Sistine Chapel Facts: Michelangelo and the Popes Who Created the Masterpiece of Western Art

Updated on February 27, 2015
Michelangelo, the Delphic Sibyl (detail), Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Michelangelo, the Delphic Sibyl (detail), Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. | Source

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, in the borders of the Vatican State within the city of Rome, and it has not external accesses. 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 the humanity before the Moses’ book of laws) and on the wall of the Altar (the Last Judgement), which are considered the vertex of the Western art.

Raphael, School of Athens (1511), Vatican Apartments. Rapahel had seen the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling while he was working at the pope's apartments. He was so impressed that added the portrait of Michelangelo (as Heraclitus) to his work
Raphael, School of Athens (1511), Vatican Apartments. Rapahel had seen the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling while he was working at the pope's apartments. He was so impressed that added the portrait of Michelangelo (as Heraclitus) to his work | Source
The prophet thoughtful. Michelangelo may have portrayed himself in the figure of the prophet Jeremiah.
The prophet thoughtful. Michelangelo may have portrayed himself in the figure of the prophet Jeremiah. | Source

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 intention of the pope was to establish a magnificent site where the relevant liturgical ceremonies could take place at 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?

The pope Sixtus IV descended from the noble family Della Rovere. At 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 the future pope Julius II, who commissioned Michelangelo the frescoes on the Chapel’s ceiling. Note that the word nepotism originates from the popes’ practice to favour their own nephews (in Italian: “nipoti”), who really 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. The modern biographers have discovered some aspects of his character, such as the irascibility and the avarice, which led him to live in poverty despite the immense wealth accumulated. The only woman of his life seems to be Vittoria Colonna (1490 – 1547, poetess, belonging to the noble family of the Colonna) with whom he exchanged numerous letters. The sonnets he wrote for some men make think of a possible homosexuality, which may also be suggested by the many male figures which 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 held by the prophet Jeremiah, in the ceiling, the alleged self portrait of Michelangelo which suggests introversion and melancholy.

The Sistine Chapel seen from the St. Peter Dome
The Sistine Chapel seen from the St. Peter Dome | Source

4. The exterior of the chapel

Outside, the Sistine Chapel looks sober and impressive at the same time: it has the same dimensions of the Salomon’s temple, erected in Jerusalem in the X century b.C. (40.23 M long, 20.70 M high and 13.41 M wide). It lies inside the Vatican Palaces without any external access: in this way, though its considerable size, it is not easily visible from the exterior. The best way to see its external structure is from the Saint Peter’s dome.

5. The interior

The proportions of the three sides (M 40.23x20.70x13.41) confer a strong verticality to the interior. A marble barrier, decorated by Mino da Fiesole, separates the part reserved to the priests from the one reserved to the faithful. The pavement is made of polychrome inlays, from the marbles taken away from the remains of the ancient Rome. The south wall and the north wall show the cycle of frescoes regarding, respectively, the stories of Moses and the stories of Christ, to state a continuity between the Old and the New Testament. These frescoes were realized between 1481 and 1483 by renown artists (Perugino, Botticelli, Cosimo Rosselli, Luca Signorelli, Pinturicchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio) and are the initial painting decoration of the chapel. Initially the ceiling was adorned by a simple blue sky dotted of 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 wall of the altar).

The Sistine Chapel interior as it was supposed to be before the frescoes of Michelangelo in an engraving of XIX century
The Sistine Chapel interior as it was supposed to be before the frescoes of Michelangelo in an engraving of XIX century | Source
Botticelli, Detail of the Three Temptations of Christ (1481-1483), Sistine Chapel north wall
Botticelli, Detail of the Three Temptations of Christ (1481-1483), Sistine Chapel north wall | Source

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 different artists, from Perugino to Botticelli and Pinturicchio, the result is harmonious and unitary, because of a unique dimensional scale, a similar pagination and common tonalities were adopted.

Perugino, Handing of the keys to St. Peter (1481-1483), Sistine Chapel north wall
Perugino, Handing of the keys to St. Peter (1481-1483), Sistine Chapel north wall | Source

7. How pope Julius II charged Michelangelo to paint the ceiling

The occasion that pushed the pope Julius II, nephew of Sixtus IV, to commission a new decoration of the ceiling 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 to be a sculptor rather than a painter, though his apprenticeship at the Ghirlandaio’s shop, where he had learned the technique of fresco. He said that Raphael was more suitable than him for that 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.

Pope Julius II portayed by Raphael
Pope Julius II portayed by Raphael | Source

8. Why Julius II charged an young sculptor?

We may ask why Julius II decided to assign a so important work to an young artist aged 33 who, until then, had distinguished especially as a sculptor (the Pieta in Rome and the David in Florence)? Vasari tells that Bramante, official architect of the pope, had suggested to charge Michelangelo, because he was seeing him growing into the good graces of Julius II. According to Vasari, Bramante wanted Michelangelo to be put on test on a field, the painting, which was not its own. However, probably the decision was taken autonomously 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, saying him the truth: i.e. that Michelangelo was a sculptor not enough expert in the art of fresco. This would overturn the version of Vasari and other biographers.

9. How Michelangelo Worked at the Ceiling

Michelangelo initiated the decoration of the ceiling in 1508. He used a scaffold of its own invention, after refusing that 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 not satisfied with the support provided by any assistants and decided to do by himself. Nevertheless, the help of one of these (Jacopo Indaco) was precious to find a mould resistant plaster. Michelangelo painted the nine central scenes of the ceiling in reverse sense, beginning from the last ones (Noah and the Flood) so that he could gain expertise to represent God 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 of the next scenes. Vasari reports that Michelangelo was paid 3,000 “scudi”, while the colours cost him 25 “scudi”. The works were speeded up because of the great hurry of the pope to see the frescoes completed. The ceiling was discovered to the world on November 1st, 1512.

The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-1512)
The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-1512) | Source
Michelangelo, Ignudo, Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo, Ignudo, Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel | Source

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, where 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 the favour of the elected people. Finally, the lunettes above the windows contain the long series of the 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 the other artists was immense and gave origin to the “mannerism”: the manner of Michelangelo was the reference model for more than a century.

Michelangelo, The Great Flood, Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508). Michelangelo began to paint the last scenes and progressively enlarged the size of the figures in the next ones, where the figure of God appears
Michelangelo, The Great Flood, Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508). Michelangelo began to paint the last scenes and progressively enlarged the size of the figures in the next ones, where the figure of God appears | Source
Michelangelo, Creation of Adam, Celing of the Sistine Chapel. Some scholars see the representation of a brain in the cloak that surrounds God
Michelangelo, Creation of Adam, Celing of the Sistine Chapel. Some scholars see the representation of a brain in the cloak that surrounds God | Source
Death of Ananians, Tapestry from a panel by Raphael (1515-1519), Vatican Museums
Death of Ananians, Tapestry from a panel by Raphael (1515-1519), Vatican Museums | Source

11. Leo X and the 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 to the other great artist active in Rome: Raphael, who had just finished to paint the pope’s Apartments in the same palaces. The problem was that the free space was running low. So, Leo X commissioned Raphael the design for a series of ten tapestries destined to cover the lower strip of the wall, painted with a faux curtain, in the area reserved to the priests. The tapestries were weaved 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 for the commitment of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. But in 1533, 20 years after the death of Julius II, it was not completed yet. So, when the pope Clemens VII called again Michelangelo to operate in the Sistine Chapel, the artist was pursued by the heirs of Julius II, who had paid for the work and claimed to have it finished. Clemens VII and his successor Paul III had to intervene to obtain Michelangelo can attend the works for the fresco of the altar wall in the Chapel. Michelangelo defined the monument to Julius II as “the tragedy of the Tomb”.

Sistine Chapel interior with the barrier by Mino da Fiesole
Sistine Chapel interior with the barrier by Mino da Fiesole | Source

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 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 figurate 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 included also the Assumption with the portrait of Sixtus IV. Someone sees in this fact a revenge of Clemens against his predecessor Sixtus, responsible of the murder of his father with the Pazzi conspiracy (1478).

Michelangelo, the Last Judgement (1536-1541), Sistine Chapel altar wall
Michelangelo, the Last Judgement (1536-1541), Sistine Chapel altar wall | Source

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 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: an upward motion at his right, where the Blessed ascend to the 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 to accept.

Michelangelo, Detail of the Last Judgement:: the infernal judge Minos
Michelangelo, Detail of the Last Judgement:: the infernal judge Minos | Source

15. The criticism of Last Judgement and the coverage of nudity

The Last Judgement aroused immediately criticism due to the presence of so much nudity in the most important church of Christianity. Vasari tells that the master of ceremonies of the pope, Biagio da Cesena, apostrophized the work as more adapt to a tavern than to a church. He did not know that it is 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 the hell, and the portrait stayed where it was. Later on, in 1564, the Council of Trento banned the nudity in the 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 in the occasion of the 1980s restoration as a historic testimony, while the other ones done later were removed.

Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Creation of the Sun and the Moon before the restoration
Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Creation of the Sun and the Moon before the restoration | Source
Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Creation of the Sun and the Moon after the restoration
Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Creation of the Sun and the Moon after the restoration | Source

16. The 1980s and 1990s restorations

Between 1980 and 1994 the ceiling and the altar wall with the Last Judgement have been the subject of a deep work of restoration. This work has consisted in the removing of the dirty and the layers of oil and wax which had been applied to protect the frescoes during the centuries. All the phases of the restoring have been filmed and documented by the Nippon Television, which had sponsored the operation. The cleaning has brought to the light a range of colours richer and brighter than it was expected and has provoked discussions among the experts. In fact, the colours of the paintings before the restoration were flattened. Some critics affirmed that this effect had been wanted by Michelangelo, to make the bodies forms to stand out. If this is true, the cleaning may have removed also a layer of painting applied by Michelangelo.

17.The LED Lighting and the New Air Conditioning System

On November 1st, 2014, exactly the same day in which the Ceiling had been discovered to the world, 502 years before, two new important technological systems - the LED lighting and a new air conditioning - have been inaugurated, at the end of a three years project, to improve the preservation of the site and the visitors’ experience. The LED lighting is realized through a system of 7,000 LED placed on the string course of the wall, at the height of about 10 meters. This system allows a lighting five to ten times greater than before and a reduction up to 90% in the 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 the humidity inside the chapel at a constant level during the seasons of the year and to limit the impact that the millions of visitor per year can produce on the paintings. 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%.

Mary and Christ are at centre of the Last Judgement, where the movement of the bodies originates.
Mary and Christ are at centre of the Last Judgement, where the movement of the bodies originates. | Source

18. What the Chapel is now used for

The Sistine Chapel is an important tourist destination, visited by more than 4,000,000 people every year, but it still used by the pope for some solemn liturgical celebrations. November 1st, 2012, pope Benedict XVI celebrated Vespers in the chapel to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Michelangelo’s ceiling. Pope Francis has celebrated there his first mass for the cardinals who had elected him. However, the most famous event which takes place 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 the pope Innocent VIII. The word conclave comes from the Latin “cum clave” and refers to the tradition of the cardinals to lock inside the room where they meet for the election of the new pope. This usage dates back to 1274, when it was stated by the Council of Lyon II, after that in 1270 the inhabitants of the city of Viterbo, papal seat at those times, locked the cardinals who, after 19 months, did not agree on the name of the new pope. In the occasion of the conclave, the stove which produces the famous smokes after every voting (black if the pope has not been elected, white when he has been elected) is mounted in the chapel.

Sistine Chapel Ceiling Virtual Tour

19. Visiting the Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel is part of the Vatican Museums, which include thousands art works and masterpieces by Leonardo, Raphael, Caravaggio, just to cite some names. 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 of every month, when the admission is free (hours 9.00 to 12.30). The best to enjoy the view of the Sistine frescoes (and the whole museums) is to avoid the busiest periods (Christmas, Easter, Italian national holidays). Bring with you binoculars and be ready to stay necked up.

Michelangelo's Frescoes and the Scripture

Sistine Chapel, The: A Biblical Tour
Sistine Chapel, The: A Biblical Tour

In this book, Michelangelo's frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are accompanied by the texts of the Bible that they illustrate. The words of the scripture are finally rejoined to the "visual theology" of the paintings.

 

Essential Chronology

Date
Event
1477 - 1481
Sixtus IV decides the building of 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 other) with scenes from the Old and the New Testament
1492
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 the frescoes by Michelangelo on the ceiling at the Mass of All Saints
1515 - 1519
Raphael executes the drawing of 10 trapestries, commissioned by pope Leo X for the lower strip of the walls
1536
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
1565
Daniele da Volterra is charged to cover 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
A LED lighting system and a new air conditioning allow a superb vision of the frescoes' colours and preserve the site from humidity and changes in temperature

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