The Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel, located in the Apostolic Palace (or the Pope’s official residence in Vatican City), originally known as the Cappella Magna, takes its present name from Pope Sixtus IV, who had it restored between 1477 and 1480. The chapel’s rectangular shape, measuring 134 feet long by 44 feet wide, matches the dimensions of the Temple of Solomon as given in the Old Testament. A marble screen, which currently divides the chapel into two parts, originally made equal space both within the sanctuary (for Papal attendants) and without (for pilgrims and townsfolk); however, this was later moved in order to reduce the area for the general public.

The chapel’s first claim to fame lies in it being the site of the Papal conclave, the process by which a new pope is selected. On such an occasion, a chimney is installed in the chapel’s roof, from which either white or black smoke arises as a signal. If white, as created by the burning of ballots, this means that a new Pope has been elected. However, if a candidate receives less than 2/3 of the vote, black smoke is sent up, created by burning the ballots along with wet straw and other additives, meaning that there has not been a successful election yet. The first such conclave was held here in 1492, resulting in the election of Pope Alexander VI, also known as Rodrigo Borja.

The chapel is equally well known, however, for the frescoes which adorn it. Although several other Renaissance painters (including Botticelli, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Ghirlandaio and Rosselli) all have works inside the chapel, depicting the Life of Moses and the Life of Christ, Michelangelo’s famous ceiling and his depiction of The Last Judgment, over the rear altar, are by far the most revered.

Under the patronage of Pope Julius II, between 1508 and 1512, Michelangelo painted the chapel’s influential ceiling which changed the course of Western art and is widely regarded as one of civilization’s major artistic accomplishments. After the Sack of Rome (1527) but before the Council of Trent (1545), from 1535 to 1541, Michelangelo returned to paint The Last Judgment for Popes Clement VII and Paul III. Originally, Michelangelo was commissioned to merely repaint the vault, or ceiling, of the chapel, which at the time was painted with golden stars on a blue sky. However, intimidated by the scale of the commission, and being that he felt himself to be more of a sculptor than a painter, he almost declined the commission. In painting the ceiling, he used bright colors easily visible from the floor. The lowest part features the ancestors of Christ. Above this are depicted alternating male and female prophets. And on the highest section are painted stories from the Book of Genesis, including the Creation, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the Great Flood. In total, there are well over 5,000 square of frescoes.

The Last Judgement, which spans the entire back wall, depicts the second coming of Christ on the Day of Judgment as described in the Revelation of John. It features the heroic figure of Christ, surrounded by saints, along with the dead who are being raised from their graves for judgement. Some, after being assigned to Hell, are dragged down by demons. Because he depicted naked figures, Michelangelo was accused of immorality and obscenity and a censorship campaign (or “fig-leaf campaign”) was begun to remove the frescoes. In response to this, he worked a semblance of the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, into the scene as the judge of the underworld. Despite complaints from da Cesena, the Pope allowed the portrait to remain, responding that “his jurisdiction did not extend to hell”. On the flayed skin held by St. Bartholomew, Michelangelo even painted his own portrait!

In 1984, the Sistine Chapel’s decade-long ceiling restoration began, re-opening to the public in 1994.  The emergence of the brightly colored figures from the gloom, however, sparked fear that the cleaning processes were too severe, removing the artist’s original intent. Given Michelangelo’s process, namely of finishing his paintings while the frescoes were still wet and not touching them up later, it was decided that all of the glue, wax, smoke deposits, and earlier restoration attempts would be stripped away, leaving only the original paint-impregnated plaster.

In Mexico City, from June to mid-July in 2016, a full-size architectural and photographic replica of the entire chapel was on view. It took 2.6 million high-def photos to reproduce the entirety of the chapels frescoes and tapestries!

  • Visited: May 1988, April 2016

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