Planning to visit the Vatican but unsure what famous artwork you should see? Don’t worry, we are Vatican experts so we have you covered. Here are the most famous sculptures that you absolutely positively should not miss when visiting the Vatican.
The 16 Most Famous Sculptures At The Vatican
Art is about emotion. It is an artist unleashing their innermost thoughts and feelings onto the art piece for all to witness. It is such a powerful act, that many have been criticized, scrutinized, and even killed just for doing the act.
However, few actually see it, and even fewer understand. If you look at the sculpture and don’t feel anything, that is because you haven’t heard its story. This is the very reason we recommend guided tours.
If you hear the story and don’t get chills, then it is not great artwork. Its purpose is to inspire emotion. You don’t have to have a strong art background to appreciate art. It definitely helps, but it is not essential.
You can make your visit memorable by joining a guide with a strong art background who is skilled in the art of story-telling. That’s what we do!
16. The Colossal Statue Of Augustus
Unknown Artist | Unknown Year | White Marble | Pine Cone Courtyard
Today, Instagram allows us to immortalize ourselves by adding photos for everyone to see. Sculptures was the Instagram of the Ancients.
Octavianus Augustus was the first and arguably one of the most important Ancient, Roman Emperors. He created the Pax Romana ( Roman peace) after a century of strife and turmoil. He lived to the ripe, old age of 75 and was also Emperor during the early years of Jesus.
As with Instagram, we tend to show our best ” sides” in a photo. Back in the day, even if they were older, they would order a statue to be made of themselves during their youth. The strategy worked, since we can easily recognize a statue of Augustus as a young man, but have no clue what he looked like when he was older!
15. Sphere Within A Sphere
Arnoldo Pomodoro | 1990 | Bronze | Pinecone Courtyard
The first time that you see the ” Sphere within a Sphere” your first thoughts might be of the death star in Star Wars.
The Vatican believes in continuing its tradition as a patron of the arts. Therefore this statue of modern art is located right in the middle of the courtyard. A useful way to remember the name of the artist is that the artist’s last name “Pomodoro” which means tomato in Italian ( Fact). So his name is Arnold the tomato.
I will leave the description of this statue to man far more learned than myself:
Personally, I see in the sphere the torment that afflicts our world today through war, hunger, and disease. But from the larger sphere a new sphere is about to break off; a new life, a new world is emerging….. A work of art is a true work of art only if it moves your soulEnrico Bruschini- Art Historian & Official Vatican Tour Guide
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14. The Pinecone
Unknown Artist | Unknown Date | Bronze | Pinecone Courtyard
I have to list this statue since it gives its name to a massive courtyard in the Vatican Museums. The question that is probably killing you right now is why a pinecone? The pinecone was a symbol of fertility in the ancient world and in Rome associated with the goddess of love Venus.
The statue was arguably created as a fountain. Why? If you were to get up close to it, you would notice many small holes in the statue itself. We also know that they placed it after in the Constantian St. Peter’s Basilica. In the 16th century, they moved the fountain to its current spot.
13. Discus Thrower
Myron | 460 B.C. | Marble | Room of the Biga
The “Discus Thrower” is actually a Roman copy of a Greek original. What the heck does that mean? As historical timelines go, the Greeks were already pondering why the sky was blue and what is the meaning of life, while the Romans were still peasant farmers. As the Romans caught up to the Greeks culture-wise, they ” borrowed” the culture from the Greeks and would just copy their statues.
The athlete is full of concentration as he winds his body back in order to throw the discus. The form of the statue is perfectly symmetrical and it appears almost life-like. The statue was found in the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa, which is about a 45 minute drive from Rome. Hadrian, who loved everything greek, commissioned hundreds of roman copies of Greek original statues.
Out of all the Roman copies of Greek originals that they found at Hadrian’s Villa, this one is arguably one of the most beautiful. The only other one that comes close, for me, would be the Antinoos ( See below).
12. The Bath Of Nero
Unknown Artist | Unknown Date | Red Porphyry Marble | Round Room
The so-called ” Bath of Nero” was more likely to be a fountain than an actual bath. Diggers found the piece. of marble at Nero’s house (Domus Aurea) over on the Esquiline hill. Stories circulated of Nero’s tyranny and eccentric behavior and so over time, the rumor started about this being his actual bathtub. We will never truly know what it was used for, but we can say for sure it is a beautiful piece of marble.
This impressive piece of stone is made from a purple marble called Red Porphyry. The stone originates from Egypt and was the most highly prized stone, reserved for the Emperors due to its scarcity. in order to collect one gram of purple dye, they would have to extract it from thousands of sea snails. Understandably then, when the Romans found this stone, they went crazy and took it all out of Egypt!
To make Tyrian purple, marine snails were collected by the thousands. They were then boiled for days in giant lead vats, producing a terrible odor. The snails, though, aren’t purple, to begin with. The craftsmen were harvesting chemical precursors from the snails that, through heat and light, were transformed into valuable dye.Smithsonian Magazine
11. Augustus of Prima Porta
Unknown artist | 1st century A.D. | White Marble | New Wing
There are certain advantages to being the first. McDonald’s was the first real fast-food chain. Ford was the first to manufacture using an assembly line. In many situations, the ” first” is always remembered. Augustus was the first Emperor of the Roman Empire. He erased the chaos which had been destroying Rome more or less for the last century. Arguably, he increased the quality of life and made people want to live again.
This beautiful statue was found in 1863 in Prima Porta, which is a neighborhood on the outskirts of Rome today. Back in ancient times it was the summer house of Augustus’ wife, Livia.
Livia commissioned a sculpture of her husband as a military supreme commander. He gestures show that he is speaking to his soldiers with great pride.
Filled with strength and intelligence, his face is captivating and makes us easily understand why not only Livia but also all of the women and men in Rome admired the emperor who had made Rome into a great and powerful empireEnrico Bruschini- Art Historian & Official Vatican Tour Guide
10. Statue Of Hercules In Bronze
Unknown Artist | 1st-3rd Century AD | Bronze | Round Room
To find an ancient statue in bronze is truly a gift, considering that most were melted down by the Romans back in the day to recycle the metal. Hercules is gilded with big eyes staring at you and curly hair. Archeologists found the statue in 1864 under a courtyard near Campo de’ Fiori.
The statue was then given to Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) and that is why it’s in the Vatican today. Hercules is easily identifiable due to the Nemean Lion skin wrapped over his arm, the club he is resting on, and the apples of the Hesperides in his left hand. The statue has been dated with a few different dates ranging from the 1st-3rd centuries AD. Historians point to the style being copied from the Neo Attic style of the 4th century BC
Cool Fact– when they found “Hercules”, it was lying on its back with a slab of travertine stone on top of it like a burial. On top of the slab of stone was cut the following letters- F C S (Fulgur Conditum Summanium). The statue had been struck by lightning and since Hercules was the son of Zeus, the Ancient Romans had taken that as a sign that the statue should be properly buried together with the remains of a lamb.
9. Sarcophagus Of Saint Helena
Unknown Artist | Early 4th century | Red Porphyry Marble | Room of the Greek Cross
Behind every great man, stands a great woman. Frequently, that woman tends to be the mother. Helena was the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great and died in 335 AD. In 1777 the sarcophagus was brought to Rome, from the outskirts, and restored by Gaspare Sibilla and Giovanni Pierantoni. They mounted the sarcophagus on top of 4 lions carved by Francesco Antonio Franzoni.
Helena was a devout Christian even before Constantine had won the battle at the Milvian bridge. If Constantine was swayed by his mother’s beliefs, we will never know. However, Constantine did legalize the religion and supposedly converted on his deathbed, so chances are he was a good son and listened to mamma. She led a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land where she established the tomb of Jesus Christ and thereafter under the orders of Constantine, the church of the Holy Sepulcher was built.
The sarcophagus was presumably made for Constantine’s father, the emperor Constantius Chlorus, as you can easily understand from the depiction of a military procession. The winged figures, known as victories, officially became ” angels” for the first time with the advent of Christianity, credited to ConstantineEnrico Bruschini- Art Historian & Official Vatican Tour Guide
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8. Artemis Of Ephesus
Unknown Artist | Unknown Date | White Marble | Gallery of the Candelabra
Arguably, the most unique statue in this room and definitely the biggest eye-catcher. Many people will walk past the statue and you will hear them say- Look at the multi- breasted statue! Upon closer inspection you will realize that they are bull testicles, considering that Artemis was the goddess of fertility and what symbol resonates more with fertility than bull testicles?
The statue is one of many copies that you can find which would have originated in Ephesus, Asia Minor in modern-day Turkey. Ephesus was a booming port city during the Ancient Roman Empire and even today is a huge archeological park.
The city was dedicated to Artemis and one of the biggest temples in Ancient times was the Temple of Artemis. Inside of the temple could be found these statues of Artemis with the bull testicles.
Cool Fact: In the bible, St Paul goes to Ephesus to preach and is almost violently killed. By who? The merchants of the temple of Artemis made a pretty penny on the sale of statues of the goddess. If there was one true God, then all the silversmiths and merchants would go out of business.
7. The Persian Warrior
Unknown Artist | 2nd Century AD | White Marble | Gallery of the Candelabra
How do you create defeat in stone? Look no further. “The Persian Warrior” captures the fear of defeat and defeat itself beautifully on the face of the warrior as all seems lost.
This statue easily identifies the person to be Persian by his Phrygian cap (conical-shaped beret). His body is in a defensive position moving away from the blade of his enemy while he is grabbing his sword with his right hand to strike back.
Attalos II of Pergamon made 2 sets of these votive statues with one set being placed in Athens on the Acropolis and the other in Pergamon itself known as the statues of ” Little Barbarians”. The original of this statue would have been part of a group of Greek victories over the Persians at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC. This copy of the statue was discovered in Rome between 1503 and 1512.Vatican Official Archives
Unknown Artist | Original from 4th Century BC | White Marble | Room of the Apoxyomenos
How perfect would this statue be in a commercial for Bed Bath & Beyond? Apoxyomenos literally means ” to clean oneself” and that is exactly what the athlete is doing. Back in the day, athletes would clean themselves by rubbing oil into their skin and with dust would scrape it off with a curved instrument called a Strigil.
According to the Vatican Official Archives, “The statue is a Roman copy from around 50 AD of an original greek bronze sculpture by the great Lysippus from around 320 BC. Of particular note is the motion of his foot in the air and also the extension of the arm which creates space and gives depth to the sculpture”.
The Ancient Greeks knew about soap but limited it to washing clothes. Both ancient Greeks and Romans used to rub their skin with oil and pulverized pumice stone, then emove it using a strigilEnrico Bruschini- Art Historian & Official Vatican Tour Guide
Unknown Artist | 2nd Century A.D. | White Marble | Round Room
I have ranked “Antinoos” so high due to its extreme beauty and also the fact that it is one of the most reproduced statues in Antiquity. More on that below.
Antinoos was the young male lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. According to legend, Antinoos was vacationing with the Emperor in Egypty. He heard a prophecy that the Emperor would die unless he gave up his most precious thing. Antinoos who believed he could save the emperor, committed suicide by throwing himself into the Nile river.
Hadrian was completely overcome with grief and sadness. He then decided to deify Antinoos and had statues all throughout the empire erected in his honor. This is why statues of Antinoos are the most reproduced. Hadrian also founded a city in his name called Antinopolis. If that’s not love, then what is?
Antinoos is depicted here as the young god Bacchus with a crown of ivory. When I look at this statue, the face reminds me a bit of Alexander the Great. The artist depicted him with a broad chest and muscular arms. There is also confidence in his gaze, yet a certain level of sadness.
It is easy to recognize Antinoos, still loved today by the women of modern Roe for his beautiful countenance framed by curls, the sad look on his face, the fleshy lips, and the large thorax.Enrico Bruschini- Art Historian & Official Vatican Tour Guide
4. The Belvedere Torso
Apollonios | 1st century B.C. | White Marble | Room of the Muses
Why the heck did the Vatican feature a statue with no head, hands, or feet right in the middle of a room? As modern people, we have tv, google, the internet, etc. to understand anatomy. The magic of this statue is that the body is in motion, contorting to his left, but all of his muscles compliment that movement perfectly, which means the sculptor had intimate knowledge of anatomy. This was a big deal even in the Renaissance period since it was forbidden to dissect humans to study muscles and anatomy.
How do we know the name of the sculptor? He engraved his name on it writing- “Apollonios, son of Nestor, the Athenian, created it”. This statue was found in the late 15th century and was in the Vatican collection by 1530.
This is the work of a man who knew how to do it better than natureMichelangelo
Michelangelo displayed his admiration for this statue repeatedly in the Sistine Chapel. In the Chapel, the angels around each ceiling painting, are curving their bodies in the same direction as the torso. In his Last Judgement, St Bartholomew’s body is also contorting to a degree in this fashion.
3. Apollo Belvedere
Unknown Artist | 2nd Century AD | White Marble | Octagonal Courtyard
“The Apollo Belvedere” has been in the Vatican since 1508 because it was owned by Pope Julius II whose property it was even before he was even pope. Therefore, like many popes before him, he brought all his artwork with him into his new home, the Vatican upon ascending the purple. The sun god Apollo has just let go of an arrow and is watching where it lands.
The statue is a Roman copy from the mid 2nd century AD of an original Greek Bronze statue by Leochares from around 320 BC. The exquisite hairstyle and flowing cape are remarkable for that period. The Greek writer Pausanias wrote that this beautiful statue once adorned the Agora, Athen’s main square.
Cool Fact: If you look closely at the face of Apollo, you will see a resemblance of Jesus Christ in the Last Judgement by Michelangelo! Michelangelo would have arguably studied these statues and used them as inspiration for his own works!
Of all the works of antiquity that have escaped destruction, the statue of Apollo represents the highest ideal of artJohann Joachim Winckelmann- 18th century Art Historian
2. Faun with the Infant Dionysius
Unknown Artist | Unknown Date | White Marble | Gallery of the Candelbra
Did you know that ancient statues had eyes? Understandably this idea is crazy to most, so I felt that providing proof was key to convincing others. Look in the photo above and you will see that the Faun and infant Dionysius have glass eyes! While strange to us today, the idea is quite logical since if you make a statue today, you add eyes, right? The statue now is so much more life-like.
Ancient statues were also painted. As for the paint, you will need to trust me until you can actually see the statue in person. The remaining paint is in the hair of infant Dionysius.
The paints used were natural colors and after two thousand years beneath the earth or under the rain and sun these have disappeared for the most partEnrico Bruschini- Art Historian & Official Vatican Tour Guide
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1. Laocoön Group
Hagesandros | 1st Century A.D. | White Marble | Octagonal Room
If you are a Star Wars fan, then the Laocoön might resemble Han Solo, when he was frozen in carbon for Jabba the Hut. The sculptor was able to capture a precise moment of such pain. The statue was discovered on the Esquiline Hill in 1506 and was immediately brought to the Vatican for Pope Julius II. Once uncovered, it was identified right away as the Laocoön statues made by the sculptors on the island of Rhodes.
The statue represents a story from the Aeneid by Virgil. The Trojans believed the war to be over when they received the Trojan horse from the Greeks. Everyone except the priest Laocoön who warned it would be their downfall. Athena, who was siding with the Greeks, sent two serpents to kill the priest and his two sons, quieting them forever. The rest is history.
When they found the statue it was missing its right arm. Many artists made their own rendition of the arm with it pointing straight up in the air. Michelangelo looked at the body movement and realized that the arm should bend. A Swedish archeologist discovered the original arm in the 17th century and guess what it looked like? The arm was bent just as Michelangelo had made it. Supposedly Michelangelo’s arm is still connected to the back of the statue today!