The Sistine Chapel: the story behind Michelangelo’s masterpiece
Out of Rome’s 900+ churches, one stands out – the Sistine Chapel. Located in the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel attracts around 5 million visitors every year – art lovers keen to experience the beauty of Michelangelo’s masterpiece first hand. But to truly appreciate the Sistine Chapel, you have to know the full story…
The creation of Michelangelo’s masterpiece: the Sistine Chapel ceiling
In 1508, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Although the commission was an honour for Michelangelo, it was also an enormous challenge. He was primarily a sculptor, not a painter. Therefore, covering an 800 square metre ceiling with frescoes was a daunting prospect.
Michelangelo initially planned to work with assistants, but in the end, he worked almost entirely alone, using a specialist technique with multiple layers of plaster. Accuracy was crucial – because he was working with fresh, wet plaster when painting, any mistakes meant re-painting the entire section again.
Contrary to popular belief, Michelangelo did not work lying on his back, but standing with his head tilted back. Working in this position day after day for four years took its toll. He even wrote a poem complaining about his discomfort:
In front, my skin grows loose and long; behind,
By bending it becomes more taut and strait;
Crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow
Another challenge that Michelangelo faced was creating lifelike figures on a domed surface. He had to bring these biblical scenes to life, producing vivid, realistic images that were clearly visible from the floor. His use of bright colours, strong outlines and proportions were key. Even though the ceiling is nearly 21 metres from the ground at its highest point, the viewer can appreciate even subtle details, like facial expressions and decorative flourishes.
Michelangelo’s backbreaking labour, obsessive attention to detail and artistic genius paid off in the end, and the reception was universally positive. In the words of Goethe a couple of centuries later:
“Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”
Michelangelo returns: The Last Judgement
Michelangelo returned to the Sistine Chapel 25 years later to decorate the altar wall with the painting known as The Last Judgement. It’s a remarkably ambitious achievement – a vast fresco with more than 300 figures.
The fresco depicts the Second Coming of Christ and the final judgement of humanity. Some rise to paradise, while others descend in the other direction, their fate decided by saints and demons. Like the ceiling, it also took four years to complete. Unlike the ceiling, not everyone was appreciative this time.
Some people in the Vatican were shocked by the nudity in the painting. The Pope’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, tutted:
“It was most disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully, and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and taverns”
In retaliation, Michelangelo depicted Da Cesena as Minos in the underworld, having his genitals attacked by a snake. But Da Cesena got his way, and the nudity was covered up by another artist, nicknamed “il Braghettone” (“the breeches painter”).
In later restoration work, the added clothing was removed, and The Last Judgement was restored to its former glory. And just like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it’s widely regarded as one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces. The master himself can even be spotted in a surreal self-portrait. Look carefully at the face of St Bartholomew’s flayed skin.
Visiting the Sistine Chapel on a Vatican tour
To make the most of your visit to the Sistine Chapel, we recommend booking a trip with Roads to Rome Private Tours. Our Early Vatican Tour gives you special access to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel before the crowds arrive. You can enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and get a better look at the artwork. Having a personal guide makes a huge difference to your enjoyment and understanding. You’ll discover details and symbolism you might have missed. Also, you will learn more about the life and times (and techniques) of Michelangelo – perhaps the greatest artist of all time.
Read more: 7 Things You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel (History)