The Sistine Chapel

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Podcast Transcript

Located in Vatican City, just off St. Peter’s Square lies one of the plainest and most uninteresting buildings you might ever find. It has no adornments and it is just a solid beige color. 

However, inside that bland structure, you will find one of humanity’s greatest artistic achievements, and to enjoy it you just might get a sore neck.

Learn more about the Sistine Chapel, the building, the art, and its history, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The story of the Sistine Chapel starts with the namesake of the building, Pope Sixtus IV. 

Born Della Rovere in 1414 in Genoa, he was elected pope in 1471. He selected the papal name Sixtus which was a really odd choice because it hadn’t been used by a pope in almost 1,000 years. 

To provide an overview of what was happening at this time, Rome was part of the Papal States, which was the territory controlled directly by the pope. 

At the Vatican, the current St. Peter’s Basilica hadn’t been built yet. The primary church was what we now call Old St. Peter’s, which was the original church built on the site by Emperor Constantine. 

Old St. Peter’s was much smaller than the current St. Peter’s and it was also decrepit and falling apart. However, it would be decades before construction on the new building would start and over a century before it would be completed, but that is a story for another episode. 

One of the parts of the papal court was known as the Papal Chapel. The term “chapel” here is a name of a group of people.  The Papal Chapel consisted of the priests and other assistants, both clergy and laypeople, who were responsible for performing religious services.  There were about 200 people in the papal chapel during the reign of Sixtus IV.

The papal chapel assembled almost every week in full. Some of these were major holiday masses like Christmas and Easter, and others were smaller affairs. Many of these masses were held in the Cappella Maggiore, or the Great Chapel.

Like Old St. Peter’s Basilica, it too was in a state of disrepair. 

So, Sixtus IV decided that it was time to build a new chapel. 

The Cappella Maggiore was demolished and a new chapel was designed for the same site. 

The new chapel was designed by the Italian architect Baccio Pontelli. Construction took place from 1473 to 1481 under the supervision of architect Giovannino de Dolci.

The dimensions of the new chapel are believed to be approximately the same as the Cappella Maggiore which stood on the spot.

The chapel was consecrated on August 15, 1483.

Sixtus IV died one year later. The chapel was named after Sixtus and called the Sistine. There are many people who mistakenly call it the Sixteenth Chapel, but that is a misnomer. There aren’t 15 other chapels. 

As I mentioned in the intro, the building is self is rather plain. Inside it is 40.9 meters or 134 feet long by 13.4 meters or 44 feet wide. The ceiling is 20.7 meters or 68 feet high. The dimensions are a lot like a very tall gymnasium.

The outside of the building is nothing but plain brick. There is no ornamentation at all really. 

You can clearly see the top half of the building from St. Peter’s Square and most people probably don’t even realize what it is because it looks like every other building. The building has no facade and there isn’t even an external entrance. 

Of course, the walls of the Sistine Chapel aren’t what made it famous. It is the interior. 

When the chapel was originally built, the ceiling was just pained blue with some gilded stars. Beyond that, there was nothing special about it.

The original major artwork was on the walls of the chapel. A series of frescos were commissioned by Sixtus IV in 1480. On one side there was a series showing the Life of Moses, and on the other side was the Life of Christ. Originally, both end walls were also part of the original artwork.

The panels were created by different artists including Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino and Cosimo Rosselli. 

Here I should take a moment to explain exactly what a fresco is. 

A fresco isn’t a normal painting. With most paintings, you just apply paint to the surface of whatever it is you are painting on. A fresco is painted on a fresh wet plaster surface. 

The paint mixes with the plaster and becomes integrated with the plaster as it drys. It’s used almost exclusively on buildings and other structures. 

The primary benefit of the technique is that it can last a really long time because the paint isn’t just sitting on the surface.

The next phase of the interior of the Sistine Chapel took place in 1508 during the reign of Pope Julius II.  Julius was a very different breed of Pope. For starters, his name wasn’t in honor of Pope Julius I, but rather Julius Caesar. 

He was also a very aggressive pope in defending the Papal States and he earned the nickname, the Warrior Pope.

He was also a builder pope. He began the construction of the new St. Peter’s Basilica, which would become the world’s largest church.

He also commissioned an enormous marble tomb for himself which was being built by Italy’s greatest sculptor, Michelangelo. The tomb was originally designed to have 40 statues and was initially planned to be finished in five years. 

The relationship between Michelangelo and Julian was tempestuous. They argued all the time about the direction of the project, but ultimately Julian respected Michelangelo and Michelangelo wanted the commission from Julian. 

It was during the creation of Julian’s tomb that the pope asked Michelangelo about painting the pendentives in the chapel. FYI, the pendentives are the triangular spaces between the walls and a vaulted ceiling. 

The original plan was to create images of the 12 apostles. 

Michelangelo, however, didn’t really want the job. He already had a lot on his plate creating Julian’s tomb which was an enormous sculpting project. Moreover, he wasn’t a painter. He was a sculptor. He suggested that Raphael, one of his rivals, be given the assignment instead.

Eventually, he gave in and agreed to do it, but he wanted free artistic control of the project. Michelangelo envisioned a much bigger project covering the creation, the fall of man, and the genealogy of Christ.

He signed the contract on May 8, 1508, for 3,000 ducats which would be approximately $600,000 today. 

It was a huge project. The entire fresco covers over 500 square meters of area, and to this day it remains the largest fresco in the world. 

The scaffolding had to be custom-designed by Michelangelo. The normal scaffolding required putting holes and the ceiling and that didn’t sit well with him. 

Contrary to legend, Michelangelo didn’t paint the ceiling on his back. He actually did it standing up. 

He also truly hated the experience. He was constantly fighting with the pope to get paid and about the direction of the project. 

However, he did eventually finish the project and he completed it in 1512. 

If you want to watch a great dramatization of the creation of the ceiling, I highly recommend the 1965 film, The Agony and the Ecstasy with Charlton Heston as Michelangelo and Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II. I checked and it is available for rent on Amazon Prime. 

I absolutely love all 1960’s 70 mm epic films and this one falls squarely into this category. 

The next big artistic project for the Sistine Chapel was the creation of a tapestry that would hang below the frescos on the walls. These were commissioned by Pope Leo X and the commission was given to Raphael. One side was to be the life of St. Peter and the other was to be the life of St. Paul.

It took four years to weave the tapestries. However, they were all lost when Rome was sacked in May of 1527 by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. 

Raphael created 10 cartoons showing what the tapestries should look like. Seven of them still exist in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. From these original drawings, copies of the tapestries were made and the Vatican was able to complete a full set based on the Raphael design.

They are still occasionally displayed in the Sistine Chapel from time to time.

The last big artistic project was creating another fresco on the wall over the altar. This was again given to Michelangelo, 25 years after getting the ceiling commission, and he created his famous Last Judgement. 

The fresco has over 300 people, many of whom are based on actual people in Rome at the time. Most of them were painted nude and their naughty bits were subsequently painted over. 

It depicts souls that were saved ascending into heaven and the damned descending into hell. 

He completed it in 1541 when he was almost 67 years old.

With the completion of the Last Judgement, there wasn’t anything left to do artistically in the chapel. All the walls and the ceiling were filled. 

Starting in 1492, the Sistine Chapel began being used for papal conclaves where popes were elected. 

In the 19th century, a stove was eventually installed and a chimney was put through the roof. They will burn ballots after each election, and they will add material to make the smoke black if they have not elected a pope and will make the smoke white if they have elected a pope.

Over the centuries, the frescos inside the Sistine Chapel became dirty. Most of the dirt came from years of burning candles, whose soot would rise to the ceiling. 

In 1980, the decision was made to undergo a major restoration of the frescos. The Nippon Television Network Corporation of Japan paid $4.2 million dollars towards the restoration in exchange for exclusive filming rights. 

The restoration began in 1984 and it took 10 years to complete. The frescos were found to be in excellent condition other than the dirt and grime which had accumulated over time. 

Today, you can visit the Sistine Chapel as part of a Vatican Museum Tour, and it will be one of the stops in the 2022 Everything Everywhere Rome Tour. It is usually what you walk through when you are leaving the museum. 

They require silence when you are inside and there are no pictures are allowed.

If you are ever in Rome, visiting the Sistine Chapel is something you really should go out of your way to see. On my next visit, I’m considering even bringing a small pair of binoculars just to see details in the frescos more closely. 

Perhaps the biggest reason to visit was given by the 18th-century German philosopher Goethe who said, “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”