Every year, about six million people visit the Sistine Chapel inside the Vatican Museum. There are many more who learn about it on television or the internet, as it is where the papal conclave—in which cardinals from all over the world meet to elect the pope—and the first Mass celebration of the newly elected pope are held.
But more than these historic events, the Sistine Chapel is truly a unique place in Rome. It is where artistic genius has reached heights hardly ever achieved elsewhere. Suffice to say, it is a treasure trove of artistic talents.
German writer and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was so struck by it, he wrote, “It is not possible to have an idea of what man is able to achieve without seeing the Sistine Chapel.”
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All About the Light
After more than three years of studies, planning, and work in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the renovations and lighting installations at the chapel were finally completed. Aside from the temperature regulator, new lighting equipment was installed, which allows people to marvel at the frescoes in all their splendor.
“The works of Michelangelo and the other painters will thank us for these installations,” assures the director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci.
Located in unseen places, there are 7,000 LED lights that illuminate every detail of each artwork in the best way. One of these artworks is Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, which was restored in 1994.
In his homily, Pope John Paul II said, “The frescoes that we contemplate here introduce us to the reality of the contents of Revelation. The truths of our faith speak to us from every side. From them, the human genius has drawn inspiration, committing to bedeck them with forms of unparalleled beauty.”
Treasured Art for Centuries
Inside the chapel are two frescoes that are absolute masterpieces: Stories from the Bible on the ceiling and The Last Judgment on the eastern or altar wall—both by Michelangelo, whose name has become synonymous with the Sistine Chapel.
However, the history of this incredible place dates back more than 30 years before Michelangelo’s artworks decked its halls. It all started between 1477 and 1480, when Francesco della Rovere (Pope Sixtus IV) decided to renovate the ancient Cappella Magna or great chapel.
To decorate the newly renovated chapel, Pope Sixtus IV called painters Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Cosimo Rosselli together with their collaborators. The frescoes were finished after a year, along with the marble transenna (screen of stone), the choir, and the papal coat of arms above the entrance door.
On August 15, 1483, Pope Sixtus IV consecrated the chapel and dedicated it to the Assumption.
The Age of Michelangelo
Twenty-five years later, Pope Julius II decided to change the decorations in the chapel. He commissioned Michelangelo to paint the vault and the lunettes. Due to the artist’s talents and his close ties with the Medici family—a wealthy family in Italy who were big art patrons—Michelangelo was again commissioned by Pope Clement VII (a Medici and close friend of Michelangelo) to paint the famous fresco, The Last Judgment, on the chapel’s altar wall.
This fresco has made the Sistine Chapel, as Pope John Paul II said, “the sanctuary of theology of the human body” through the translation of God’s invisible beauty into visible forms.
Michelangelo’s contributions to the Sistine Chapel carried out three themes: God’s creation of the world, God’s relationship with mankind, and mankind’s fall from grace. However, Michelangelo’s artworks were not that well-received by the clergy during his time.
Seven cardinals accused him of obscenity and immorality due to the nudity and ghastly appearances of his subjects. His paintings also reflected the traumatic events that the Church experienced such as the Sack of Rome.
Because of this, Michelangelo was labeled a heretic by Vatican officials who even went as far as to petition the destruction of the artwork.
Pope Clement VII defended Michelangelo, but after the latter died, the Vatican called on his pupil Daniele da Volterra to cover the private areas with veils and loincloths—which were later removed after the restoration.