The Sistine Chapel ★★★

The most famous fresco in the world: from Michelangelo's famous ceiling to his Last Judgment and the sadly overlooked walls by Perugino, Botticelli, and Signorelli

Michelangelo's God Creating Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling
Michelangelo's God Creating Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Vatican Museums—Sistine Chapel ★★★
Viale Vaticano (on the north side of the Vatican City walls, between where Via Santamaura and the Via Tunisi staircase hit Viale Vaticano; about a 5–10 minute walk around the walls from St. Peter's).
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Open Mon–Sat 9am–6pm (last entry: 4pm)
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Sights near the Sistine Chapel
*** The other Vatican Museums
*** St. Peter's Basilica
** Papal audience
* Castel Sant'Angelo

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The pinnacle of Renaissance painting and masterpiece of Michelangelo covers the ceiling and altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, the grand hall where the College of Cardinals meets to elect a new pope.

Pope Sixtus IV had the Sistine's walls frescoed with scenes from the lives of Moses (left wall) and Jesus (right wall) by the greatest masters of the early Renaissance: Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Rosselli, and Signorelli.

Perugino's Christ Handing the Keys to St.Peter on the Sistine Chapel wall
Perugino's Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter on the Sistine Chapel wall (yes, it has walls, too).
Each of these would be considered a masterpiece in its own right... if they weren't literally overshadowed by that famous ceiling.

The Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Pope Julius II had hired Michelangelo to craft a grand tomb for him, but then pulled the sculptor off the job and asked him instead to decorate the chapel ceiling—which at that time was done in the standard Heavens motif, dark blue with large gold stars.

Sistine Rules
Photography and talking are not allowed in the Sistine Chapel, which is why tour groups clot the long Hall of Maps and Hall of Tapestries leading here as their guides discuss what they're about to see, loud "SHHHHHHs!" issue regularly from hidden speakers, and everyone stands around nonchalantly trying to look like they're not holding their cameras, camera-phones, and camcorders by their waists and pointed at the ceiling to take a series of off-kilter shots.

Michelangelo complained that he was a sculptor, not a frescoist, but a papal commission cannot be ignored.

Luckily for the world, Michelangelo was too much of a perfectionist not to put his all into his work, even at tasks he didn't much care for, and he proposed to Julius that he devise a whole fresco cycle for the ceiling rather than just paint "decorations" as the contract called for.

At first Michelangelo worked with assistants as was the custom, but soon found that he was not a good team player and fired them all. And so, grumbling and irritable and working solo, he spent 1508 to 1512 daubing at the ceiling, craning his neck, arching his back, and with paint dripping in his eyes and an impatient pope looking over his shoulder.

Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling
Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. (Photo by Aaron Logan)

When the frescoes were unveiled, it was clear that they had been worth the wait. Michelangelo had turned the barrel-vaulted Sistine Chapel ceiling into a veritable blueprint for the further development of Renaissance art, inventing new ways to depict the human body, new designs for arranging scenes, and new uses of light, form, and color that would be embraced by several generations of painters.

The scenes along the middle of the ceiling are taken from the Book of Genesis and tell the stories of Creation (the first six panels) and of Noah (the last three panels, which were actually painted first and with the help of assistants).

In thematic order, they are:

These central scenes are bracketed by a painted false architecture to create a sense of deep space (the ceiling is actually nearly flat), festooned with chubby cherubs and 20 ignudi, nude male figures reaching and stretching, twisting and turning their bodies to show off their straining muscles and naked male physiques—one of Michelangelo's favorite theme, if you catch my drift.

Where the slight curve of the ceiling meets the walls, interrupted by pointed lunettes, Michelangelo ringed the ceiling with Old Testament prophets and ancient Sibyls (sacred fortune-tellers of the Classical age in whose cryptic prophecies medieval and Renaissance theologians liked to believe they found specific fortellings of the coming of Christ).

The triangular lunettes contain less impressive frescoes of the Ancestors of Christ, and the wider spandrels in each corner depict Old Testaments scenes of salvation.

A lengthy and politically charged cleaning from 1980–90 removed centuries of dirt and smoke satins from the frescoes, although the merits of the restoration are still hotly debated. The techniques used and the amount of grime—and possibly paint—taken off are bones of contention among art historians; some even maintain that later additions, detailing, or shading by Michelangelo were lost during the cleaning.

Duration: 3 hours
Cost: $318 per person

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Private viewing of the Sistine Chapel

See the Vatican as VIPs do – with this once-in-a-lifetime private Sistine Chapel viewing and tour of the Vatican Museum's secret rooms. This exclusive gives you unprecedented VIP access to the magnificent rooms usually off-limits to the public. Be awed by secret rooms like the Niccoline Chapel and the Room of Gold, and see classic sights like Raphael’s Rooms. This VIP experience includes skip-the-line entry and ends with an after-hours private viewing of the Sistine Chapel, empty except for your small group (average 10 people) and guide...

Michelangelo's Last Judgment

Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.
Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.

In 1535, at the age of 60, Michelangelo was called in to paint the entire end wall with a Last Judgment—a masterwork of color, despair, and psychology finished in 1541.

The aging master carried on the medieval tradition of representing saints holding the instruments of their martyrdom—St. Catherine carries a section of the spiked wheel with which she was tortured and executed; St. Sebastian clutches some arrows.

Look for St. Bartholomew holding his own skin and the knife used to flay it off. St. Bart's face (actually a portrait of the poet Pietro Aretino) doesn't match that of his skin's. Many hold that the droopy, almost terminally morose face on the skin is a psychological self-portrait of sorts by Michelangelo, known throughout his life to be a sulky, difficult character (and most likely a severe manic-depressive).

The master was getting old, Rome had been sacked by barbarians a few years earlier, and both he and the city were undergoing religious crises—not to mention that Michelangelo was weary after years of butting his artistic head against the whims and directives of the Church and various popes who were his patrons.

In the lower right corner is a political practical joke—there's a figure portrayed as Minos, Master of Hell, but it is in reality a portrait of Biagio di Cesena, Master of Ceremonies to the pope and a Vatican bigwig who protested violently against Michelangelo's painting all these shameless nudes here (although some of the figures were partially clothed, the majority of the masses were originally naked).

No Accounting for Taste
"Until you have seen the Sistine Chapel, you can have no adequate conception of what man is capable of accomplishing."

"The Last Judgment looks like the canvas of a fair, painted for a wrestling booth by an ignorant coal heaver."
—Guy de Maupassant

As the earlier Tuscan genius Dante had done to his political enemies in his poetic masterpiece Inferno, so Michelangelo put Cesena into his own vision of Hell, giving him jackass ears and painting in a serpent eternally biting off his testicles. Furious, Cesena demanded that the pope order the artist to paint his face out, to which a bemused Pope Paul III reportedly replied "I might have released you from Purgatory, but over Hell I have no power."

Twenty-three years and several popes later, the voices of prudence (in the form of Pope Pius IV) got their way and one of Michelangelo's protégés, Daniele da Volterra, was brought under protest in to paint bits of cloth draped over the objectionable bits of the nude figures.

These loincloths stayed modestly in place until many were removed during a recent and, yes, controversial cleaning that ended in 1994. Some critics of this restoration claim, among other things, that Michelangelo himself painted some of the cloths on after he was done and that too many were removed; other wanted all of the added draperies stripped from the work. It seems that the compromise, with the majority of figures staying clothes but a few bare bottoms uncovered, pleased nobody.

The Vatican Museums
★★★ Pinacoteca (Painting Gallery)
Papal Apartments
    ★★ Raphael Rooms
    Borgia Apartments
    Chapel of Nicholas V
★★★ Sistine Chapel
Pio-Clementine Museum
Modern Religious Art
Chiaramonti/New Wing
Gregorian Egyptian Museum
Gregorian Etruscan Museum
Gregorian Profane Museum
Pio Christian Museum
Missionary-Ethnological Museum
Vatican Gardens

One thing is for certain. Since the restorations of both the ceiling and the Last Judgment, Michelangelo's colors just pop off the wall in warm yellows, bright oranges, soft flesh-tones, and rich greens set against stark white or brilliant azure backgrounds.

Many still prefer the dramatic, broodingly somber and muddled tones of the pre-cleaning period. For all the controversy, the revelations provided by the cleanings have forced artists and art historians to reevaluate everything they thought they knew about Michelangelo's color palette, his technique, his painterly skills, and his art.


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This article was written by Reid Bramblett and was last updated in May 2013. All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 2008–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett