Massimo Viola lives in Piacenza (Northern Italy). He is a curious and passionate reader of art history.
1. What It Is, Where It Is, Why It Is Famous
The Sistine Chapel is the chapel of the pope. It is located inside the Vatican Palaces, on the borders of the Vatican State within the city of Rome, and it has no external access. It is famous because it is the site where the conclave meets for the election of the new pope and because it contains the frescoes of Michelangelo on the ceiling (a cycle about the history of humanity before Moses’ book of laws) and on the wall of the Altar (the Last Judgement), which are considered the vertex of the Western art.
2. When and Why It Is Was Built
The Sistine Chapel was built at the behest of Pope Sixtus IV, from whom it has taken the name, between 1477 and 1481, upon the project of the architect Baccio Pontelli. The chapel was built upon the foundations of the pre-existing Palatina Chapel. The pope intended to establish a magnificent site where the relevant liturgical ceremonies could occur in the presence of the most important personalities in Rome. Celebrated Florentine artists of the period, such as Sandro Botticelli, Cosimo Rosselli and Domenico Ghirlandaio, sent by the Lord of Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici, who wanted to reconcile with the pope, decorated the walls of the chapel starting from 1481.
3. Sixtus IV: Who Was This Pope?
Pope Sixtus IV descended from the noble family Della Rovere. In his times (XV and XVI centuries), the so-called temporal power of the Catholic Church was not separated from the spiritual one as it is now. The Church had its own State, its own army and a system of alliances through which it exercised its territorial power.
Sixtus IV took part in a conspiracy against Lorenzo de’ Medici and initiated a war on the side of Venetians against the Duchy of Ferrara. His policy was also intended to favour the numerous nephews of his family, among whom was the future Pope Julius II, who commissioned Michelangelo for the frescoes on the Chapel’s ceiling. Note that the word nepotism originates from the popes’ practice of favouring their own nephews (in Italian: “nipoti”), who were often their sons.
Michelangelo, Melancholy and Stingy Genius
Michelangelo (1475-1564) had a reputation for genius in his own lifetime, and the biographies by his contemporaries (Condivi and Vasari) are probably too flattering. Modern biographers have discovered some aspects of his character, such as his irascibility and avarice, which led him to live in poverty despite the immense wealth he accumulated.
The only woman of his life seems to be Vittoria Colonna (1490-1547, a poetess belonging to the noble family of the Colonna), with whom he exchanged numerous letters. The sonnets he wrote for some men make some think of him as a possible homosexual, which may also be suggested by the many male figures who populate his art.
Raphael portrayed him in the likeness of a solitary and thoughtful Heraclitus in the School of Athens after seeing the first part of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The same posture is held by the prophet Jeremiah on the ceiling, the alleged self-portrait of Michelangelo, suggesting introversion and melancholy.
4. The Exterior of the Chapel
Outside, the Sistine Chapel looks sober and impressive at the same time: it has the same dimensions as Solomon’s temple, erected in Jerusalem in the X century B.C. (40.23m long, 20.70m high and 13.41m wide). It lies inside the Vatican Palaces without any external access. In this way, though considerable in size, it is not easily visible from the exterior. The best way to see its external structure is from Saint Peter’s dome.
5. The Interior
The proportions of the three sides (40.23m x 20.70m x 13.41m) confer a strong verticality to the interior. A marble barrier, decorated by Mino da Fiesole, separates the part reserved for the priests from the one reserved for the faithful. The pavement is made of polychrome inlays from the marbles taken away from the remains of ancient Roman structures.
The south and north walls show the cycle of frescoes regarding the stories of Moses and Christ to state a continuity between the Old and the New Testament. These frescoes were realized between 1481 and 1483 by renowned artists (Perugino, Botticelli, Cosimo Rosselli, Luca Signorelli, Pinturicchio and Domenico Ghirlandaio) and are the initial painting decoration of the chapel.
Initially, the ceiling was adorned by a simple blue sky dotted with gold stars, painted by Pier Matteo D’Amelia, according to the Medieval tradition. The interventions of Michelangelo are later: they are dated 1508-1512 (the ceiling) and 1536-1541 (the Last Judgment on the altar's wall).
6. The Cycle of Frescoes on the Walls
The two lateral walls are divided into three strips. The lower strip is decorated with a faux curtain, the intermediate strip contains 12 panels with the cycle of frescoes about the stories of Moses and Christ and the upper strip, at the level of the windows, contains the portraits of the martyr popes.
Though this cycle of frescoes was realized by several artists, from Perugino to Botticelli and Pinturicchio, the result is harmonious and unitary; because of a unique dimensional scale, similar pagination and common tonalities were adopted.
7. How Pope Julius II Charged Michelangelo to Paint the Ceiling
The occasion that pushed Pope Julius II, nephew of Sixtus IV, to commission a new ceiling decoration was a wide crack that had strongly damaged the sky painted by Piermatteo d’Amelia. Michelangelo was already working for Julius II—in fact, he was sculpting the tomb of the pope, and he did not like to interrupt this work. Also, he felt he was more a sculptor than a painter.
Still, he had apprenticed at Ghirlandaio’s shop, where he had learned the technique of fresco, so he had some skill with mural painting. However, he told the pope that Raphael was more suitable than him for the ceiling work. The relationship between the artist and the pope became stormy. At last, Julius II met Michelangelo in Bologna in 1507 and forced him to accept the job.
8. Why Julius II Charged a Young Sculptor?
We may ask why Julius II decided to assign such important work to a young artist aged 33 who, until then, was distinguished primarily as a sculptor (the Pieta in Rome and the David in Florence). Vasari says that Bramante, the pope's official architect, had suggested charging Michelangelo because he saw him growing into the good graces of Julius II.
The decision was probably taken autonomously, however, by this quite resolute pope-warrior, who had caught the uncommon capacity of the artist. A letter from the master builder Piero Rosselli to his friend Michelangelo, dated 1506, attests that Michelangelo was aware of the pope's project.
In the letter, Rosselli informs his friend that Bramante had tried to contrast the pope's project, telling him the truth. That is, that Michelangelo was a sculptor and not enough of an expert in the art of fresco. This finding would overturn portions of Vasari and other biographers' narratives.
9. How Michelangelo Worked at the Ceiling
Michelangelo initiated the decoration of the ceiling in 1508. He used a scaffold of his own invention after refusing the one proposed by Bramante because of the holes it would have produced on the ceiling. The whole work lasted four years and was exhausting. Michelangelo was unsatisfied with the support provided by any assistants and decided to do it himself. Nevertheless, the help of one of these (Jacopo Indaco) was precious in finding a mould-resistant plaster.
Michelangelo painted the nine central scenes of the ceiling in reverse, beginning from the last ones (Noah and the Flood) so that he could gain expertise to represent God better in the episodes of creation. He also perceived that the first figures he had painted, seen from the ground, were too small, so he proceeded to enlarge the figures in the following scenes.
Vasari reports that Michelangelo was paid 3,000 “scudi”, while the colours cost him 25 “scudi”. The works were sped up because of the great hurry of the pope to see the frescoes completed. The ceiling was revealed to the world on November 1st, 1512.
10. Michelangelo’s Frescoes: the Ceiling
The theme of the ceiling is intended to complete the cycle of the frescoes on the walls, centred on the stories of Moses and Christ, with the episodes from Genesis. The initial project was progressively enlarged by Michelangelo, who created an impressive architecture in which the stories and the figures are harmoniously inserted. In fact, the amount of work done by Michelangelo leaves us amazed.
Inside the nine panels in the central strip, representing the Creation, the Original Sin and the Great Flood, Michelangelo has inserted the 20 figures of the Ignudi (Naked). Around the central strip, there are the figures of the Prophets and the Sibyls (pagan prophetesses). The four side plumes represent miraculous interventions in favour of the elected people. Finally, the lunettes above the windows contain the long series of Christ’s ancestors.
There are more than 300 figures painted on the ceiling, while the initial project was limited to the figures of the 12 apostles. The influence on other artists was immense and gave origin to “mannerism”: the manner of Michelangelo was the reference model for more than a century.
11. Leo X and Raphael’s Intervention in the Chapel
Leo X, the successor of Julius II, wanted to give his contribution to the splendour of the Chapel. This time he addressed the other great artist active in Rome: Raphael, who had just finished painting the pope’s apartments in the same palaces. The problem was that free space was running low.
So, Leo X commissioned Raphael to design a series of ten tapestries destined to cover the lower strip of the wall, painted with a faux curtain, in the area reserved for the priests. The tapestries were woven in Brussels. They show stories of the saints Peter and Paul. They are conserved in the Vatican Museums and are exhibited in a special room.
12. Michelangelo and the Tomb of Julius II
An item which regularly interposes between Michelangelo and the popes’ commissions for the Sistine Chapel is the Tomb of Julius II. This monument, which can be admired in the church of St. Peter in Chains in Rome, centred on the statue of Moses, had been commissioned to him by Julius II around 1505. The work was then interrupted by Michelangelo's commitment to the Sistine Chapel.
But in 1533, 20 years after the death of Julius II, it was not yet completed. So, when Pope Clemens VII called Michelangelo again to operate in the Sistine Chapel, the artist was pursued by the heirs of Julius II, who had paid for the work and wanted to have it finished. Clemens VII and his successor Paul III had to intervene to get Michelangelo to attend to the works for the fresco of the altar wall in the Chapel. Michelangelo called the monument to Julius II as “the tragedy of the Tomb”.
13. Clemens VII and the Commission of the Last Judgement
The Last Judgement was commissioned to Michelangelo by Clemens VII (natural son of Giuliano de’ Medici), who died shortly after. So the works were actually executed under the pontificate of Paul III between 1536 and 1541.
Clemens VII had experienced the sack of Rome in 1527. This tragic event may have convinced him to conceive of the Last Judgement in the popes’ Chapel as a warning to the world. For this warning, Clemens chose the altar wall and did not hesitate to destroy the three pre-existing frescoes by Perugino, which also included the Assumption with the portrait of Sixtus IV. Someone sees in this act the revenge of Clemens against his predecessor Sixtus, responsible for the murder of his father with the Pazzi conspiracy (1478).
14. Michelangelo’s Frescoes: The Last Judgement
For the Last Judgement, Michelangelo does not create an artificial architecture, as he had done for the ceiling, but occupies the whole space of the wall with a unique and great scene on a blue background, centred on the figure of Christ, who creates a vortex of bodies with the simple gesture of his arms.
Christ makes an upward motion at his right, where the Blessed ascend to heaven and a downward motion at his left, where the Damned descend to hell. The beauty of the bodies and the harmony of the ceiling is here overcome by a chaotic mass of moving bodies, a personal vision of Michelangelo that his contemporaries had some difficulties accepting.
15. Criticism of Last Judgement and Coverage of Nudity
The Last Judgement aroused immediate criticism due to the presence of so much nudity in the most important church of Christianity. Vasari says that the master of ceremonies of the pope, Biagio da Cesena, apostrophized the work as more adapted to a tavern than to a church. He did not know that it was dangerous to criticize an artist before his death.
Michelangelo gave his face to the figure of Minos, wrapped by a snake which bites his genitals. Biagio da Cesena complained to the pope, but Paul III answered that his jurisdiction did not extend to hell, and the portrait stayed where it was. Later on, in 1564, the Council of Trento banned nudity in religious representations. The task to censor the Last Judgement was given to Daniele da Volterra, who for the occasion was surnamed the Mutandiere (from the Italian word “mutande” meaning “pants”). He covered many naked bodies with light veils. This intervention was maintained during the 1980s restoration as a historical testimony, while the other ones done later were removed.
16. The 1980s and 1990s Restorations
Between 1980 and 1994, the ceiling and the altar wall with the Last Judgement became the subject of deep restoration work. This work consisted of removing the dirt and layers of oil and wax accumulated to protect the frescoes during the centuries. All the phases of the restoration have been filmed and documented by Nippon Television, which sponsored the operation.
The cleaning brought to light a range of colours richer and brighter than expected and provoked discussions among experts. In fact, the colours of the paintings before the restoration were flattened. Some critics affirmed that Michelangelo had desired this effect to make the bodies' forms stand out. If this is true, the cleaning may have also removed a layer of paint applied by Michelangelo.
17.The LED Lighting and the New Air Conditioning System
On November 1st, 2014, exactly the same day on which the ceiling had been revealed to the world 502 years before, the installation of two new important technologies—LED lighting and a new air conditioning—was completed at the end of a three years project to improve the preservation of the site and the visitors’ experience.
The LED lighting was realized through a system of 7,000 LEDs placed on the string course of the wall at a height of about 10 meters. This system allows lighting five to ten times greater than before and a reduction of up to 90% in energy consumption. The quality of the frescoes adorning the walls and the ceiling can be admired as never before.
The new air conditioning system has been projected to keep the temperature and humidity inside the chapel at a constant level during all seasons of the year and to limit the impact millions of visitors can produce on the paintings each year. The temperature is maintained at a level decreasing from 25° C (77° F) in summer to 20° C (68° F) in the winter; the humidity is constant at about 55%.
18. What the Sistine Chapel Is Used for Now
The Sistine Chapel is an important tourist destination, visited by more than 4,000,000 people every year, but the pope still uses it for some solemn liturgical celebrations. On November 1st, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Vespers in the chapel to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Michelangelo’s ceiling. Pope Francis celebrated there his first mass for the cardinals who had elected him. However, the most famous event in the chapel is the conclave: the meeting of cardinals to elect the new pope.
The first conclave was held in the chapel in 1492, at the death of Pope Innocent VIII. The word conclave comes from the Latin “cum clave” and refers to the tradition of the cardinals locking themselves in the room where they meet for the election of the new pope. This usage dates back to 1274, when it was instated by the Council of Lyon II, after an event in 1270 where the inhabitants of the city of Viterbo, the papal seat at those times, locked the cardinals in a chapel, who, after 19 months, did not agree on the name of the new pope.
On the occasion of the conclave, the stove which produces the famous smoke after every voting (black if the pope has not been elected, white when he has been elected) is mounted in the chapel.
Virtual Tour of the Sistine Chapel's Ceiling
19. Visiting the Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel is part of the Vatican Museums, which include thousands of artworks and masterpieces by Leonardo, Raphael and Caravaggio, just to cite a few. Visiting hours of the museums are Monday to Saturday from 9:00 to 16:00. The museums are closed on Sunday, with the exception of the last Sunday of each month, when admission is free (hours 9.00 to 12.30).
The best time to enjoy the Sistine frescoes (and the whole museum) is to avoid the busiest periods (Christmas, Easter and Italian national holidays). Bring your binoculars and be ready to strain your neck a little.
Michelangelo's Frescoes and the Scripture
Essential Chronology of the Sistine Chapel
1477 - 1481
Sixtus IV decides on building the Sistine Chapel upon the project of Baccio Pontelli.
1481 - 1483
The north and south walls of the Chapel are decorated by famous artists (Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio and others) with scenes from the Old and the New Testament.
The first conclave takes place in the Chapel with the election of Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia).
1508 - 1512
Michelangelo paints the ceiling of the Chapel with the scenes of the Creation and the Great Flood.
1512, November 1st
Pope Julius II inaugurates Michelangelo's ceiling frescoes at the Mass of All Saints.
1515 - 1519
Raphael executes the drawing of 10 tapestries, commissioned by Pope Leo X for the lower strip of the walls.
Pope Clemens VII calls Michelangelo for the fresco of the Last Judgement on the altar wall of the Chapel.
1541, November 1st
Pope Paulus III inaugurates the Last Judgment.
Daniele da Volterra is charged with covering the nudity of the Chapel after the decree of the Council of Trento against nudity in religious art.
1980 - 1994
The restoration of the ceiling and the Last Judgment reveals the original bright colours dulled by centuries of dirt.
2014, November 1st
An LED lighting system and new air conditioning allow a superb vision of the frescoes' colours and preserve the site from humidity and changes in temperature.
Sources and Further Reading
- Michelangelo's Painting of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling | ItalianRenaissance.org
- Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel | Smarthistory
God created the world in seven days, but it took Michelangelo four years to depict it on this remarkable ceiling.
- Michelangelo – The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel | Britannica
The Sistine Chapel had great symbolic meaning for the papacy as the chief consecrated space in the Vatican, used for great ceremonies such as electing and inaugurating new popes.
- 7 Things You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel | HISTORY
Check out seven surprising facts about the famous ceiling and the artist who painted it.
- Vasari's Biography of Michelangelo | SUNY Oneonta
- Design for the Tomb of Pope Julius II della Rovere | The Met
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Bede from Minnesota on December 29, 2017:
Thanks Massimo for the very informative and colorful hub. I read a few months ago that Michelangelo created a brick wall for the Last Judgement fresco that inclined forward slightly from the top, so as to prevent dust from collecting on the painting.