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  • Joanne Herd

10 things you (probably) don’t know about the Sistine Chapel

Updated December 6, 2023

The Sistine Chapel (or Cappella Sistina as it's known in Italian) is one of the most famous landmarks of Rome, attracting more visitors than a gelato stand on a hot summer day.

And why wouldn't it?

Most people visit to take in Michelangelo's stunning ceiling frescoes, and for good reason. The frescoes in the Sistine Chapel are intricate and breathtaking, with so much to absorb that you could spend hours gazing at them.

Even if you think you know everything there is to know about the Sistine Chapel, I guarantee you don't. Unless you're an art historian who specializes in Michelangelo. Then you probably do.

In college I had the opportunity to spend a semester studying art history in Florence. One of the courses I took focused entirely on the works of Michelangelo. Two of the works we studied were the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, as well as the later fresco he painted of the Last Judgment.

There's nothing like learning about a work, and then being able to go see it in person with a professor who has dedicated so much of their life to the subject.

Unfortunately, most people don't get to have an experience like I did. That's why I've put together this list of 10 things you (probably) don't know about this magnificent chapel.

Hopefully the next time you see it you’ll know a bit more about what it took to create this masterpiece.

Michelangelo isn't the only artist with frescoes in the chapel

Pope Sixtus IV (who the Sistine Chapel is named for) commissioned several artists to paint frescoes in the Sistine Chapel as the building was in its final stages of construction.

The side walls depict events from the life of Christ and the life of Moses, while between the windows smaller frescoes depict various popes. These works were completed by some of the most famous artists of the day, including Pietro Perugino, Pinturiccio, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Cosimo Rosselli.

Even before Michelangelo’s frescoes were added, the Sistine chapel was already one of the most stunning rooms in the Apostolic Palace.

The Sistine Chapel wasn't intended as a place of public worship

When Pope Sixtus IV began construction of the chapel, it was never intended to be viewed and enjoyed by the public. Instead, it was intended to be the private Papal Chapel, only for the Pope and select others to worship in.

Built in the heart of Vatican City between 1475 and 1483, the chapel is believed to have its design based on the biblical Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Today it is not only one of the most visited sites in Rome, it’s also the scene of the Papal Conclave, where a new pope is elected by the College of Cardinals in a sacred and historic ritual.

Michelangelo didn't have experience painting in fresco

An intricate and detailed ceiling fresco painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. The painting features various biblical scenes and figures, including the iconic image of God creating Adam.
The Sistine Chapel Ceiling Frescoes

Twenty years (and three popes) after the death of Pope Sixtus IV, Pope Julius II was appointed. One of the most enduring legacies of his 10-year reign was his commissioning of 33-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti, best known up to that point as a sculptor, to paint the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo worked on the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel ceiling for four years, from 1508 to 1512, although there were frequent interruptions to his work.

Prior to his work in the chapel, Michelangelo had little-to-no experience painting in fresco. While he had planned to paint a large fresco in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio, that project never came to fruition and the idea was later abandoned.

Fresco is a unique and challenging medium, which requires artists to paint directly onto fresh (fresco in Italian) plaster, which then dries and seals in the pigment. An artist can only fresco a small area at a time, since once the plaster begins to dry it can no longer be painted. If too much area is plastered at a time the artist has to chisel off the dried plaster and start again.

It is one of the most temperamental mediums for an artist to work in, and undertaking a work of this size must have been daunting indeed!

Consider that the figure of Adam, one of the most famous and recognizable figures on the ceiling, took 4 days to paint. An entire day was required for the head alone, another day for the arms and torso, and a day for each leg.

Over 300 figures, both sacred and secular, are included on the ceiling

Part of what makes the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel so unique is the incredible scope of the work Michelangelo created.

The ceiling is large, with over 12,000 square feet of surface to be painted. It's also a complex space, with pendentives (sail-shaped areas) in each corner, as well as the smaller triangular spaces, or spandrels, above each window.

What design could possibly take all those spaces into account, and create a harmonious final product?

Michelangelo found a solution by creating individual paintings, each separated by what look like architectural elements, but actually all painted. In the end he created over 150 separate pictures, with more than 300 individual figures.

The nine central panels, which cover the largest portion of the ceiling, are all scenes from the Old Testament. These are the most famous frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, with the Creation of Adam being one of the most famous paintings of the Renaissance.

Some of Michelangelo's most interesting subject choices can be found along the curved portions of the ceiling. Many Biblical prophets are depicted, such as Jonah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Isaiah. But alongside the biblical prophets you'll find five female figures.

These figures are pagan sibyls, or prophetesses, namely the Persian Sibyl, Erythraean Sibyl, Delphic Sibyl, Cumaean Sibyl, and Libyan Sibyl.

It may seem strange at first to see pagan sibyls in a chapel, much less in the Cappella Magna, or “Great Chapel" of the Catholic Church.

But during the Renaissance there was a fascination with the lost wisdom of the pagan sibyls. Theologians like St. Augustine had even “christianized” these sibyls by declaring them to be foretellers of the coming of Christ, who helped prepare the pagan world in the same way the Biblical prophets prepared the Jewish people.

There are four additional Old Testament scenes painted in the large corner pendentives, and the ancestors of Christ, another unusual choice of subject matter, are pictured in the triangular spandrels over the windows.

In addition to these figures, there are dozens of others pictured in the painted architectural elements of the ceiling, giving hundreds of figures in total, each with details that you could spend hours studying.

For several centuries the ceiling was believed to lack vibrancy and depth

Prior to the 1980s and 1990s, the Sistine ceiling was considered beautiful, but a bit lacking in vibrancy and depth. The colors were believed to be muted, leaving viewers a bit underwhelmed.

But a monumental restoration project, completed between 1980 and 1999, changed that perception and revealed a new side to Michelangelo's iconic frescos.

During the restoration, layers of grime, soot and other deposits were meticulously removed from the paintings. This buildup was mainly due to centuries of candles being burned to light the room. As a result of the restoration, the true colors of the frescoes were finally revealed, and they were far more vivid than expected.

In addition to restoring the colors of the paintings, the restoration project also undid the work of Pope Pius IV, who had ordered fig leaves and loincloths to be added to nude figures in the 1560s.

The nudity was considered inappropriate at the time. However, the restoration team chose to remove these additions, allowing the original depictions of the human form to be fully appreciated.

This decision was met with controversy, but it ultimately allowed for a more accurate and authentic presentation of Michelangelo's vision for the Sistine Chapel. Today, the restored frescoes are celebrated as some of the most stunning and awe-inspiring works of art in the world.

Michelangelo didn't paint lying down

In order to paint the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel while the chapel was still in use, Michelangelo had to create a unique, arched scaffolding that was anchored into the upper portions of the walls of the chapel. This allowed the floor to remain open for regular use.

There was room for Michelangelo and his team of assistants to stand and paint overhead. The idea of Michelangelo lying on his back to paint came from Charlton Heston's portrayal of the artist in the 1965 movie “The Agony and the Ecstasy”, but it isn't based in reality.

This arched scaffolding, once fully assembled, allowed access to half the ceiling, while also serving to block the work in progress from prying eyes on the ground below.

However, this scaffolding also meant something else.

Michelangelo, the inexperienced frescoist, didn't see the first half of his work from the ground level until it was completed and the scaffolding was disassembled so it could be moved and work could continue.

Once he had a chance to look at the paintings from the floor, he realized something important. The scenes he'd painted were too busy, with too many small figures, and couldn't really be appreciated.

That's why the second half of the ceiling, the side closest to the altar that includes the famous Creation of Adam, is completely different from the scenes depicted in the earlier panels, like The Flood.

Instead of the multitude of figures that you find in The Flood, the scenes painted later are simple, with just one or two figures. Not only did this make them much easier to see from the floor, it also made them much faster to paint.

Work on the first half of the ceiling began in October of 1508 and was unveiled in May of 1511, having been completed in about 2.5 years. The second half took closer to a year, having been started in 1511 and completed in 1512.

The Last Judgment was started almost 25 years after the ceiling was completed

A large and powerful fresco painted by Michelangelo on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. The painting depicts the second coming of Christ and the final judgment of souls, with figures of saints, angels, and the damned being drawn up to heaven or cast down to hell. The central figure of Christ dominates the scene, with outstretched arms and a stern expression.
Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" fresco

Michelangelo completed his work on the ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in 1512, when he was only 37. He thought (or hoped) that he was done with the chapel at that point.

But 24 years later, in 1536, he returned on commission of Pope Clement VII to fresco the wall behind the altar with a scene of The Last Judgment.

This work, which took nearly as long as the entire ceiling, is incredibly complex and made up of hundreds of individual features. They look almost like they're actually moving, with some ascending towards heaven and others descending towards hell.

While it is a beautiful and technically masterfully executed painting, it was controversial even before it was finished. Many viewers were offended by the depiction of nude figures, especially in such a sacred location behind the altar.

The result was the covering of the nude figures with loincloths and fig leaves that was undertaken in the 1560s by order of Pope Pius IV. These coverings were removed during the restoration in the 1980s and 1990s, allowing us to see the fresco today as Michelangelo painted it.

Michelangelo wanted nothing to do with the Sistine Chapel ceiling

A large marble sculpture of Moses by Michelangelo, located in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. The sculpture depicts Moses seated, holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments with his right hand and pointing upwards with his left hand. Moses is shown with muscular arms and intense facial expression, conveying the strength and determination of this biblical figure.
Michelangelo's "Moses" on the tomb of Julius II

In 1508, at 33 years old, Michelangelo was in the midst of another papal project. Pope Julius II had commissioned him to carve a spectacular and monumental tomb, which Michelangelo felt was much more in line with his talents, and would also be a more publicly accessible work.

He saw himself primarily as a sculptor, and had no desire to waste his time and talents painting the ceiling of a chapel that would only be seen by the pope and cardinals.

But he found himself unable to continue the tomb as funding dried up, and was forced to take the commission for the less-desirable Sistine Chapel project.

The tomb, which stands in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains), was eventually finished in 1545, but the scale was dramatically smaller than originally planned. The most spectacular and famous of the Michelangelo sculptures on the tomb is the figure of Moses.

You can't take photos or videos inside the chapel

The Sistine Chapel is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Rome, with over 5 million visitors every year. Despite its popularity, visitors are not allowed to take photos or videos inside the chapel.

The original reason for this ban has nothing to do with the sacredness of the site or the protection of the frescos in the Sistine Chapel from damage due to flash photography.

Instead, it was entirely due to commercial reasons.

During the massive restoration project that took place between 1980 and 1999, Vatican officials were in need of outside companies to fund the project. The Nippon Television Corporation of Japan offered 4 million dollars, the largest contribution, to help with the restoration.

In return they were given full rights to photography and filming of the restored masterpieces, with the rights set to expire three years after each restored section was completed.

However, when the rights expired, Vatican officials chose to leave the ban in place to limit the amount of damage done by flash photography.

While it's disappointing to some people that they can't take photos, I think it's actually a great thing.

If you really want to see what the frescoes look like you can easily find photos. But too often taking a photo becomes a “check the box” activity. “I've got the photo, let's move on! What's next?”

When you're in the Sistine Chapel, you aren't looking at the frescoes through the screen of your phone or the viewfinder of your camera. Instead, you're actually there, physically and mentally. You have time to take a breath, absorb the history of the location and the masterpieces surrounding you, and be fully immersed in the moment.

Is there really any greater gift than being fully present, in the moment, and in the presence of such beauty?

The Sistine Chapel, despite its size, is not Michelangelo's largest work in The Vatican

In 1546, at the age of 71, Michelangelo returned once again to what we now know as Vatican City. This time the commission came from Pope Paul III, and it became the greatest and largest commission of his life, taking his final 18 years before his death at the age of 88.

His assignment: To take the disaster of a project that was St Peter’s Basilica, started 40 years earlier, and turn it into a building worthy of being the center of Christendom.

While not known primarily as an architect, Michelangelo had in fact been a self-taught architect since his 40s. He had designed projects like the Laurentian Library and the New Sacristy for the Medici in Florence.

Michelangelo approached architecture with the eyes of a sculptor, creating elegant structures that seem to rise effortlessly from the ground. It was these eyes that allowed him to design the beautiful dome of St. Peter's, which became the model for nearly every dome since, from St. Paul's Cathedral in London to The US Capitol in Washington, DC.

Through the design of St. Peter's, Michelangelo cemented his place as one of the greatest artists, architects, and sculptors of the Renaissance, and possibly in all of history.

The bottom line

The Sistine Chapel is a masterpiece of art and architecture that continues to inspire and awe visitors from around the world. From its stunning frescoes to its intricate design, the chapel represents the pinnacle of Renaissance art, and is a testament to human creativity and ingenuity.

The next time you visit the Sistine Chapel, or simply gaze upon its images from afar, take a moment to reflect on the incredible history and artistry that it represents.

Are you looking for more Italy travel inspiration? Check out our other Rome travel blog posts!


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