Top 10 Secrets of the Sistine Chapel

Top 10 Secrets of the Sistine Chapel 1

1 What’s in the name?

The Sistine chapel or Capella Sistina is named after the pope Sixtus IV who commissioned the construction of the church in 1473.  Sixtus in Italia is Sisto, he also built a bridge between Trastevere and the old quarter which bears his name today – the Ponte Sisto.

2 Sistine Chapel Lock In

The Sistine chapel was a private chapel for the papal household, but its most important function was to house the election of new popes called the Conclave. It comes from the Latin cum clave which means ‘with a key’, because the cardinals were literally locked into the chapel to vote for the new pope. This still happens today; they have no contact with the outside world and must vote again and again until the new pope is unanimously chosen.

3 Cleaning bill

The ceiling of the chapel took 14 years to restore (completed in 1994), and millions of pounds.  Scaffolds were constructed and it was painstakingly cleaned by hand with distilled water, removing over 450 years’ worth of grime – soot, dust and candle wax.  When it was revealed scholars and art historians were aghast at the pastel colours, he had used pinks and greens with brilliant blues, they argued that the restorers had forever damaged Michelangelo’s work.

4 No photos!

The reason you can’t take photographs dates back to the restoration of the ceiling.  Nippon television network paid for the work and they held the copyright for images and sold postcards and posters to recoup the money. The contract has long since expired but the rule has stuck with the common misconception that flash photography may harm the paintwork.

5 No Nudity please

Whilst you might be surprised by the amount of flesh on display on the ceiling and the back wall, originally there was a lot more! Shortly after Michelangelo’s death, Pope Paul III ordered the naughty bits of the saints and martyrs to be covered with carefully placed drapery.  More than 40 alterations were made covering family jewels and the full nudity of the female figures. The artist chosen (Daniele dal Volterra) would forever be known as ‘Il Braghettone’ the britches maker or underpants painter!

6 Getting your own back

When the Last Judgment was almost complete it was unveiled for the pope.  The Master of Ceremonies Biagio di Cesena was disgusted by the cavorting naked figures saying it was more appropriate for a bath-house or a tavern than the pope’s church.  Michelangelo got his own back and depicted Biagio as Minos the judge of the underworld with the ears of an ass and a serpent attacking his groin.

Sistine Chapel

7 The big man, himself

Michelangelo’s depiction of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is one of the first in the history of art. Previously, the almighty was shown as a divine light coming from the sky.   Michelangelo’s God is reminiscent of Zeus, a powerful bearded figure, but in a pink dress.  In the panel where God separates the Moon and the sun you can even see his perfectly outlined bum!

8 Who’s who

The side panels of the chapel are often overlooked, but these earlier works include paintings by Renaissance heavyweights from Florence. When Sixtus commissioned the decoration in the 1470s he used the best artists of the day including Botticelli, Cosimo Roselli, Pinturicchio,

and the tutors of Michelangelo and Raphael; Ghirlandaio and Perugino.  These panels describe the lives of Moses and Jesus, representing the New and Old testament.  When Michelangelo had to remove some of Perugino and Ghirlandaio’s work he was effectively painting over the work of his mentor.

9 Selfie

Michelangelo put a self-portrait of himself in the last judgment.  Michelangelo was 62 when he started painting the last judgment, 30 years after painting the ceiling.  It was a difficult time in his personal life and the city of Rome had recently been sacked by an army of 10,000 which left the city literally in tatters.  Take a look at the bald, bearded figure of St Bartholomew holding a knife in one hand and his flayed skin in the other.  The face of the skin shows dark curled hair and a beard and is a self-portrait showing Michelangelo literally stretched thin by his work and the demands of his family.

10 Painting is for girls!

Michelangelo was a sculptor, not a painter.  In the early 1500s he was working on a tomb for Julius II which was to be his seminal work.  When the pope canceled the commission and told him he was to paint the Sistine chapel instead, he flatly refused.  He was so outraged that he got on his horse and rode back to his home in Florence, vowing never to work for the pope again.  It was Bramante the lead architect who suggested it and Michelangelo was convinced he had been set up and left the city.  When the pope’s guards dragged him back to Rome by the scruff of his neck he finally relented and agreed to paint the ceiling but only if he had full artistic control of the designs.

Click to find out more on our Vatican Museum’s Sistine Chapel, & St Peter’s Basilica Tour

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