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The Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel is part of the Vatican Museums and is a reconstruction of an earlier chapel that existed on the same spot, called the Capella Maggiore.  The demolition and rebuilding of the chapel was ordered by Pope Sixtus IV, from whom the name of the new chapel was derived.  The chapel was built to the same dimensions as the Temple of Solomon, according to the Old Testament (134 feet x 34 feet).  At the time of its building, the Pope asked the leading frescoists of the time to contribute works to two themed series of frescoes along the walls.  The series would depict scenes from the life of Moses and from the life of Christ.  Among the artists were Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Perugino.  The ceiling was painted bright blue, with a pattern of gold stars.  The new chapel was consecrated in 1483.  Most of the frescoes remain, though the ceiling has changed.

South Wall Frescoes - Stories of Moses
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Events in the Life of Moses, Sandro Botticelli (1481-82)

Passage of the Red Sea, Biagio d'Antonio (1481-82)

Punishment of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, Botticelli

Legacy and Death of Moses, Luca Signorelli

Chapel Pulpit

North Wall Frescoes - Stories of Christ
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The Baptism of Christ, Pietro Perugino (c. 1482)

The Temptations of Christ, Botticelli

Calling of the First Apostles, Domenico Ghirlandaio

The Handing Over of the Keys, Perugino

The Last Supper, Cosimo Rosselli

In 1503, Giuliano della Rovere was selected to be the new Pope.  He chose to go by the name Julius II.  Julius was energetic and determined to shake things up.  Among the projects commissioned by Julius were the Raphael Rooms (see previous page) and a complete rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica (more on this later).  In 1505 he commissioned a young but already accomplished Florentine artist named Michelangelo Buonarroti to design and build a grandiose tomb for him, to be installed eventually in the new St. Peter’s Basilica.  Michelangelo was already famous for having sculpted a Pieta (1498-99) for a French Cardinal and the incomparable statue of David (1501-04) for the city of Florence.  Unfortunately he never got too far on the tomb, as the Pope and others kept pulling him off the project to do other things.  Only one of the many planned sculptures for the tomb was ever completed, a statue of Moses.  This statue, and Julius’ scaled-down tomb are now in the San Pietro in Vincoli Church in Rome.  Some of the unfinished sculptures can be found near the David statue in Florence (see the Galleria dell’Accademia page), where they have been called “slaves”, as they seem to be struggling to emerge from the stone.

The first to pull Michelangelo off the Julius II tomb project was Julius II.  He’d decided that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel should be repainted with depictions of the twelve Apostles, and Raphael and Donato Bramante (the first architect of the new Basilica) highly recommended Michelangelo for the job.  Michelangelo was puzzled by this recommendation, as his experience with the difficult medium of fresco was limited to a small amount of work during his apprenticeship under Domenico Ghirlandaio back in Florence, and he considered himself to be pretty much exclusively a sculptor.  He eventually decided Raphael and Bramante were trying to set him up for failure, and he tried his hardest to get out of this new commission, even fleeing back to Florence at one point.  But Julius was nothing if not a determined Pope, and Michelangelo eventually had to give in, though he managed to get permission to paint biblical scenes of his own choosing, rather than the twelve Apostles.  He ended up choosing nine scenes from the Book of Genesis as the principal subjects.

Frescoing as done by Michelangelo and others was essentially painting on wet plaster – conceptually simple enough, but complicated in execution.  First, the artist needed to plan out what to paint.  This was normally done by making large drawings on paper, called cartoons.  Next, plaster had to be properly mixed and applied to the wall or ceiling, difficult to do properly and unpleasant because of the corrosiveness of the quicklime used in the plaster, which ate away at brushes, clothing and skin.  The outlines of the subject matter then had to be transferred from the cartoon to the plaster, often done by poking pinholes in the cartoon, holding it up to the plaster and blowing powdered charcoal through the holes.  Finally, the artist had to paint like crazy before the plaster dried, so the paint would become “part of” the plaster.  For this reason, only small patches of plaster were applied for a given day.  Michelangelo had assistants who performed some of the manual labor and did some incidental painting, but even so, the whole process was horribly tedious.

Michelangelo started out tentatively with a scene of Noah’s Ark and the flood, but his compositional and technical skills increased rapidly, leading him early on to dispense with cartoons entirely, just painting directly on the plaster.  Despite depictions to the contrary, he painted in a standing position, using hanging scaffolding of his own invention.  Between 1508 and 1512 he executed 5,000 square feet of fresco, covering the ceiling and upper walls with the Genesis scenes, scenes in the corners related to the salvation of Israel, assorted prophets and sibyls, scenes from the lives of the ancestors of Jesus, and a bunch of naked guys called ignudi.  When the ceiling was unveiled, it was quite the sensation, and it heavily influenced many artists immediately and for the ensuing centuries.

The Ceiling (inverted)

The Ceiling
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God Divides Light from Darkness

God Creates the Sun and Planets

God Divides the Water from the Earth

God Creates Adam

God Creates Eve

Temptation and Expulsion from Eden

Noah and Family Make a Sacrifice

The Great Flood

Noah Drunk and Disgraced

Connie Looks at the Ceiling
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Closeups of Ceiling Panels
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The Prophet Zacheriah

David Slays Goliath

Eritrean Sibyl and Family Picture

The Prophet Ezekiel

Persian Sibyl and Family Picture

The Prophet Jeremiah

Haman is Denounced and Slain


Moses Raises Up the Bronze Serpent

Libyan Sibyl and Family Picture


Family Picture and Cumean Sibyl

Isaiah and Delphic Sibyl with Family Picture

Delphic Sibyl

Delphic Sibyl, Zacheriah and Judith Slays Holofernes

In 1537, Michelangelo was summoned back to the Sistine Chapel by Pope Clement VII, who asked him to paint a fresco on the altar wall depicting The Last Judgment.  This fresco also took four years.  It illustrates the second coming of a clean-shaven Christ and the apocalypse, with souls being either elevated to Heaven or condemned to Hell.  During the painting, the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, complained about all the nudity.  Michelangelo worked Cesena into the fresco as the Judge of the Underworld and gave him donkey’s ears.  24 years later, another artist was assigned the job of covering up all the genitalia, to the derision of the other artists of the time and since.  In 1993, the fresco was restored, and in the process, some of the nakedness (including Cesena’s, whose genitals are being bitten by a snake) was returned to its original glory.

Ceiling, Altar Wall and Screen

The Last Judgment
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The Last Judgment, center

The Last Judgment, left

The Last Judgment, Souls Being Saved

The Last Judgment, bottom center

The Last Judgment, right

The Last Judgment, Welcome to Hell

The Last Judgment, Details
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The Sistine Chapel is used regularly for Papal ceremonies that don’t require the cavernous space of St. Peter’s Basilica, and is used as the location where new Popes are elected by the College of Cardinals when the need arises.  It’s probably the most crowded area in the Vatican Museums.  There are signs at the entrance to the Chapel that seem to indicate that photography (or maybe just flash photography?) is against the rules, but whatever the rule is, it’s universally ignored (it’s the Sistine Chapel, for goodness sake).  There is an employee posted in the Chapel to keep an eye on the tourists, but on our visit his main concern seemed to be the noise level, as he kept shushing everyone over a PA system.  He didn’t seem to have a problem with the picture-taking.

From the Sistine Chapel we followed the designated path to the Museum exit, back near the entrance.  From there we followed the boundary wall to our next Catholic attraction, St. Peter’s Square.

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