The Sistine Chapel, in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope, is one of Rome’s most popular and prized historic sites. Set within the Vatican City and Museums, it welcomes around 25,000 visitors a day. The world-famous ceiling frescoes by Michelangelo are of course the main attraction, forming masterpieces of astonishing beauty and magnificence. However, beyond the brilliance of Michelangelo, the more than 500-year-old Sistine Chapel also boasts the exquisite artworks of other eminent Renaissance painters, like Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Cosimo Rosselli. So without further ado, let us take a gander at ten incredible things you should know about the Sistine Chapel.
Vital Statistics –
The measurements of the Sistine Chapel take an interesting route of inspiration. According to most accounts, the rectangular building with its relatively unadorned exterior facades has its ‘length’ as the basic unit of measurement. To that end, this length (which is around 40.9 m or 134 ft) is divided by three to get the width (13.4 m or 44 ft), and divided by two to get the height (20.5 m or 67 ft). This scope of dimensions, in turn, is possibly directly inspired by the measurements of the biblical Temple of Solomon, as is exactly mentioned in the Old Testament.
1) Sistine Chapel was built upon existing fortifications –
The Sistine Chapel was originally built on the site of the ‘Cappella Magna‘ – a fortified hall from the medieval times that was mainly used for assemblies by the Papal Court. However, Pope Sixtus IV (or Sixtus IV della Rovere) decided to build a large room where this hall stood, and this spatial development was known as the Sistine Chapel – named after its patron pope.
This construction for this grand chapel started in 1477 AD, and its design was to have the same defensive considerations as its predecessor building. This translated to the avoidance of a processional front door – which denies access to the chapel except through the adjoining Apostolic Palace (the official residence of the Pope). Such fortifying measures were adopted because of the political tension between the influential Medici family (the de facto rulers of Florence) and the Papacy. Furthermore, many regions of Italy were still threatened by the encroaching forces of Ottoman Turks, who were ruled by the enigmatic Mehmed II – the very same emperor who conquered Constantinople in 1453 AD and renamed it Istanbul.
2) There was more to the Sistine Chapel beyond Michelangelo, including a ‘starry’ ceiling –
While the brilliant artwork by Michelangelo serves as the crowning glory of the Sistine Chapel, there was a slew of other renowned artists who worked on the famed building. The architectural and design elements included the marble screen (or transenna) by the team of by Mino da Fiesole, Andrea Bregno, and Giovanni Dalmata; the side-wall frescoes by the workshops of Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino and Cosimo Roselli; and tapestries designed by Raphael himself (but these original ones were burnt when Rome was looted in 1527 AD).
However, the ‘piece de resistance’ of the scope must have pertained to the creation of the Umbrian artist Piermatteo d’Amelia. This encompassed an entire ceiling with its evocative blue paint – studded with an array of golden gilded stars, and bordered by embellished details of the pendentives. But this incredibly expansive scene was then painted over by Michelangelo, under the directives of the Pope himself.
3) The irony of Michelangelo’s masterpiece –
To simply put it – Michelangelo was averse to painting as he considered himself a sculptor at heart. So, he wasn’t very pleased at first on receiving the commission. However, Pope Sixtus IV egged the great artist on by giving him the opportunity to also sculpt a massive Moses sculpture (which is presently kept in the church of Saint Peter in Vincoli, Rome). This allowed the pope to gain the leverage over Michelangelo, thus eventually tricking him into the painting commission that ultimately evolved into the famed frescoes of the Sistine Chapel.
In spite of his later reconciliation with the grandiose artworks at the chapel, Michelangelo still hated his ceiling painting job – so much so that he wrote an epic poem to his friend Giovanni da Pistoiahow complaining about how he had “grown a goiter from this torture” and his “stomach’s squashed under my chin”. But the artist still managed to complete this ‘torturous’ endeavor by actually standing on his own designed scaffolding platforms – as opposed to the popular notion of Michelangelo painting his frescoes by lying on his back.
4) God was given a face complemented by a ‘bigger brain’ –
The familiar trope of God with his flourishing white beard was given a significant boost by Michelangelo’s depiction of God in the famous fresco of ‘The Creation of Adam’ along the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The artist was passively aided by the relatively lax attitude of Christianity (among Abrahamic faiths) that allows God to be depicted in a humanoid form. This old man representation of the omnipotent entity has since become archetypal, with numerous similar or inspired portrayals even found in today’s popular culture.
However, arguably more interesting is the outline of a brain-like shape (comprising the red cloth) encompassing the background of God and other figures. According to a study by a noted American physician Frank Meshberger (which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association), this shape appears to be an accurate illustration of the human brain, with the representation supposedly co-relating with parts like the brain stem, the frontal lobe, the basilar artery, and even the major sulci of the cerebrum. Another alternative theory suggests that this red cloth represents a human uterus. In any case, the fascinating portraiture does allude to Michelangelo’s penchant for visually recreating human anatomy.
5) Michelangelo returned after 22 years to complete the other fresco of the Sistine Chapel –
Regarding the ‘The Creation of Adam’ fresco, the white-bearded portrayal of God was painted at last after four years of hard work. This was because Michelangelo wanted to temper his evolving fresco technique before dealing with the main subject matter of the scene. Now in terms of history, this work of art was finished in November of 1512 AD, and the genius artist thought at last that his painstaking job was done.
However, Michelangelo had to return again after 22 long years (in 1535 AD) to complete his other masterpiece inside the chapel – ‘The Last Judgment’; this time on a commission from a different pope, Paul III Farnese. Historically, these 22 years saw quite a few political and military upheavals in Rome and the Vatican, namely the disastrous Sacking of Rome by the mercenary forces of the Holy Roman Empire in 1527 AD (during which Sistine Chapel was harmed).
To that end, the ‘The Last Judgment’ completed in 1541 AD served as an impressive testament to the reinstated grandeur of the Roman Catholic seat of power, especially with the commencement of the Council of Trent in 1545 AD – which was one of the most important ecumenical councils prompted by the rise of the Protestant movements. Ironically, during the end phase of this council in 1563 AD, the nudes in Michelangelo’s masterpiece were deemed obscene, and as such were covered up by painting over with fig leaves, draped clothing, plants, and animals.
6) Saint Bartholomew holding Michelangelo?
As we mentioned before, the other great painting by Michelangelo inside Sistine Chapel pertains to ‘The Last Judgment’ on the altar wall. As the name suggests, the fresco depicts a scene from the Revelation of John: Chapter 20 that majorly relates to the second coming of Christ on the Day of Judgment. In accordance with this cataclysmic event, the portraiture is given a grand overview – with the heroic figure of Christ being centered in the middle of the frame, while the dead are raised from their graves in the left, and the souls assigned to Hell is depicted in the right. Interestingly, Michelangelo included his self-portrait twice in this magnificent work of art – with one pertaining to a figure watching the dead rise on the lower-left corner of the fresco.
The other self-portrait can be a bit ‘disturbing’, with Saint Bartholomew holding a flayed skin with presumably Michelangelo’s face. This certainly alludes to the gruesome manner that Bartholomew himself was said to be martyred (according to some popular traditions) – by being flayed alive in Armenia. In any case, as we mentioned in the earlier entry, beyond brutal depictions, Michelangelo was also accused of obscenity by Cardinal Carafa (who later became Pope Paul IV) and Biagio da Cesena (who was Pope’s Master of Ceremonies), because of the presence of the so many nude figures in the painting. The artist, however, took his ‘revenge’ by portraying a nude and horned Minos, judge of the underworld, in the likeness of da Cesena.
7) The resilience of the frescoes –
Quite intriguingly, the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes of Michelangelo and others have stood the test of time and degradation in a pretty convincing manner, with their almost preserved scenes surviving ‘naturally’ for around 500 years. In other words, the paintings have withstood the great historical events ranging from the Protestant Reformation, Industrial Revolution, Napoleonic Wars, to the Victorian Age, World Wars and the Moon Landing. However ‘Noah’ was not so lucky, with the depiction of his escaping the great flood, still missing from the ceiling. This is because the plaster panel on which the biblical scene was represented, fell on the floor and shattered – due to the reverberation caused by a nearby explosion in a gunpowder depot in 1797 AD.
8) Touched-up and undressed (once again) –
A grand restoration work commenced from 1984 and ended in 1994 to refurbish the entire ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This delicate and extensive process involved many art-experts and specialists. Ultimately they were successful in removing layers of grime, soot and other intrusive deposits like automotive exhausts and even bacteria – thus resulting in significantly brightened scenes (see above image). In fact, this led to a concern that some paintings were perhaps given too much of a glistening makeover (by severe cleaning) that might have gone beyond their originally intended effect. To put it simply, some experts were concerned about the aggressive form of restoring the scenes, as opposed to conserving them.
In any case, Michelangelo seemingly had his sweet revenge after more than 400 years, with the restoration works undoing the covering-up job of the late 16th century. This resulted in the removal of many a loin cloth and fig leaf, which lead to the ‘conserving’ of the original nudes.
9) Election of Pope and ‘room of tears’
Considering all the facts that we have gone through till now, suffice it to say, the Sistine Chapel proudly stands as an important bastion of history and art within the Vatican State. But beyond its flourishing frescoes and austere architecture, the chapel itself serves one of the most crucial religious purposes, and that relates to the election of the pope. This meticulous process involves the gathering and subsequent voting by the College of Cardinals – a major event for Roman Catholicism that has been taking place inside the Sistine Chapel since 1492 AD. In accordance with this tradition, a specially designed chimney of the building conveys the voting statuses, with white smoke signifying that a new pope has been elected; and dark smoke signifying that no candidate has yet received the required two-thirds majority.
Interestingly, once a new pope is elected, he is allowed to privately retire into an adjacent ‘room of tears’ to don his new pontifical choir robes. The small red room is given this nickname because of the intense emotions and the presumable tears of joy that the candidate is expected to have after winning the election.
10) Honorable Mention – Astronomical visitor count
Sistine Chapel is probably Vatican City’s most popular tourist destination, and as such the building attracts an astronomical five million people on an annual basis (which is almost equal to the population of Norway!). This translates to around 25,000 visitors per day, and over 80 million euros generated in revenues per year – from the entry fees collected by the admission of the myriad tourists.
But beyond just numbers, the sheer magnitude of foot traffic and humidity (from sweat) from such high volumes of visitors might have its adverse effect on the Sistine Chapel structure and frescoes. To that end, one of the protective measures entails the prohibition of photography inside the chapel during visiting times. Furthermore, the Vatican authorities have taken the conservation and security scope to yet another level by even scanning the high-level cardinals for bugs, when they make their way into the building during various papal conclaves.
Now, in case you are one of those ‘speed readers’, you can also take a gander at this nifty little infographic compiled by the resourceful folk over at OMNIA –
Featured Image Source: CityLightsTours