If you are planning a Visit to the Vatican and want more out of your experience than a photo of the Sistine Chapel you should definitely have the Raphael Rooms on your radar, but what are you supposed to see? We asked Brandon, our resident licensed guide, and these are the top things he recommends you see on your visit to the Raphael Rooms.
Pro Planning Tip: Consider bookmarking this article into a “Vatican” folder in your browser. This way you can circle back to it while planning. Also, check out our Best Vatican Tours. The best way to elevate your Vatican experience is by joining a private or small group tour with a passionate English speaking guide.
Where are the Raphael Rooms?
The Raphael Rooms are including in your general admission to the Vatican Museums ticket. They are on the way to the Sistine Chapel but it is very easy to miss them. This is because they technically are a detour away from the Sistine Chapel. That said, if you follow signs for the Raphael Rooms you will be lead back to the Sistine Chapel so don’t worry.
The Raphael Rooms were commissioned by Pope Julius II. They were, perhaps, an effort to outshine the apartments of his predecessor (and rival) Pope Alexander VI, as the rooms are directly above Alexander’s Apartments. They are on the third floor of the Vatican Museums overlooking the south side of the Belvedere Courtyard.
Top 11 Things to See in the Raphael Rooms
The four rooms known as the Raphael rooms were painted by Raphael and his students between 1508 and 1524. They were commissioned first by Pope Julius II (1503 to 1513) supposedly because he refused to live in the Borgia apartments on the floor below due to his hatred for the man. These rooms were also used by his successors, specifically Leo X the Medici Pope (1512-1521).
1. Room of Constantine
This was the last of the 4 rooms painted and as a consequence would have been painted primarily by Raphael’s students. The room’s name is in honor of the first Christian Emperor- Constantine the Great. His time in power had huge, positive implications for the church and its future.
2. Vision of the Cross
The night before the decisive battle against his enemy Maxentius, Constantine sees in the night sky a white cross, burn across the sky. This premonition that he had made clear that if he replaced the emblem of eagles, with the cross he would be victorious
- Interesting Note: In the foreground, you will see a midget holding up a helmet. This was actually the court Jester of Pope Leo X!
3. Battle of Constantine against Maxentius
This is the ensuing battle after the night’s before premonition with the cross. The battle takes place at the Milvian bridge ( which you can still cross today) in the northern part of the city. This victory, in 312 AD, is considered the first Christian Victory ever.
You can see Constantine who is victorious on a white horse with angels above his head and the defeated Maxentius on a brown horse in the river who is drowning. It is an epic fresco of massive proportions and definitely one of the top thing to see in the room and one of the top things to see in all of the Raphael Rooms.
4. The Victory of Christianity over Paganism (Ceiling)
Missed by many people ( Look up!), this painting was added later by the Sicilian painter Tommaso Laureti in 1585. If ever there was one picture to promote the expression ” A picture paints a thousand words”, this is the one. You will see on a pedestal a Christian cross and at its feet a pagan statue that has been smashed to thousands of pieces.
Popular Vatican Tours
5. Room of Heliodorus
The purpose of this room was originally for private audiences with the Pope. The room’s theme is definitely political and aims to show not on the power of the church, but the political agenda of Pope Julius II who wanted all the foreign occupiers out of the Italian Peninsula.
6. Liberation of St.Peter
The story is about the first pope St. Peter who is a prisoner in Rome and during the evening an angel comes and breaks his chains to set him free. Julius II commissioned this painting since, before coming to Pope, he was the Titular Cardinal of St.Peter in chains in Rome.
This entire fresco is a brilliant display of light effects. As you look closely at the painting, you will notice first the extreme splendor of the light of the Angel herself whose glow reflects the armor of the stunned prisoners in the room. Compare that with the light of the rising sun to the left and also the natural light coming in from the window below.
7. Encounter of Leo the Great with Attila
The painting depicts part of a real story in history when in 452AD Attila the Hun made his way to Rome and stopped at the gates of Rome. Historically it appears that the city, at this point decimated and plundered many times over, had no defense against Attila and so just Pope Leo I went out to greet him. After the discussion, Attila turned his group of warriors back and never sacked Rome.
According to the legend and also depicted in these paintings, during the encounter Saints Paul and Peter were by the pope’s side and scared him so much that turned his army around. You will see the pope in a very calm manner expelling the barbarians from Rome, while the Barbarian King is scared out of his mind upon seeing the angels and leaves hurriedly on his horse.
- Interesting Note: Julius II died during the painting and Leo X took over as pope. This is why you will see Leo X’s face twice, once as the cardinal and afterward as the Pope himself!
8. Room of the Segnatura
This room was originally used by Pope Julius II as his private office and library, but in the mid 16th century became the room where the Pope would sign important documents, hence the name Segnatura or signing. This room was also the first room where Raphael started painting and became the most famous.
9. School of Athens
Easily one of the most famous paintings by Raphael and with this painting, he established himself as one of the most famous high Renaissance painters in the world. The painting, for our purposes, is actually famous for 2 reasons.
The first is that it is the peak of high Renaissance painting in that it is harmonious, symmetrical, and celebrates ideal beauty in all its forms. The second reason is that this painting are basically a yearbook of the most famous artists of the early 15th century depicting their real faces
The Renaissance was the rebirth of classical philosophy, classical literature, and classical thought overall. Once the roman empire fell, Europe fell into a 1,000-year dark period where civilization went backward and learning was left as an afterthought.
After the fall of Constantinople in the middle of the 15th century, many scholars fled to Italy and were welcomed in Tuscany. As a result, they brought with them many texts ( and the learning of ancient Greek) and reintroduced many of the ancients to Italy.
- Interesting Note: Raphael used the faces of his friends as models for some of the famous people. Leonardo Da Vinci is Plato pointing a finger in the air- Bramante is Euclid, who is bending over a chalkboard and Raphael puts himself in the painting on the far right side staring directly at us.
- Second interesting Note: According to legend, as he was painting this room, Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel. One day Raphael got a peek of what Michelangelo was doing and was so impressed that he came back upstairs and broke a piece of plaster off the wall and put the face of Michelangelo as a tribute to how good he was!
To put things into perspective, the School of Athens is on the Vatican Museums ticket at the time of writing this article in 2020 (the year of Joffrey), and has been for over a decade. It is without argument the most important work of art and thing to see in the Raphael Rooms and one of the most important frescoes on Earth.
Popular Rome Tours
10. Room of the Fire in the Borgo
During the time of Pope Leo X, this room was used as his personal dining room and the current bathroom next store was used as the kitchen. This room was mostly decorated by Raphael’s students and the themes of the paintings are taken from the lives of the other great popes named Leo.
11. Fire in the Borgo
This painting shows a story from the Liber Pontificalis that spoke about a huge fire breaking out in the Borgo ( the area around St. Peter’s church) in 847. The story relates that everyone was in a panic and Pope Leo IV (847 to 855) solemnly walked out on the balcony of his palace and blessed the fire and it was extinguished immediately.
- Interesting Note: When you look at the figures in this painting the first thing that jumps out at you is the extreme amount of muscles that everyone possesses, including the kids! By this time, the Sistine Chapel has been unveiled and Michelangelo’s muscular figures have become famous, so the students of Raphael also attempt this, but as you will see should have studied anatomy a bit more!