapel ceiling is one of the masterpieces of all times and everyone should go see it at least once.
What about you? Have you visited the chapel yet?
What was your impression of it? Were you awestruck?
Share your comments in the field below!
- Entrance fee: 15 euros
- The Sistine Chapel is the last part of the tour of the Vatican Museums, about 250 m after the entrance. (From Sept 7 until Oct 26, the museums will be open at night from 7 to 11 pm! Online booking required here).
- There are many signs pointing to it
- The museum is one way so follow the crowd and you’ll eventually get there.
- You enter through a door at the altar end.
- The visit is around 30 minutes.
- There are several security guards ensuring that 1. You do not (under any circumstance) take pictures (No photo! No Picture!), 2. Don’t speak too loud (Shhhhhh!) and 3. Leave as soon as possible so more eager tourists can come in!
- As everywhere else at the Vatican a strict dress code is imposed. Shoulders, belly and thighs covered, please!
- There are benches at either side of the chapel (Good luck getting a seat!).
- My personal advice: Bring binoculars!
- Beware that the chapel is closed on religious holidays and some other random days. Check the 2012 and 2013 calendars before booking.
- Beware when the chapel is the most crowded: Saturdays, free Sundays, rainy days and days before a religious closure. Best on afternoons or Wednesday mornings before 11 am.
- Skip the line and buy your tickets online (And yes, there is a line and it is LONG!)