The Sistine Chapel (Cappella Sistina) is an incredibly famous tourist attraction that you can see when visiting the Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani). The Chapel itself is located in the Apostolic Palace (Palazzo Apostolico) where the Pope resides, and attracts almost 25,000 visitors per day! Pope Sixtus IV had the Sistine Chapel restored between 1477 and 1480, and it is used for many religious functions today, including the selection of a new Pope.
You may be familiar with the smoky black (no, we have not found the new Pope) or white smoke (yes, we have found a new Pope) that is usually shown coming out of a small chimney when deciding who the new Pope will be. This all takes place here in this Chapel.
Yet the main reason that tourists in Rome flock to this location, is because of the famous frescoes painted by Michelangelo, The Last Judgement (Il Giudizio Universale) and the entire ceiling that is most famous for the Creation of Adam (Creazione di Adamo) in the center.
However there are many frescoes here embellishing the walls besides the two mentioned. What is interesting though, is there are deeper meanings behind the images you see, and in this article, we’re going to go over a few you’ll want to look out for when making the trip here!
The South Wall
When you enter the Sistine Chapel, it’s as if you’ve walked right into an ancient painting. Every bit of wall and every piece of the ceiling has been touched with a paint brush, making it a magical moment to experience. Let’s take a look at the wall to your left as you enter, known as the South Wall. These six panels that you see are telling stories about the life of Moses, beginning from the altar in the room.
The first panel (painted by Perugino), starting from the right, is of Moses after he fled Egypt for murder, and sought refuge in the land of Midian (where he spent 40 years), as he ran from the Pharaoh who had all intentions to kill him for his wrongdoing. In the second fresco (painted by Botticelli), it is showing you a series of events that took place during Moses’ life. If you look carefully at the bottom right you’ll see Moses killing the Egyptian, who was thought to have attacked a Hebrew. Look carefully at the top right, as this is where God came to Moses in the shape of a burning bush, telling him to return to Egypt. The third panel (painted by Rosselli and d’Antonio), is known as The Destruction of the Pharaoh’s Army in the Red Sea. Here it shows Moses as he parted the waters for him and his men to make it to safety while he’s being chased by the Egyptians.
The fourth fresco (painted by Rosselli), is another series of events that occurred in Moses’ life. You see him at the top of a mountain (Mount Sinai) as he receives the tablets from God with the covenant law inscribed upon them. The center is supposed to depict when Moses became infuriated after he found out that a golden calf had been made and worshipped as an idol while he was away. In the fifth panel (painted by Botticelli), you’ll see scenes illustrating when Moses was revolted against, and how God had the earth swallow the ones fighting against the leadership along with 250 other followers.
The last panel (some say painted by Luca Signorelli, others say Bartolomeo della Gatta) on the South Wall depicts Moses’ death, and you’ll see him as he hands over his leadership to Joshua (who was his successor). Afterwards, in the background you’ll see Moses being shown the Promised Land along with those mourning his death.
The North Wall
Opposite of the South Wall, is the North Wall, also made up of six frescos that tell the story of Christ going from left to right. On the first panel (painted by Perugino), if you look to the right you’ll see John the Baptist preaching to a crowd of eager listeners, then on the left side it is showing the scene of Moses’ son’s circumcision. The middle is clearly of Jesus being baptized, though what’s interesting about this is that both are initiation rituals into two different religions.
The second fresco (painted by Botticelli) tells the story after Jesus’ baptism when he went to spend 40 days fasting in the woods, as you can see pictured in the top left. Numerous times during his fast, the devil showed himself asking Jesus to prove he was the son of God, but each time the devil was refused.
The third fresco (painted by Ghirlandaio) pictures the scenes of Peter and Andrew, thought to be Jesus’ first followers, as they are called before a huge audience. The first scene is shown in the background as Peter and Andrew are in a boat in the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus is calling them to the shore.
In the fourth fresco (painted by Rosselli) you can see Jesus standing on the mount telling the people the Christian guidelines, that he later gave to Moses (South Wall, panel 4). The fifth panel (painted by Perugino) is a really significant scene depicting when Jesus handed Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. This is also why you often see depictions of Saint Peter carrying a set of keys.
An interesting aspect of this painting is that Perugino apparently sketched himself in alongside Baccio Pontelli, who was the architect that designed the Sistine Chapel. The last panel (painted by Rosselli) refers to The Last Supper when Jesus shares his wine and bread with his followers, telling them that he is soon to die. You’ll notice that the fellow diners are whispering amongst themselves in shock of the news.
The Last Judgement
Now what’s really interesting about the South and North Walls is that there were originally eight panels in each of the series. Apparently, the four frescoes began from the altar in the room, but were lost when Michelangelo painted the Last Judgement, which took four years to complete, from 1536 to 1541. Despite this unfortunate doing, the Last Judgement is really a remarkable piece of art.
The painting represents the second coming of Jesus Christ, who you’ll see centered towards the top half as he judges all of mankind. On the left side of the wall, you’ll see the saved ones as they’re uplifted and rise into the Kingdom of Heaven, while on the right hand side it is just the opposite as the damned are being forced into the pits of Hell by demonic figures. If you look down at the right corner, you’ll see a man with a snake wrapped around his body.
As Michelangelo was working on this mural, a papal master named Biagio da Cesena was very critical, and shamed the piece for having nude figures, saying that this sacred place had no room for such a display. So, Michelangelo included Cesena in his artwork by portraying him as Minos, the judge of the underworld. You’ll also notice that in response to the criticism received, the demon’s nudity is covered by the snake’s mouth biting Minos’ manhood. In between the righteous and the damned you’ll see the angels and saints as they are using trumpets to wake the dead, signaling that judgment day has come. In fact, you can see the Archangel Michael reading from a book, the names of those who are to be saved, while on the left it is the book that lists those who are to descend down below.
If you look below Christ, you’ll see Saint Bartholomew, a martyr who faced an unfortunate fate of being flayed alive. It is his skin that hangs from his left hand, and if you take a closer look at this, you’ll notice a face that has been drawn on the skin. This is said to be Michelangelo’s self-portrait. To the left and right of Jesus Christ you will see Saint John the Baptist, the very muscular figure staring back at Christ, and Saint Peter is positioned on the right, you’ll notice him by the two keys he has in his hands.
An interesting fact about Saint Peter here, is that Michelangelo painted him in Pope Paul III’s image, who had asked Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgement, as he thought it to be more appropriate for Rome during that time period. The original mural was supposed to be of the resurrection, but unfortunately Pope Clement VII, who had first requested this piece, had passed away.
A forced painting
Turning your head to the ceiling is a piece Michelangelo finished in 1512, and afterwards he didn’t pick up another paint brush until around 1536, when he painted the Last Judgement. In between the years he decided to focus more on sculpture, which he preferred, instead. As we gaze up at something so magnificent, it’s hard to imagine that Michelangelo didn’t even want to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the first place.
During this time, he was focusing on sculpting the Pope’s tomb that you can visit in Saint Peter in Chains (San Pietro in Vincoli), also in Rome. However, Pope Julius II was so adamant about him painting the ceiling, that when the French war took place, Michelangelo actually fled Rome just so he could continue sculpting instead. His getaway came to an abrupt halt after the Pope called him back to Rome in 1508, and a contract was signed stating he would be the one to work on this ceiling. Needless to say, even though Michelangelo may have been slightly forced to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, it’s now among the most famous of painted interiors in the world!
The illustrated story, mainly from Genesis in the Bible, begins at the entrance and is recognized as the Separation of Light from Darkness (Separazione delle Luce dalle Tenebre). To the left, you’ll see the Creation of the Sun, the Moon, and the Plants (Creazione del Sole, della Luna, e delle Piante). There are two scenes depicted here: the right is when God created the sun and the moon (you can see his fingers pointing to both the Sun and Moon), and the left is of him creating plant life. The third panel, continuing to the left, is the Separation of Land and Water (Separazione della Terra delle Acque).
The Creation of Adam (and Eve)
The fourth panel, is one we have all been exposed to at one point during our lives. This is the iconic moment when God creates life. You can see God on the right side reaching out to touch Adam (on the left) to deliver the ‘spark of life’. Many believe that Adam is mirroring God’s image to reflect how the Bible tells that man was created in the image of God. Another suggested depiction here is that the area around God displays an anatomically correct abstract of the human brain.
Scientists have been researching this theory since 1990, and oddly enough if you look a little longer at this section, you can sort of see that it does take on the shape of the human brain – Michelangelo was, after all, fascinated with anatomy. The Creation of Eve (Creazione di Eva) is shown in the fifth fresco. You’ll see Adam asleep while God is creating another human from his rib. The long hair and body shape represents the so-called first woman, Eve.
The sixth panel, the Fall of Man, shows Eve as she takes the fruit from the hands of the Devil who is disguised as a serpent, and has misinformed her that after she eats the fruit she will know all good and all evil, just as God does. The seventh panel, the Expulsion from Paradise, shows Adam and Eve being cast out of the land for disobeying the word of God.
Noah’s Sacrifice, shown in the eighth fresco, is after Noah built an altar to give thanks to God after the Flood. By doing so he sacrifices some of the animals that he had brought on his ark. The ninth panel, the Flood, actually shows the water rising as people scramble to seek refuge. In the very back, you can see the larger boat of the two nearest ones, which is Noah’s ark, the only ship said to have survived. The last panel, Noah’s Drunkenness, tells the story of when Noah had been working in his vineyard. You see him asleep in the middle, due to him drinking too much wine, and it is his son Ham who found him, thus calling his two brothers, Shem and Japheth.
The replicas at the entrance
If you look towards the door you entered through, you’ll see another painting that actually covers a piece of the entrance door that had collapsed back in 1522. Several frescoes were damaged because of this: Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Resurrection of Jesus, and another fresco that implied those talking of Moses’ remains by Luca Signorelli. The paintings you see now, are actually replacements done by Hendrick van den Broeck as well as Matteo da Lecce.
Arrive early to avoid the crowds
The entry ticket into the Sistine Chapel is combined with the Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani), and will cost 16 EUR (18.19 USD) per person. The ticket office is open from Monday to Saturday from 9am until 4pm, though the Museums and Chapel stay open until 6pm.
Keep in mind that the building is closed on Sundays, making Monday the perfect day for a visit as most of the other cathedrals and museums in Rome are closed. The last Sunday of the month, excluding Easter Sunday, the 29th of June, and Christmas) will grant you free entrance into the vicinities from 9am until 12:30pm, with the museums and chapel closing at 6pm.
It is advised that you arrive as early as possible to avoid the extremely long lines that can accumulate around the building. Afterwards, there are plenty of cafes, restaurants, gelato shops, and places to purchase souvenirs for your friends and family back home.
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