Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel, a nondescript, bland-looking building from the outside, located only a few metres from St Peter’s Basilica, was originally built as a sanctuary – a necessary precaution for popes who ruled over the Papal States at the time, and who had many enemies with large armies ready to conquer the Vatican City and Rome. 

The chapel takes its name from the pope who built it – Sixtus IV (it is not to be found between the 15th and 17th chapels!). Although Sixtus had the chapel built, it would be his nephew, Pope Julius II, who would commission the famous frescoes of Michelangelo that are still admired to this day by thousands of daily visitors. 

Sixtus did commission some of the greatest artists of the early Renaissance to decorate the walls with frescoes – Perugino and Ghirlandaio ran art schools and tutored the great Raphael and Michelangelo, respectively, but were great artists in their own rights, as was Botticelli. The walls were decorated with scenes from the Life of Moses along one side, and scenes from the life of Christ on the opposite walls, intended to show the similarities in the stories of the patriarchs of the Old and New Testaments, and as one narrative runs into the other, the motif would indicate to worshippers attending the chapel the continuation of the Old Testament into the New. Below these scenes were curtains painted in trompe l’oeil, and above them the vast ceiling was decorated as a dark blue sky spangled with many golden stars – a traditional way to decorate vaulted ceilings at that time.

In 1508, Julius II decided to have the vault redecorated, and commissioned a 33-year-old Michelangelo for the job. The reluctant artist spent 4 uncomfortable years decorating the vast vault with an original theme of his own design, scenes from the book of Genesis. The most iconic of these, the Creation of Adam, depicts the moment after God has breathed life into Adam – and Michelangelo’s intimate knowledge of the human form, attained by performing his own autopsies on the remains of Florence’s unfortunates, has led art historians and students to identify several intriguing depictions of human organs and muscles in these panels – many of which had not been identified or named at that time. This attention to detail – along with several tongue-in-cheek private jokes which Michelangelo, knowing that many details in his 40-foot ceiling, would be missed from the ground, included in his scenes – make this ceiling a marvel to dissect and study, making a proper tour with an expert local art historian a must!

If Michelangelo was reluctant to paint the ceiling between 1508 and 1512, he was even less excited at the prospect of returning to paint the wall behind the altar, which he was commissioned to do in 1534, and completed in 1541, at the age of 67. A tired, aged Michelangelo held nothing back in his depiction of Christ’s second coming, with another masterpiece of muscular images of corpses rising from their graves, many with pained, doomed expressions as they descend towards hell, while others rise towards heaven, where we see a youthful and muscular Jesus surrounded by Saints and Marytyrs. Michelangelo, never one for self-flattery, includes his self-portrait in the flayed skin of Saint Bartholomew.

There are a great many details in the Sistine Chapel that would be missed by the casual visitor, so a guided tour with a knowledgeable guide is highly recommended. 

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