Though named after Pope Sixtus IV, who commissioned the chapel construction, the Sistine Chapel was given everlasting fame by Pope Julius II. For, in 1508, it was he who commissioned Michaelangelo to paint frescoes to cover the 10,000 square foot ceiling.
But on the way to the ceiling there are many delights for visitors to Rome and Vatican City, of which the Sistine forms a part. The chapel is nearby the Vatican Museum, itself worth a day or two. And, St. Peter’s is also not far away with another Michaelangelo masterpiece, the Pieta not to mention the dome of the basilica.
The chapel itself is on the small side, only 41m (135 ft) by 13.4m (44ft). But within these walls are works of art that would happily be acquired by any of the major art museums in the world. All have benefited from a large restoration project carried out from 1979 to 1999.
Many famous names are represented and many others that should be better known. There are several Botticelli works here, including the 1482 Life of Moses and The Punishment of Korah. Alongside and nearby are Perugino, Ghirlandaio and Rosselli, master artists of the period.
Of course, the main attraction – and properly so – remains the Sistine Ceiling. Formerly decorated only with a bland covering of painted stars, after four years of literally back breaking labor, Michaelangelo transformed it into the glorious nine-panel magnum opus it is today.
Drawing from stories in the Old Testament, Michaelangelo festooned the ceiling with Sibyls, prophets, Noah, obscure nude males, and – not least – Jehovah giving life to Adam with the touch of a finger.
Cleaned and restored in the 1990s, the ceiling shows the magnificent colors of one of the five greatest painters the world has ever seen. As Goethe described it: “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”
Spending four years on a specially constructed scaffold, the paint nearly making him blind, the great artist had to devise and supervise a dozen innovations. Just as one example, an entirely new plaster – intonaco, still in use today – was created to resist mold and hold the paint properly.
Though the main sections were completed in 1512, Michaelangelo returned to the work more than 20 years later to paint the Last Judgment, beginning in 1535 and finishing the work in 1541. It too is not to be missed. Nor can it be, really, since it covers the entire wall behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel.
Among other fascinating aspects is the depiction of St. Bartholomew, a self-portrait that shows the figure having his skin flayed. Michaelangelo was heavily criticized at the time, and by powerful figures, for his frequent depiction of nude figures. Though he won a temporary victory, the genitalia were later painted over.
Even those not usually interested in fine art come away from seeing the Sistine Chapel with a sense of awe. No visit to Rome is complete without a viewing of this site of so many masterpieces.