Planning a visit to the Vatican City & Museums in Rome to see the Sistine Chapel and want to know more about what you’re looking at? It’s is a great first step to truly understanding the masterpiece of masterpieces. This article details the top things you should see in the Sistine Chapel and why they are so important so you can add depth and meaning to your trip.
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Top Things to See in the Sistine Chapel
You cool look at the Sistine Chapel as “one thing to see” but you could say that for the Vatican Museums as a whole and it would be a gross generalization. The Sistine Chapel is the masterpiece of masterpieces and has been dissected (figuratively) by the whos who of the art community for 500+ years. The fact is that there are many things to see inside the Sistine Chapel and you are on a road to figure that out.
1. The Sistine Chapel
This chapel needs no introduction. Originally named Capella Magna ( Great Chapel) it was restored by Pope Sixtus IV (pontiff from 1471 to 1484) in 1480. Sixtus IV had famous early Renaissance artists who lived a generation before Michelangelo and Raphael to paint the fake draperies, the life of Moses and Christ ( side walls), and the popes ( above the windows) Sixtus’ nephew, Julius II had Michelangelo in turn paint the ceiling in 1508.
In 1533 Clement VII commissioned Michelangelo again to paint the back wall with the Last Judgement.
Did you think that was it? C’mon guys this is the ultimate guide. I will now go into detail about each segment. Stay with me!
2. The Ceiling
Julius’ decision to repaint the ceiling probably had to do with structural damage done during the excavations for the Borgia Tower and the new St. Peter’s Basilica. At the time, Michelangelo was working on the Pope’s tomb and seemed to be quite content with this.
The Artist- Michelangelo
As the story goes, Bramante who was upset with Michelangelo for a previous slight suggested to the Pope that Michelangelo should pain the ceiling even though he was a sculptor and not a painter. Julius agreed and pretty much against Michelangelo’s will, he signed the contract to paint the ceiling. The original design was to be the twelve apostles, but after Michelangelo objected, Julius put the design in the Master’s hands and the rest is history.
Michelangelo had many problems/hardships going into this job. Let’s name a few so you get an idea:
- He was a Sculptor, not a painter
- He had to paint in fresco but had never really painted in this medium, so basically his first attempt at fresco painting becomes the most famous painting in the world
- He had to build his own scaffolding first to even reach the ceiling which was 60ft high
- Since he was a perfectionist, he basically painted the entire thing by himself
- No centralized heating, so he complained of stifling heat in the summer and numbing cold in the winter
- Developed an eye disease during the painting, which only went away once he finished the ceiling years later
The ceiling is broken down into Central Panels, Sibyls and Prophets, Christ’s forefathers, 4 corner stories.
3. Central Panels
The central panels of the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo depicts the early stages of the Universe’s creation as defined by Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Dogma. It is a shared chapter of the sacred book titled Genesis which details the creation of all things – again, according to dogma. It is arguably the most influential chapter of any book in Western Civilization.
While many today rely on science to solve the mystery of the world’s creation, in the 15th century when Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel there were very few that looked to science. You have to imagine that Michelangelo took this very seriously for two reasons. First, most people couldn’t read and therefore art was the ideal way to explain the story of the bible. Not that the Sistine Chapel would become a public venue in his lifetime – it most certainly did not, but artists almost always took that part of their job into consideration. They were commissioned to translate the text into a form that everyone could understand.
The second reason he took it so seriously was the significance of Genesis on humanity. Today, many people are searching for greater reasons for existence and purpose as science “un-answers” some of our most important questions that religions had successfully pinned down for thousands of years. How did we get here? God made us in his likeness. What are we supposed to do? Be good and charitable like Jesus. Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel by Pope Sixtus, someone who according to dogma has a direct line to the Almighty, to depict how we arrived on Earth and our purpose on the ceiling of the most important of all chapels. The outcome is puts truth to how seriously he took this commission. A religious person would say it was God who painted through Michelangelo considering he hit a grand slam on his first ever fresco – yes, the Sistine Chapel ceiling was Michelangelo’s first fresco.
4. Separation of Light from Darkness:
While we take this for granted, imagine how epic it actually was to separate these two entities? Before there was just a big jumble of nothing and then BOOM- We have both light and darkness. Here god is shown in a twisting motion separating Light from Darkness.
5. Creation of the sun, moon, and planets
Michelangelo combines the 3rd and 4th days of Genesis here with him creating the vegetation in the left panel and with a commanding gesture and serious face, creates on the right-hand side the moon and the sun.
6. Separation of Land from Sea
Flying up high in the sky, God separates the waters from the land itself. Like the painting above in separating light from darkness, this is another epic moment in time. Imagine the world before this event happening- it would have been complete chaos!
7. Creation of Man
One of the most famous and reproduced paintings on the planet is Michelangelo’s Creation of Man. God is breathing life into Adam who is in a reclining position and embodies the perfection as described in the old testament of a man being an imitation of God himself.
A magical enigma here is that the hands between the two almost touch, but don’t. Many art historians point to this painting as having significant allegorical connotations between Michelangelo and his Father. Their relationship had always been very rocky due to the fact that his father never truly approved of his profession. In not allowing their hands to touch he shows his father’s dissatisfaction with him.
8. Creation of Eve from the Body of Adam
In the book of Genesis you have the following about the creation of Eve:
“So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.
Here you see Eve springing to life from what looks like a sleeping Adam as God beckons her to him.
9. Banishment from the Garden of Eden
Michelangelo shows two scenes here with the first scene on the left side interpreting original sin. In this scene they young, healthy, and beautiful. They are still perfect beings without any sense of shame or wrongdoing. The serpent is in the tree and suggests to Eve that they eat the forbidden fruit. Eve tells adam to eat it and in doing so they have disobeyed God.
At that point, the scene on the right shows what happens next. First of all, they become aware of their nudity and of the fact that they are humans. They are therefore banished from the garden of Eden and the contrast in their figures from those on the left is astounding. They have horror in their eyes and the expression on their face explains exactly how one would feel who is banished from paradise. Michelangelo would have been heavily influenced in this painting from the artist Masaccio whose painting the Master would have seen in the Brancacci chapel in Florence.
10. The Sacrifice of Noah
In the bible it says- Noah built an altar to the Lord; he took one of each kind of ritually clean animal and bird and burned them whole as a sacrifice on the altar. 21 The odor of the sacrifice pleased the Lord
In biblical chronology, this actually happens after the flood, but it is probable that Michelangelo wanted more space for the Flood, since that painting was to be such an epic scene and there this was put before. The story is of sacrifice to god after surviving the flood as mentioned above.
11. The Flood
In the bible it reads-Now the flood was on the earth forty days. The waters increased and lifted up the ark, and it rose high above the earth.
God decided to create a flood for 40 days and nights to destroy all the evil in the world and commanded Noah to build an ark of gopher wood and grab a pair of all animals. Michelangelo displays this epic event not only of the ark, but also of various vain attempts of others to survive, either by climbing up a hill or scrambling onto a boat. In the end, they will all perish except Noah’s ark.
12. The Drunkenness of Noah
In the bible it says-When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside.
In this last panel, Noah planted the grapevine and created wine from which he got drunk and fell asleep. His one son mocked him, while his two other sons cover up his nakedness without looking at him.
Interesting note: For the best viewpoint of the entire ceiling, after you walk into the Chapel, go all the way to the opposite side from where you came in, and there you will enjoy the best viewpoint. You will also notice that the 3 paintings of Noah were actually the first 3 Michelangelo worked on, so he had made them too crowded and the figures too small Compare these three with the other 6 and you will see a huge difference.
13. Sibyls and Prophets
The Prophets represented here are taken from the old testament and foretold the coming of Jesus. The Sibyls were ancient, Pagan priestesses, who due to their gift of foretelling the future, extended the wait for Redemption from the chosen people to all mankind. Starting from the entrance of the Sistine Chapel when you enter:
- Libyan Sibyl
- Prophet Daniel
- Cumaean Sibyl
- Prophet Isaiah
- Delphic Sibyl
- Prophet Zechariah
- Prophet Joel
- Erythrean Sibyl
- Prophet Ezekiel
- Persian Sibyl
- Prophet Jeremiah
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14. Four Corner Stories
These four stories speak about episodes that saved the people of Israel. They are a testament to the constant vigil of God over his people and the promise of eventual redemption. They are placed here in the corners as meeting points for the stories on the ceiling and those of the walls.
- Judith and Holofernes- According to the bible, the city of Bethulia was being besieged by the Babylonian king Nabucodonosor. To save her city, Judith came to his tent in the night and when he was overcome with wine, she cut his head off. She then put his head on a plate and showed it to his soldiers and in doing so saved her city. Michelangelo breaks this up into 3 scenes of the sleeping guards, the head on a plate, and the beheaded King.
- Punishment of Haman– Haman was the right-hand man of King Xerxes. He had declared that all the jews be banished, since his main enemy, Mordecai was Jewish. However, Mordecai’s cousin Esther was the mistress of the King and in the end, switched things around so that the King killed Haman instead. You can see in the foreground, Haman being crucified with Esther and Mordecai watching with the King who is the background ordering the execution.
- Brazen Serpent- During the escape from Egypt, Mose’s followers started to complain about him and God, and therefore God sent snakes to kill many of them. Once the people repented, God told Moses to make an image of a snake and all who looked at it would be cured. On the right-hand side, there is the dramatic scene of many people being destroyed by these snakes and in the background, the bronze serpent, made by Moses who is protecting people.
- David and Goliath– One of the more famous stories in the bible. Goliath, who was a giant, is struck down by a much smaller in stature, but much bigger heart David. Michelangelo is showing us the moment when David is about to strike the giant and behead him. David is straddling him with his sword high in the air and the terrified Goliath accepting his fate.
15. The Side Panels: Life of Moses
Above the painted tapestries, but below the windows are masterpieces by early Renaissance artists who were painting the generation before Michelangelo and Raphael. They were commissioned by Sixtus IV and were meant to explain on one side the life of Moses and on the other the life of Jesus which shows the continuity from the old testament to the new.
There are currently six paintings about the life of Moses on the side walls ( when you walk into the chapel on your right). They are as follows:
16. The journey of Moses in Egypt ( Pietro Perugino)
As in most of these side panels, there are multiple scenes in this painting. Moses spends 40 years in the land of Midian after killing an Egyptian. After these 40 long years, God gives Moses a sign to come back to Egypt to save his people from the excesses and tyranny of the Pharaoh.
The next scene shows a story from the book of Exodus where God has threatened Moses. At that point, Mose’s wife, Zipporah rushes to sacrifice an animal in order to save Moses from death.
On the lower right-hand side of the painting Mose’s baby son, Eliezer, is in the process of getting circumcised by his mother Zipporah who is a Midianite. In the center of the painting, Mose’s is getting stopped by an Angel which was usually a sign of God.
17. Events in the life of Moses ( Sandro Botticelli)
This fresco shows various episodes about Mose’s youth from the book of Exodus. There are 3 scenes and the story goes from right to left. The first scene is when Mose’s kills a man for insulting an Israelite and then flees into the desert in Midian.
The next scene is when he fights off a group of shepherds who were not letting the daughters of Jethro water their flock at the well. One of those daughters was Zipporah who would eventually become Mose’s wife. You will notice in this scene the beautiful woman with blond hair who was a staple of Botticelli’s paintings.
The final scene starts on the top left side of the painting where Mose hears the voice of God and removes his sandals. He approaches the burning bush where the voice of God tells him to return to Egpyt and announce to everyone that he will be freeing the Jews from Slavery.
18. Passage of the Red Sea ( Biagio d’Antonio/ Cosimo Rosselli)
It is not certain if the painter for this was Cosimo Rosselli or his assistant Biagio d’Antonio so we will give them both credit. This epic story in the bible, which is also one of the most famous in the old testament is showing how Moses escapes with all his followers and they come to the Red Sea.
The Egyptian warriors are close on their heels and it looks like a dead end, but Mose’s prays to God who parts the waters of the Red Sea and Moses and his followers proceed to walk through the Sea on dry land. The Pharaoh’s army proceeds as well, but after the last of Mose’s followers make their way through, the waters come crashing down and destroy the entire army.
19. Handing over the tablets of the Law ( Cosimo Rosselli)
This painting continues stories from the book of Exodus with three more from the life of Moses. In the first one, in the back corner of the painting, Moses is on the top of a mountain. He is kneeling down in front of God who has appeared before him and is giving him the tablets of the law.
The next scene is when Mose has returned from the mountain with the tablets of the law and finds that many of his followers have reverted back to worshipping pagan idols and here in particular that of the Golden Calf. Moses is so upset that he breaks the tablets on the ground and punishes those who were idolizing false gods. He afterward receives new tablets of the law.
One interesting scene in this painting encompasses the entire idea of the Renaissance. Remember that part of the point of Renaissance painting was to show ideal beauty. In the foreground, with all the chaos of Moses happening, the painter decided to put a couple who are holding hands and look quite happy, impervious to all that is going on around them. Some say that the man, who is wearing a red hat, is actually a self-portrait of Cosimo Rosselli ( Rosso means red in Italian).
20. Punishment of Koram, Dathan and Amiram ( Sandro Botticelli)
The wanderings through the desert lasted 40 years. At one point Korah, Dathan and Abiram revolt against Moses and his leadership and are punished by God with the earth swallowing them up. 250 followers of the three mentioned above are also swallowed up by the earth.
On the right-hand side, you see Joshua who is protecting Moses from getting stoned by the crowd. In the center, Aaron has his leadership being questioned and is being attacked. On the left-hand side of the painting, Moses calls on God to punish the rebels.
.In the middle of the painting is a gigantic arch, which is a real interpretation of the Arch of Constantine in Rome. Constantine was seen as the first Christian Emperor and was therefore revered by all later Christians. He legalized the religion as well so you can imagine the joy of a people who had been suppressed for the last 300 years to finally have religious freedom!
21. Legacy and Death of Moses ( Luca Signorelli)
This painting talks about the final episodes in Mose’s life. There is also controversy about if Signorelli really painted this or not. Giorgio Vasari who was the leading biographer of the day was convinced that it was him, while many art historians today believe that it was actually Bartolomeo della Gatta.
On the right-hand side, there is Moses who is reading to his followers. At his feet is the ark of the covenant where the tablets of the law are stored. In the middle, Moses is conferring power onto Joshua who will take over God’s flock. In the background, Moses is speaking with an Angel who is showing him the Promised land which he will never get to see because he dies beforehand. In the back left corner, his followers are lamenting him as he has died at this point.
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22. The life of Jesus
There are six paintings about the life of Jesus on the side walls ( when you walk into the chapel on your left).
23. Baptism of Christ ( Pietro Perugino)
The first painting shows the real beginning of Jesus’ journey to become the messiah. On the right-hand side, you see John the Baptist speaking with a crowd while in the back left, you can see Jesus preaching to a different crowd.
The main attention is addressed to the center of the painting. Here, John the Baptist is starting to pour water over the head of a pius Jesus. There are crowds on both sides of the painting who are watching the event and interestingly enough they are all dressed in Renaissance style clothes of the time. Above you see God who is watching over the entire proceeding.
In the background there are other scantily clad men, who it would seem are waiting to be baptized after Jesus. Perugino’s master of perspective is also on display here as the painting reveals a castle in the background and then goes even farther back to show distant mountains and what looks like a lake. Raphael, who was Perugino’s student, was very fond of using this kind of background.
24. Temptations of Christ ( Sandro Botticelli)
The devil tempted Jesus many times to try and break him from his attempt to become the Messiah. In the upper left corner, Satan is disguised as a hermit and asks Jesus for a miracle to test him. In the center background, Satan tries to get Jesus to Jump off the temple. The temple resembles the construction of the Santo Spririto church by the Vatican which Sixtus IV was building. The last scene is on the right-hand side where Jesus throws Satan off of a cliff.
In the center of the painting, there is a sacrificial rite happening. This interpretation is usually referring to the Leper who, after he was healed by Jesus, made a sacrifice in his honor. Some art historians see this scene as allegorical with the older priest being Moses and the young man being Jesus. The sacrifice is that of Jesus himself making the ultimate sacrifice for mankind.
25. The calling of the first Apostles ( Domenico Ghirlandaio)
The famous biographer Giorgio Vasari wrote,” Vasari wrote: “Domenico represented Christ calling Peter and Andrew from their nets, and the Resurrection of Christ, the greater part of which is now destroyed, for it was above the door”. The destruction of the wall ensured that the Resurrection was completely gone after.
The entire painting is focused on Jesus anointing St. Paul and St. Peter who are both kneeling in front of him. On the right-hand side of the painting is a group of people who were actually the leading Florentine families of the time who had residences in Rome. What’s interesting is in the center is Giovanni Tornabuoni who represented the Medici family. He was actually made the Pope’s treasurer and later became a Patron to Ghirlandaio himself.
26. The Sermon on the Mount ( Cosimo Rosselli)
This painting runs parallel with the opposite wall where Moses is receiving the tablets of the Law. The center focus of the painting is Jesus who is on the mount, preaching to his disciples. What is happening is that allegorically, Jesus is becoming the new Moses, passing on the teachings of God and continuing Mose’s work.
In the foreground, you can see a Jesus who is on top of the mount and preaching to his followers. This is the main subject of this painting and all of the other attributes of the painting are centering around this part of the painting. On the right-hand side, Jesus is healing the leper with many people looking on. Remember that since this is a Renaissance painting, the artist is more concerned with the ideal beauty of the event and not the event itself per se.
27. Handing over the Keys ( Pietro Perugino)
I am going to go out on a limb here and say that this is the 3rd most famous painting in the chapel after the ceiling and Last Judgement. Perugino is able to create extreme depth in the painting by his expert use of perspective here. In doing so, he created 3 layers of composition.
In the foreground and the most important scene is Christ standing in front of a kneeling St. Peter. On both sides of them there are the usual group of people as in the other paintings looking on at the event with almost disinterest but in line with the standards of the time. Peter is receiving the 2 keys ( Gold key is that of heaven and Silver is that on earth) from Jesus.
Behind them, there is a massive piazza, which is not based on any real place, but more of an ” ideal piazza”. From a distance, it actually looks like people are ice skating, but they are getting ready to stone Jesus. In the background, there are two arches which are replicas of the Arch of Constantine, which again plays an important role in Christianity since he was accredited as being the first Christian Emperor. Finally, in the background, you can see hills off in the great distance, exemplifying Perugino’s use of Perspective.
28. The Last Supper ( Cosimo Rosselli)
Many people think that there is only 1 last supper painting and that is by Da Vinci. The fact is that the Last Supper was quite a popular theme for painting and hundreds of them exist. Each last supper has its own particular characteristics and this one by Cosimo Rosselli is not different.
In the painting, Jesus has just shared the news that he is going to die after passing around the bread and some wine. The faces of the Apostles don’t have many expressions of surprise on them, because as it has been mentioned, in the Renaissance, the focus was on ideal beauty which is more important than the actual event happening. The only Apostle on the other side of the table is Judas, who is already holding a sack with the silver coins inside for his betrayal to tell the Jewish elders who Jesus was.
Above everyone are three windows, which instead of showing some background, alluding to the three events from the bible which will happen next. From the left there is first the prayer on the mount of olives, then the betrayal, and finally the crucifixion. A side note- remember that Cosimo Rosselli’s last name derives from the word ” Red”- there is a man on the right-hand corner who is looking right at us, with a red hat on!
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29. The Last Judgement
This painting was one of the last additions to the Sistine Chapel ( finished in 1541) and was painted by none other than Michelangelo himself. By the time this painting was finished Michelangelo had spent almost 10 years of his life in the Sistine Chapel painting the ceiling and back wall! The Master continues to portray people with huge amounts of muscles as he did with the ceiling. The entire art piece is a whopping 42ft (13m) high and 39ft(12m) wide. It took Michelangelo 5 years to paint.
Upon ascending to the throne of St. Peter, Pope Paul III ( Pontiff 1534-1549) was heading a church in a time of great crisis. The major sack of Rome ( 1527) had only been 7 years earlier and still fresh in the mind of many. He was also facing increasing external pressure as Protestantism was in its infancy. What better way to fight back the critics and take control of the church than a painting about our ultimate salvation?
In the Last Judgement all of the sinners will be sent down into Hell in the eternal fire and all of those who believe and repent will be allowed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The world is basically ending at this point for the majority of us. Michelangelo portrays this perfectly and adds many elements of classical literature as well.
30. The Top
In the upper lunettes, you can have angels carrying instruments used during the passion of Christ ( the cross, the whip and column he was whipped on, and the crown of thorns. Below that you will see an extremely muscular Jesus with no beard in a powerful position presiding over the entire scene with a radiant halo bursting behind him. Figures that are recognizable are John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, St Peter holding the keys and various other saints holding the instrument in their hands with which they were martyred.
- Interesting Fact– Below Jesus you will find St Bartholomew who was skinned alive. In his right hand, he is holding a knife and in his left hand his own skin! Many contemporaries suggested that Michelangelo did a self-portrait in the skin!
31. The Middle
Here you can see a group of Angels blowing trumpets and holding 2 books with the bigger having the names of those damned and going down to Hell with the smaller one having the names of those who are redeemed and going up to Heaven. Those on the left-hand side who are being redeemed are being brought up from their graves and there are even fights breaking out with demons who are trying to hold onto the ascending bodies, but the angels are pushing them back to the Underworld.
32. The Bottom
Here Michelangelo alludes to Greek mythology with the demon ( Charon) on a boat who is bringing all the damned souls over to the underworld. On the far right side, you will see the Devil himself and all the damned and lost souls behind him in Hell.
- Interesting Fact– When the painting was unveiled, many were shocked by the amount of nudity in the painting. Biagio da Cesena who was a Cardinal said that this was better suited for a tavern than the holy chapel of the Pope. It is said that Michelangelo then changed the face of the devil to that of the Cardinal and wrapped a snake going around his body and biting him in the groin area.
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