Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: detailed information

What is Michelangelo Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel of the Vatican is famous for Michelangelo’s frescoes that are unique in their beauty and impression. They depict the past and future of mankind.

The chapel bears the name of its founder. It was built during the turbulent period at the end of the XV century. It was supposed that the pontiff and his entourage could find shelter here if necessary. The Cappella Sistina therefore looks more like a bastion from the outside than a church. Where exactly is the Cappella Sistina located? This gray, inconspicuous building from the outside adjoins St. Peter’s Cathedral. Its walls, once built, were covered with frescoes by famous Italian artists, including Botticelli and Perugino.

At the beginning of the 16th century, cracks appeared in the vault of the chapel. The repairs spoiled the ceiling’s pattern of stars in the night sky. In 1508 Julius II decided to commission a new painting to the great sculptor Michelangelo Buonarotti. A quarter of a century later the master complemented his work with a mural of the “Last Judgment” commissioned by Pope Clement VII.

The Sistine Chapel is one of the two (along with Raphael’s stanzas) main treasures of the Vatican Museums. All tours of the museum complex end in the Sistine Chapel. The most important meetings (conclaves) of cardinals who choose a new pontiff are held here.

Interesting facts about the Sistine Chapel

  • The dimensions of the Chapel repeat the length and width of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem – 41 and 13.5 meters, respectively.
  • Michelangelo, who created one of the greatest pictorial masterpieces of mankind, considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter.
  • The titanic 4-year effort to paint the ceiling of the chapel seriously undermined the master’s health.
  • Michelangelo’s frescoes proved to be extremely resilient. Only a small fragment of the “Deluge”, which fell off the ceiling when a gunpowder warehouse explosion in the XVII century, has not reached us.
  • Raphael’s great painting “Sistine Madonna” has nothing to do with the Chapel. The artist’s participation in its interior is minimal: the tapestries in the chapel were woven from his sketches.
  • Some of the dignitaries who watched the process of creating the fresco The Last Judgment did not like the uncovered genitals of many of the figures. In retaliation, Michelangelo placed one of the critics, the ceremonial master of the court of Cesena, on the fresco. He is depicted as the judge of the dead by King Minos with donkey ears and genitals hidden behind a snake. Pope Paul III replied to Cesen’s complaint that he had no power over Hell.
  • While Michelangelo was still alive, in 1560, Pius IV ordered that the genitalia of the nude figures be covered with fig leaves. On learning of this, the artist said that it was much more difficult to give a decent appearance to the earthly world. Most of the fig leaves were removed only at the end of the 20th century, during a major restoration.
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Fresco paintings by Italian artists

The walls of the chapel are surrounded by 12 preserved frescoes from the original 16. On the southern wall are 6 images of the Old Testament story of Moses. Two of them are by Botticelli. They are The Massacre of the Innocents and the Calling of Moses and The Revolt of the Laws of Moses. Two frescoes, The Crossing of the Red Sea and The Giving of the Commandments, were painted by Rosselli. Perugino painted The Circumcision of the Son of Moses and Signorelli painted The Death and Testament of Moses.

On the north wall are New Testament frescoes. Perugino painted “The Baptism of Jesus” and “The Passing of the Keys to Peter”. “The Calling of the First Apostles is by Ghirlandaio, and the Temptation of Christ by Botticelli. Rosselli is represented by the frescoes “The Sermon on the Mount” and “The Last Supper.”

The final episodes of these cycles, depicted on the east wall, Signorelli’s “Dispute at the Body of Moses” and Ghirlandaio’s “Ascension of Christ”, have not survived. After their destruction they were recreated by lesser-known painters. Two more frescoes by Perugino were sacrificed for the “Last Judgment”.

Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

The central part of the ceiling is occupied by panels with illustrations of the events described in the Book of Genesis. Chronologically they anticipate the subjects of the paintings on the side walls. These include nine frescoes. Three of them illustrate the creation of Heaven and Earth by the Creator:

  • “Separation of Light from Darkness;
  • “The Separation of the Land from the Waters;
  • “The Creation of the Luminaries and Planets.

The following frescoes deal with the creation of the first humans and the Fall:

  • “The Creation of Adam.”
  • “The Creation of Eve”;
  • “The Fall and Expulsion from Paradise.”

The last three refer to the story of Noah. These are:

  • “The Flood.”
  • “The Sacrifice of Noah.”
  • “Noah’s Intoxication.”

Each fresco is a pictorial masterpiece, but art historians give the palm to The Creation of Adam. It strikes the beauty and harmony of the pose of Adam, to whom his Creator transmits life with a touch of his hand.

Most researchers tend to see in the woman next to the Creator the image of Sophia – divine wisdom.

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The central frescoes are surrounded by images of other biblical characters, prophets and sibyls (diviners), as well as medallions with religious subjects. These paintings reflect the history of mankind after the loss of Paradise. The prophets and sibyls symbolize her main forthcoming event – the coming of the Savior.

Fresco The Last Judgment by Michelangelo

This large-scale fresco on the altar wall is devoted to New Testament predictions of the future of mankind. It anticipates the apocalypse, the second coming of Christ, and the Last Judgment. At the center of the composition, which is stunningly dynamic and expressive, is the formidable figure of Christ. He is judging people severely according to their earthly deeds. Beside Him we can see the Mother of God.

At the top of the composition are the angels overturning the cross and the symbol of earthly power, the column. The lower part shows apocalyptic scenes of the end of time with trumpeting angels, the righteous in heaven and sinners in hell. And in the face of the Apostle Bartholomew, who is not far from Christ, the master depicted his own face.

How to get into the Sistine Chapel?

There is no separate entrance to it, so you have to get to the Vatican museums. To do this, you can use:

  • Metro line A to Musei Vaticani, San Pietro or Ottaviano stations;
  • Streetcar No. 19 to Piazza Del Risorgimento;
  • Buses from various parts of the city: nos. 49 to the entrance; nos. 81, 32, 492, 990 and 982 to Piazza Del Risorgimento; nos. 990 and 492 to Via Leone.

Museum hours are 9 am – 6 pm, but the ticket office and the entrance close at 4 pm. The day off is Sunday, excluding the last day of the month. On this day there is free admission, but only until 12:30. Museums are closed on religious holidays. There are often long lines for tickets worth 16 EUR. Less crowded before opening and in the afternoon.

Most visitors are on Wednesday, the day of the papal sermon in Piazza San Pietro.

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It is better to buy tickets in advance online on the website of the museum complex or here. However, you will have to pay an additional 4 EUR. A ticket bought online will ensure a separate entrance. The feedback from visitors to the Sistine Chapel, who have used this service, is overwhelmingly positive. Mandatory dress code excludes shorts, open shoulders and knees. Bags, especially large ones, are carefully checked.

To make your visit to the Sistine Chapel as educational and informative as possible, it is recommended to use the very handy virtual tour on the Vatican site at the link. It is impossible to view the ceiling frescoes in such detail directly in the Chapel.

At the entrance to the museums for 7 EUR you can get a Russian-speaking audioguide against a passport. Return of the audio guide and passport is not in the same place, but at the exit of the museums in a special point. You can also order a tour to Russian-speaking guides working in Rome.

15 impressive facts about the Sistine Chapel

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Service in the Sistine Chapel.

On August 15, 1483, Pope Sixtus IV consecrated the Sistine Chapel. At that time it was not yet decorated with Michelangelo’s ingenious works. At that time the future great artist was only eight years old. However, even before Michelangelo painted the ceiling with his amazing frescoes, the Sistine Chapel played an important role in the Vatican.

1. The chapel was built for worship and defense

Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.

Construction of the chapel began in 1475 (interestingly, it coincided with the year Michelangelo was born). The building was to be a place of religious meetings of the clergy and local elite. It was completed around 1481. The design called for strong, high walls so that it could be defended against any possible attacks on the Vatican. The church was designed by the architect Baccio Pontelli.

2. The chapel may be a recreation of an ancient temple

The Temple of King Solomon.

According to many scholars, the main hall of the chapel is an exact replica of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. According to the Bible, “the temple which King Solomon built was sixty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and thirty cubits high,” which is about the size of the main hall of the Sistine Chapel (approximately 40x13x20 meters).

3. Masses are still held in the chapel today

Pope Sixtus IV.

Named after Pope Sixtus IV, who consecrated it and celebrated his first Mass on August 15, 1483, the Sistine Chapel was built to be the Pope’s personal chapel and it still performs that function today. It is also the seat of the papal conclave, where the College of Cardinals elects new popes.

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4. Michelangelo is not the only artist whose work adorns the chapel

Punishment of rebellious Levites. Fresco in the Sistine Chapel. Sandro Botticelli.

Before the Sistine Chapel was officially opened, the Pope commissioned artists from other cities (Sandro Botticelli, Cosimo Rosselli and Pietro Perugino) to cover the interior walls with frescoes. The mural work was eventually completed around 1481. Of these early works, the Sistine Chapel still has false portieres, subjects from the history of Moses (south and entry walls) and Christ (north and entry walls), and portraits of Popes (throughout the Chapel).

5. The original ceiling was rather plain

The chapel’s most famous work was not created until several decades after it opened. The original ceiling looked like a blue sky with golden stars. It was the work of the artist Piermatteo d’Amelia.

6. Michelangelo’s ingenious creation came about through a crack

Michelangelo Buonarroti

In 1504, construction work near the chapel resulted in cracks in the ceiling of the chapel. The cracks were repaired, but this disturbed the picture of d’Amelia’s starry ceiling. Pope Julius II (Sixtus IV’s nephew) decided to hire a new artist to repaint the ceiling and in 1508 his choice was Michelangelo Buonarroti.

7. Michelangelo did not consider himself a good painter

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

Michelangelo considered himself solely a sculptor. When the Pope commissioned him to work on the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo insisted that he had no talent as an artist and was actually embarrassed because he could not refuse the Pope’s request. But despite his doubts about his abilities, Michelangelo did a superb job. Originally he was to paint the 12 apostles, but he convinced the pope to let him do something much grander. He ended up painting the entire 1,115 square meter ceiling as well as other segments of the chapel walls.

8. Michelangelo was very worried about the commissioned work

Even after he proposed his ambitious plan to the Pope, Michelangelo was still unsure if he could carry it out. This was not surprising since he had not the slightest experience in painting frescoes. Eventually Michelangelo began to create his masterpieces from small finished fragments, which he asked those close to him to evaluate.

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9. Special scaffolding

Sistine Chapel murals.

Michelangelo and his team developed special scaffolding that allowed him to paint on the ceiling while remaining upright instead of lying on his back. The myth that the artist painted lying down arose from an inaccurate biography of Michelangelo, written in 1527 by Bishop Giovio. It used the word resupinus, which means “bent backwards,” although some have interpreted it as “lying on his back.”

10. Michelangelo painted the chapel for four years

Even despite the specially designed scaffolding, painting the ceiling of the chapel proved to be a very difficult job. It took Michelangelo a full four years to complete the project. This is reflected even in his later poems.

11. The paint was damaged by mold.

Even today, the Vatican is being asked to restrict entry to the Sistine Chapel in order to preserve the frescoes.

In the midst of painting his frescoes, around January 1509, Michelangelo encountered great difficulty in his work. The lime had become too wet and fungus and mold had begun to form on it. Much of the work that had already been done was destroyed. Legend has it that Michelangelo went to the Pope and said: “I warned Your Holiness that I was not an artist. What I did was ruined.” But the Pope ordered him to continue his work. Michelangelo had to scrape off all the ruined painting and start all over again from the beginning.

12. Michelangelo painted without sketches

Despite the complexity of his grandiose plans, Michelangelo worked, as they say, “on the fly.” When painting the Sistine Chapel he painted everything without sketches.

13. The Image of God

Adam, Eve and God.

To modern viewers, Michelangelo’s description of God as a bearded man (seen in the central part of the work on the ceiling) looks quite canonical. But it was so unique and shocking at the time that many people just didn’t understand: who is this bearded old man.

14. No photographs are allowed inside the chapel

More than 4 million people visit the Sistine Chapel each year. Despite the avalanche of tourists, there is a strict rule inside the structure: taking pictures in the main hall is prohibited.

15. Mexico has an exact replica of the Sistine Chapel

A Mexican copy of the Sistine Chapel.

If anyone wants to take cool pictures of Michelangelo’s work, they should go to Mexico. The Vatican approved the creation of a full-size replica of the main hall of the Sistine Chapel, which opened in Mexico earlier this year. Capilla Sixtina en México cost $2.4 million, with all the interior work painstakingly recreated by copying more than 2.6 million photographs.

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