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The Very Real Drama and Controversy Behind the Sistine Chapel!

My writing includes my personal travel experiences, destination, history, and cultural information.

Interior of the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo in Vatican City

Interior of the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo in Vatican City

I have to admit after my last time in the Sistine Chapel, I approached my entry with trepidation. Determined to see what I missed the last time, I set foot in the chapel. Stopping dead in my tracks, my head whirling with the vision in front of me, the tears of joy flowed! Wow!

The same rules applied as on my last visit: no pictures and no talking. (The pictures you see below are from free sources that are available online) I was grateful for the quiet and the lack of distraction from people snapping photos and selfies. There was so much to see; so much to take in!

The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel Has a Lot Going On!

Not the Original Ceiling

The ceiling you see today is not the original ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and all the works inside the chapel weren't created by Michelangelo.

In 1504, a diagonal crack across the ceiling made the chapel unusable. The original ceiling was painted by Pier Matteo d'Amelia and was simply stars on a blue background. Once the crack appeared, Pope Julius II had the ceiling removed, and negotiations began with Michelangelo to paint the ceiling we see today.

I say "negotiations" because that is exactly what it was. Pope Julius II had a vision for the artwork, and it was not the same as Michelangelo's. The Pope wanted the 12 apostles to be depicted, and Michelangelo wanted a more elaborate work of art to adorn the ceiling. After much fiery debate, the Pope finally acquiesced, and Michelangelo was allowed to "do as he liked".

What Does the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel Depict?

Simply stated, it is an overview of the Christian doctrine, which states that humankind requires salvation and the need for a covenant with God.

Around the walls of the chapel, you see evidence of the Old Covenant made with Moses and the Children of Israel. You also see the New Covenant made with Jesus. A lineage of ancestors connected to Jesus from the Old Testament appears in the paintings.

Together, these paintings create a timeline of Christianity. This timeline runs from the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood to the Last Supper, and ultimately the Crucification and Ressurection of Jesus.

The Story on the Ceiling Is Not Complete Without the Stories Which Unfold on the Walls

In addition to the ceiling masterpieces, there are crescent-shaped areas around the windows. These areas contain tablets that show the ancestorial lineage of Christ. Appearing in the corners of the chapel are illustrations of other stories from the Bible.

The works of art on the walls, around the windows, and on the ceiling leave no blank spaces. As mentioned earlier, Michelangelo is not the only one responsible for the masterpieces of the Sistine Chapel. Among many others are included Raphael, Botticelli, Rosselli, and Ghirlandaio. While Michelangelo is given well-deserved credit, the sum of all the artists, in my humble opinion, is what makes the entire Sistine Chapel a work of art.

Over the years, there have been many restorations of the artwork in the Chapel, The most recent being in the 20th century.

With All Great Works of Art, Comes Controversy!

The restorations and the more vibrant colors used in the restorations created controversy in that the new colors were atypical of Renaissance art. Renaissance art typically uses colors that are duller in hue and tend to have a gloom over them.

One of the most controversial subjects that have come up over and over throughout history is the nudity depicted in many of the paintings. And, one of the most talked-about depictions containing nudity is The Last Judgement. This painting makes up the entire altar wall of the chapel. It was commissioned 25 years after the completion of the ceiling and done by no other than Michelangelo himself.

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The fresco not only contains many nudes but well-built, imposing figures depicting the characters of the Final Judgement. There was also a combination of mythological characters with biblical characters. Other artists, as well as The Church, were offended by the combination of well-built nudes along with mythological characters.

With Over 300 Figures painted, "The Judgement" makes up the Altar Wall of the Sistine Chapel

With Over 300 Figures painted, "The Judgement" makes up the Altar Wall of the Sistine Chapel

Another source of controversy was the entire depiction itself. Many, including The Church, felt that Michaelangelo took too much creative license with his renderings. They felt that he should have stayed closer to the typical depictions from the stories found in the Bible.

How Was the Controversy Resolved?

After the Council of Trent in 1563, it was stated that anything religious that could be viewed controversially should be avoided and/or removed. Many of Michelangelo's paintings were removed from churches. It is also thought that after his death, the depictions in the Sistine Chapel were altered (draped) to cover the nudity.

During the most recent restoration, in the 1990s, many of "the drapes" were removed. The Church felt like the original version and depictions should be available to the public for viewing. At this time, a total of 1600 drapes were removed. It makes me curious to see how the alterations altered the now-viewed masterpiece!

Some Say There Are Hidden Images/Secrets in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Paintings

A source of controversy, but to me, a source of intrigue, is that some say there are hidden figures or objects in the paintings of Michelangelo.

The altar wall adorned with 'The Final Judgement' is one example of "hidden" objects in the paintings.

Looking at the two pictures above, some say the face appearing in the skin that St. Bartholomew is holding is a self-portrait of Michelangelo. What do you think? If it truly is a self-portrait, who can blame Michelangelo for wanting to be immortalized in the Sistine Chapel? He knew he had a masterpiece in the works!

My Impressions of the Sistine Chapel

For this American Expat originally hailing from the United States Midwest, I'm not sure there are enough adjectives to describe the awe I felt standing in the space we call the Sistine Chapel! Yes, I took humanities and art appreciation while in high school and college but never really saw the depth of the masterpieces until I began traveling and doing research on my destinations. The travel has given me more perspective than in my previous classes. Maybe it's my age and experience now vs. then—I'm not sure. But, wow!

I am continually amazed at the talent that I see displayed in the form of art during my travels. I stare in wonderment at the paintings, the sculptures, the buildings. I wonder about the thought process of these talented people as they prepare to create. I wonder if, during this process, they realized hundreds and/or thousands of years later that their talent would still be on display and revered!

Now that I finally got to spend some actual time within the walls of the chapel, I want to go back again. Now that I've done more research, I want to return. Heck, I just want to go back! Yes, the 10 years, from my first quasi-visit to my real visit, were worth the wait!

Until next time friends, remember "To Travel is to Live!"


  • This page was last edited on 22 July 2022, at 15:56 (UTC)
  • (Christine Zappella, "Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed July 29, 2022,
  • public brochures Vatican City, Rome 2022

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.

© 2022 Dee Nicolou Serkin

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