For centuries the Sistine Chapel, the gem of the Vatican, has stood to the glory of God and as evidence of the incredible mastery of Renaissance painters.
It is one of the must-see historic sites of Rome and draws tens thousands of travelers taking vacations in Italy each day.
Five hundred years ago, at evening vespers on October 31, 1512, Pope Julius II officiated a Mass to inaugurate the Sistine Chapel and unveil its crowning touch: the stunning ceiling mural by artist Michelangelo that was newly finished after over four years of toil. The Old Testament stories depicted by the genius Michelangelo create an awe-inspiring place to pray and contemplate spiritual matters and have been considered one of the most important works of art in the world ever since.
The massive frescoes span the entire ceiling, a scale so grand and incredible it is unimaginable until you visit and see it in person. Over 20,000 people visit the Sistine Chapel each day, either lining up to see it during visiting hours or booking small, private tours to skip the long ticket lines and benefit from a knowledgeable guide to lead the tour and discuss the history and artwork.
While most people are familiar with details of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling – notably the image of God reaching out to touch the hand of Adam and give him life – there is so much history behind this magnificent chapel that travelers who take our small group, 12-person Vatican Sistine Chapel walking tour are amazed to learn historical facts and scholarly assumptions that make this combination of art and architecture all the more impressive. Four hours is just enough time to really grasp some of the rich history of this Vatican treasure’s secrets.
Here are some facts and secrets to introduce you to the Sistine Chapel:
• The Sistine Chapel is named for Pope Sixtus IV. It was consecrated as a place of worship during a ceremony with the first Mass celebrated there on August 9, 1483. That date was the Feast of the Assumption, fitting since the chapel was dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
• Pope Sixtus IV commissioned many great Renaissance artists to paint frescoes on the walls of the chapel, including Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, and Pinturicchio.
• Pope Sixtus IV was the uncle of Pope Julius II, who commissioned Michelangelo to create frescoes for the ceiling. Before this the ceiling was rather plainly painted blue with stars, so plain and ugly that Michelangelo was insulted not only because he considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter but because he likened the ceiling to the “roof of a barn.” It took time and the promise of a sculpting commission before Michelangelo consented to re-fresco the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.
• The sheer scale of the chapel ceiling is staggering. It measures approximately 40 meters (131 feet) long by 13 meters (43 feet) wide – working out to well over 464 square meters (5,000 square feet) of frescoes painted by Michelangelo.
• Some scholars believe the dimensions of the hall (40.23 metres in length, 13.40 metres in width and 20.70 metres in height) are the same as Solomon’s great temple in Jerusalem.
• There are more than 400 painted figures on the ceiling.
• Michelangelo started work in July of 1508 and the ceiling was unveiled on November 1, 1512. He built special scaffolding and worked long hours painting with his arms raised, painting by dim light.
• The central vault chronicles nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, including three from Creation, three of the fall of Adam and Eve, and three about Noah.
• The Sistine Chapel ceiling was Michelangelo’s first attempt at frescoes, but not his last. However inspired his brushwork, Michelangelo always considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter. A true master, Michelangelo completed the ceiling work in buon fresco, the most difficult fresco method.• The chapel is a place of worship, used for important services by the Pope. It is also where the College of Cardinals will gather to vote for successive popes, as they did after the death of Blessed Pope John Paul II in 2005.
• On October 31, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI officiated Mass at evening vespers to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Michelangelo’s frescoes.
• Visitors need to remember that there is a dress code to visit the Sistine Chapel and other churches in Italy; both men and women must have shoulders covered, men must wear pants, and women pants or dresses below the knee.
Art experts have been expressing concern that the number of visitors (massive groups generating body heat and humidity) to the Sistine Chapel may damage these priceless works of art. This year the Vatican announced it may consider limiting visitors each day in future to protect the chapel.