Vatican City’s Sistine Chapel is one of the most sacred tourist destinations in the world.
As it celebrates its 502nd opening anniversary this November, let’s take a peak behind the scenes at the secrets, side notes, and sexy conspiracies of the famous Sistine Chapel.
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The Sistine Chapel wasn’t an architectural feat of the 15th century. It stole its dimensions and layout from the Biblical descriptions of the Temple of Solomon in the Old Testament.
Except for one thing: it doesn’t have a processional front door. There’s no way in from outside and no way out. You have to enter it through the papal palace. So don’t ever be trapped in there during a fire.
It’s Prettier On The Inside
It’s also super boring from the outside. There’s no fancy facade work or embellishment at all. Which is kinda weird considering its where they’ve elected and crowned most of the popes from 1492 upwards.
But the chapel’s commissioner Pope Sixtus IV seems to have wanted it that way. And he’s the one who ordered it built, held the first mass in it on August 15, 1483, and who its named after (the Latin Sixtus becomes Sisto in Italian, hence ‘Sistine’), so whatever he said goes. But it would be his nephew Pope Julius II who would go on to make its insides famous.
Famous Without Michelangelo
The Sistine Chapel has become synonymous with the artwork Michelangelo installed on its ceilings. But even if he’d never added his two cents worth of paint, the Sistine Chapel would be artistically famous.
The overshadowed artwork on the wall like this fresco was painted by Sandro Botticelli, of naked Venus rising from the sea on a seashell fame.
Not So Sloppy Seconds
Funnily enough, Michelangelo often found himself in the position painting alongside other masters works of art. He painted the same room as Leonardo Da Vinci in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio a few years later. Though it’s unlikely Michelangelo was ever in the same room as Da Vinci or in the Sistine Chapel at the same time as Botticelli. He’d already finished his murals decades before.
That left only the ceiling for Michelangelo to tackle—even though it was already painted solid blue and inset with gold stars by Umbrian artist Piermatteo d’Amelia.
This is an etching of what it would have looked like before Michelangelo touched the ceiling.
But He’s A Sculptor
Michelangelo didn’t want to work on the Sistine Chapel. He was super keen and focused on his current sculpture piece for Pope Julius II’s future tomb. He considered himself a sculptor not a painter. And he didn’t want to be taken off the project to go paint things.
But Pope Julius II cleverly misplaced the rest of the funding for the sculpture and Michelangelo was forced to accept the new commission and pick up a paintbrush. Don’t worry, he got to go finish the sculpture several years later.
Misperceptions Of Posture
There’s a movie about Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel that has overdramatized his refusal to paint and the methods Pope Julius II went to to get him painting.
But the Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison movie “The Agony and the Ecstasy” didn’t confuse audiences on that point as much as they’ve left a lingering legacy of confusion regarding something else: how Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel. The set producers went with the idea that Michelangelo and his assistants were lying down as they painted on scaffolding nearly touching the ceiling itself. That’s become our pop culture conception of the activity, but it just wasn’t so. Yes, the scaffolding was cool. But it left them all standing and reaching up overhead to paint.
Michelangelo hated it. He hated having to learn all about painting so quickly, he hated having to paint with his arms up to the ceiling day in and day out, and he even initially hated the proposed painting subjects.
When Pope Julius II first commissioned the work, he wanted the ceiling to only feature the Apostles. Michelangelo told him to shove it and expanded on the subject matter himself. Michelangelo also wrote an epic rage poem about how much he hated working on it to his friend Giovanni da Pistoia.
Extra Nuts For The Nudes
To make up for changing the subject matter on his patron, Michelangelo hid an homage to Pope Julius’ family in his artwork.
Many of the naked young men (codeword: ignudi) in the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling have bunches of acorns around them. These were added in reference to Julius II’s family name, Rovere, which means the oak.
Adding Insult To Injury
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And that wasn’t the only bit of extra symbolism Michelangelo snuck into the ceiling.
His Garden of Eden is off kilter and doesn’t include the infamous apple tree of sin. Oh there’s a tree alright. But its a fig tree—which is traditional in Jewish lore, but not in Christian. In fact, most of the chosen subjects are purely Old Testament and encoded with Jewish symbolism, leading some art historians to question whether the whole ceiling was meant to ask whether the Christian church had forgotten its roots in Judaism and its original message, an insult to the popes.
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The biggest discrepancy in the insult theory is Michelangelo’s portrayal of God. Christianity is the only Abrahamic faith that lets people give God a face. So if he was going gung-ho on Jewish symbolism he wouldn’t have painted the Almighty sitting in the middle of the ceiling.
In fact, before Michelangelo’s depiction of God, he was usually depicted a hand or a light burst in western art—not something in physical human form. Michelangelo changed the game on everyone by painting God as a person. And it’s his older, white bearded male deity that has become the archetypal representation for the Christian God ever since.
Going Back For More
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Michelangelo finished the ceiling frescoes in 1512 after four solid years of painting. He painted God last, saying that he wanted to make sure his fresco technique was up to par before tackling the central subject matter. It was only after the scaffolding was removed that anyone was ever able to see the whole bit of artwork at once, including Michelangelo. At least half of the ceiling had been covered at all times during work by the beams and towers of the scaffolds.
But Michelangelo wasn’t done with the Sistine Chapel just yet. He returned to it twenty-two years later in 1536 to spend five years painting “The Last Judgement” on the wall above the altar.
The Literal Cover Up
And other artists weren’t finished with his work either. The 1564 Council of Trent under the ultra-prudish Pope Pius IV deemed all the nudes on the ceiling and the walls to be in poor taste, and paid to have them covered up.
They hired poor artist Daniele da Volterra to come in and add fig leaves, draped clothing, plants and animals, and whatever else he could use to cover up everyone’s private parts with extra underclothes. Unfortunately, his desecration of some of the world’s most well renowned art has earned him the nickname Il Braghettone by posterity. It basically means Mr. Big Pants.
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Unless they’re busy with the conclave or crowning of a new Pope, the Sistine Chapel is open to tourists. A lot of tourists.
The Telegraph estimates that 25,000 people visit the Sistine Chapel every day, which adds up to about five million people a year. Given that entry is kinda expensive (and rising steadily), that means that the Sistine Chapel alone pulls in an annual income of 80 million Euros(+) per year for Vatican City. Not bad for a tiny autonomous nation.