The Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, which Michelangelo painted between 1508 and 1512, is one of the most relevant work of High Renaissance art. Five million tourists each year enter the Vatican to admire its beauty, but most know little about it. Below, you can find 10 compelling facts about the Sistine Chapel, its creation and interesting anecdotes about Michelangelo, Popes of the time and much more.
Sistine Chapel: look up – but not just at the ceiling
Sistine Chapel is famous for its ceiling’s frescoes, but these are part of a bigger scheme of decorations. The Chapel includes not only the large fresco called The Last Judgment, which Michelangelo painted to adorne the sanctuary wall, but also wall paintings by other main painters of the 15th century, such as Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli and Pietro Perugino, as well as a number of large tapestries by Raphael Sanzio, which illustrate the doctrine of the Catholic Church.
The restoration of Sistine Chapel: nudities revealed
Between 1980 and 1999, art restorers worked on a big portion of the Sistine Chapel, including Michelangelo’s ceiling and his fresco known as “The Last Judgment”. Hundreds of art experts meticulously took away layers of deposits and soot, managing in brightening the colors of the paintings and making them look fresh and spring-like. The most interesting fact is that this restoration unveiled the work of Pope Pius IV. Following the “Fig-Leaf Campaign“, led by Cardinal Carafa and Monsignor Sernini, the Pope ordered to place loincloths and fig leaves to cover human nudes during the 1560s.
The “Creation of Adam” might actually depict a human brain
In 1990 Doctor Frank Lynn Meshberger described what people had never seen for centuries — in the fresco “The Creation of Adam“, just behind the figure of God, you can spot an anatomically accurate image of the human brain! Remember the world-famous image where God and Adam reach for each joining fingers? Well, Meshberger succeded in linking each detail of the painting to an anatomical part of the brain. But how could Michelangelo know so much about the structure of the human brain? That’s probably because Michelangelo had been dissecting bodies since he was 18, mainly in the Monastery of Santo Spirito in Florence where the corpses often were taken from nearby hospitals.
Conclaves – meetings where Popes are elected – have been held in the Sistine Chapel since 1492
In order to avoid prolonged deadlocks during papal elections, local authorities decided to the seclude the cardinal electors in a location, until they finally agreed to elect the new Pope – a decision which is still announced to the public by a cloud of white smoke which goes out of the Sistine Chapel’s chimney. The location of this secluded meeting, called “conclave” (from the Latin “cum clavis” – meaning “with key”) was not fixed until the 14th century. After the Western Schism elections have always been held in Rome, except in 1800, when French troops invaded Rome and Cardinals had to meet in Venice, under Austrian protection. It must be noted, though, that the election of a new pope has been held in different locations in Rome since 1492 and Sistine Chapel became the sole venue only in 1870.
A bit of etimology: Nephew, Nipote and Nepotism
The Sistine Chapel takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV, but the Pope who commissioned Michelangelo’s frescoes in 1508 was Julius II, the nephew of Sixtus IV. It’s interesting to know that the English term “nepotism” derives from the Italian “nipote“, meaning “nephew”. This is because Popes had a habit of favouring relations and not only nephews: many times popes’ “nephews” were actually their sons!
Michelangelo DID NOT paint the Sistine Chapel lying down
Contrary to what most people believe Michelangelo wasn’t lying down when working o the frescoes. The artist and his assistants created a platform extended over half the area of the chapel to allow them to stand upright and reach above their heads. This wooden platform was attached to the walls through brackets. The idea that Michelangelo painted on his back might derive from the 1965 film “The Agony and the Ecstasy” in which Charlton Heston interpreted the genius working on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.
Sistine Chapel in numbers
The chapel’s paintings cover 12,000 square feet (1,110 square metres), which is about one-sixth the size of a football pitch.
An average of 2,000 people crowd into the chapel at any one time.
Michelangelo worked on the Chapel for about 4 years, between 1508 and 1512
The vaulted ceiling of Sistine Chapel rises to 20.7 metres (68 ft)
God is depicted 6 times in the ceiling frescoes
Sisto conducted the first Mass in the chapel on August 15, 1483
In the beginning was a starry sky – earlier version of the Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II della Rovere in 1508 to cover the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, frescoed about 30 years before by Piero Matteo d’Amelia with a star-spangled sky. Who knows what the chapel looked like, before Michelangelo worked on it?
Forbidden fruit… Or forbidden fruits?
In the ceiling panel depicting the Temptation, Michelangelo’s tree is a fig. But medieval traditions report that when Eve is in the Garden of Eden, she is tempted by the snake with an apple. This idea may have originated in a play on words. In the Latin text of the Bible the word ”malum,” for evil, is used in the phrase ”the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” (”boni et mali”). But the Latin for apple is also ”malum,” hence the analogy.
Certain Hebrew legends refer to the fruit of evil using different kind of fruits: figs, grapes and the ”etrog’, citrons are all used in the same context. That is probably why Michelangelo chose to paint a fig in his Temptation panel.
The pain of being pure at art – Michelangelo’s suffering at work
Besides being a gifted sculptor and painter, Michelangelo Buonarroti was also a very good poet. He wrote energetically about his suffering, leaving us many details of the unpleasant sides of working on the Cappella Sistina’s ceiling. Due to the unnatural position he had to hold when painting the ceiling, Michelangelo’s face was always covered in paint and he also developed many conditions, such as goiter an a knotted spine: he describes all his problems in a sonnet, which you can read in a wonderful English translation by Gail Mazur.