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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City

What is the Sistine Chapel?

The Sistine Chapel is a Spectacular 15th-century chapel commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV (who gives the building its name) featuring works by the finest artists of their age, including Michelangelo, Pinturicchio, and Botticelli.

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

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Sistine Chapel History

The vibrant decoration of the Sistine Chapel includes some of the world’s most famous painted works, and can be divided into three periods, each coinciding with a critical stage in the development of Renaissance art. Although the chapel started out as a modest space for well-educated Christian priests, it’s now one of the most sought-after sights in the world and is visited by an astonishing five million tourists each year.

The side walls of the chapel are its earliest decorations, with busy scenes detailing the lives of both Jesus and Moses. Pope Sixtus IV, who commissioned the work and gives his name to the chapel, assembled a dream team of the most distinguished 15th-century Renaissance painters, including Pinturicchio, Botticelli and Michelangelo’s future painting teacher, Ghirlandaio. Sixtus wanted a comparison between the Old and New Testaments, between the lives of Moses and Christ. The design was meant to represent both the continuity and evolution of the Christian religion. In these scenes you’ll also notice familiar landscapes, including Roman monuments, and images of the papal friends and family.

In 1492, the New World was discovered by Columbus and the chapel’s new imagery came to reflect the mood of cultural and political self-confidence that characterised the time. A 33-year-old Michelangelo was asked by Pope Julius II to decorate the 500-square-metre ceiling. However, Michelangelo, who considered himself to be more of a sculptor than a painter, was at first not particularly keen on accepting the commission. When he did eventually accept – possibly in order to foil his rival, Bramante – he convinced Julius to scrap his plan of painting the Twelve Apostles, and accept his novel, far more complex design. Instead, Michelangelo painted the energetic and audacious story of Genesis which you can see above you.

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Since the busy scenes that filled the side walls would have little impression from such a distance, Michelangelo had to present a bold new style, incorporating his knowledge of sculpture, with images and structures that appear to project downwards from the ceiling itself. At its centre is the Creation of Adam, where a languid Adam extends his arm towards God. Underneath God’s left arm, Eve can be seen peering over at the reclining Adam. Amazingly, with the help of a team of diligent assistants and copious scaffolding, it took him only three and a half years to complete.

In 1534, more than 20 years after painting the ceiling, a 59-year-old Michelangelo was sent for by Clement VII to complete the decoration of the chapel. This time, adorning the altar wall, the ageing artist depicted the Last Judgement, a striking work with its mass of over 300 individual naked bodies. Towards the top left are the saved, proudly posing and flexing their muscles, with a powerful spotlight illuminating their figures. Michelangelo decided to depict this enormous mass of bodies in an effort to demonstrate inner strength as external power. However, complaints of the nudity on show quickly spread, and soon his masterpiece was condemned as pornographic. Soon after he died, a number of the figures’ groins were painted over and concealed by clothing.

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