Our Tour of The Vatican

Photos are not allowed in the Sistine Chapel.  This photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo
Photos are not allowed in the Sistine Chapel. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Nothing quite prepares you for viewing The Vatican.  Vatican City looks small on the map, and compared to the rest of Rome it is fairly small.  However, it takes four hours just to walk through the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica, so it is not small.

Although everyone has seen a photo of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which was painted by Michelangelo 500 years ago, a photo cannot begin to do justice to the experience of seeing the ceiling through one’s own eyes.  The photos do not provide any indication of the scope or scale of the artwork.  Also, the appearance of three-dimensional columns on the ceiling is an illusion.  The arched ceiling has a smooth surface.

Even though the Sistine Chapel is no bigger than a high school gymnasium, there is so much to take in visually that we took a bench along the side of the chapel and we sat for half an hour just looking at the artwork.  Our necks hurt from looking up constantly, so we took in the murals along the side walls as well, which are the work of other Renaissance masters.

So much history has taken place within these walls.  This is the chapel where the Congress of Cardinals votes to select a new pope.  This is where, after over a four year span, Michelangelo stepped out of his primary artistic role as a sculptor to paint over 5,000 square feet of frescoes on the ceiling and high walls of the chapel.  Unlike the portrayal of Michelangelo played by Charlton Heston in the movie The Agony and the Ecstasy, he did not lay on his back to paint the entire ceiling.  The artist did spend a great deal of time bending over backwards, however, and that had to be agony.

Michelangelo had many helpers who most likely mixed paint and made the many trips up and down the scaffolds which reached over sixty feet above the floor.  Assistants also probably did the messy job of mixing fresh plaster since Michelangelo took on the difficult task of painting frescoes by applying paint while the plaster was still drying, thus creating the strongest possible bond between paint and plaster.  Even if some talented assistants had been tasked with painting a bit of sky or scenery, Michelangelo gets the credit for designing and painting the masterpiece that is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  He hired and fired so many assistants that no one else could take credit for any significant contribution to the finished work.

Twenty-five years after the completion of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo was approached on behalf of the pope with the commission to paint the vast wall behind the altar which now holds his other chapel masterpiece, The Last Judgment.  He was hesitant to take the job thinking it was a test that would taint his reputation if he failed to live up to the standard he had set with the chapel ceiling. 

Photo credit:  Wikipedia Commons

The Last Judgment by Michelangelo
Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

The Last Judgment was the largest fresco ever painted up to that time, and it was a controversial piece given the amount of nudity that was depicted.  When the pope’s Master of Ceremonies, Biaggio di Cesena, proclaimed the painting was more suitable to a public bath or tavern than a holy place, Michelangelo painted a likeness of Cesena on the body of Minos, Judge of the Underworld, with donkey ears to symbolize foolishness and with a snake coiled around his middle to cover his genitalia.  (bottom right corner)  Cesena complained to the pope, who is said to have joked that his judgment did not extend to hell, so the painting remained unchanged.

During the ecumenical Council of Trent, nudity in religious art was condemned.  In 1564, after Michelangelo’s death, the genitalia referred to as ‘objectionable’ in The Last Judgment were painted over with drapery, which is how the painting has been viewed to this day.

Getting to the Sistine Chapel involves strolling through extensive galleries and museums.  You will begin to appreciate the vast treasures of The Vatican when you join our walk in this short video.


10 comments on “Our Tour of The Vatican

  1. reocochran says:

    You offer us profound thoughts that accompany magnificent photographs. The actual places you are seeing, cannot be totally depicted in all honesty, as you mentioned, through pictures or even videos. Your sharing your feelings of the awesomeness, those are helpful. Sitting for a half hour to study what a long journey took you to view, over oceans and miles. Yes, well worth it! I loved the Sistine Chapel and the history of how it was painted. I did not know that M. had so many assistants and enjoyed reading of the details of the tedious job of mixing paint and plaster, etc. I enjoyed the painting of the Last Judgment, too. You have enlightened me, along with giving me more art for this week to ponder! Thanks, Mike! Hugs, Robin

    • Mike Lince says:

      I had to wait a day and a half during our travel from Rome to Barcelona to respond, and it was worth the wait. Your comments are always a fine reward. We spent a whole week in Rome, and I will say The Vatican tops everything we saw during our visit. Thank you for sharing your comments, Robin. – Mike

  2. Oh the gall of anyone thinking that they could paint “drapes” over genitalia, that Michelangelo had painted!! I can’t imagine taking a brush to such work! This is stunning Mike. True, photos must not come close and one day I will absolutely go to see it in person! I LOVE Italy, but have not visited Rome yet. It is high on Aaron’s list, however, so one day we’ll go. 🙂

    • Mike Lince says:

      ‘The gall!’ I know! I was stunned to learn that Cesena likened the artwork to that of a bath or tavern. Like he’s an art critic? Well, he sealed his place in history when Michelangelo painted his likeness as an ass. Otherwise, who would ever have heard of Cesena? I know Italy is a place you care about, and I think of you when I view some of the sights knowing how much you would love it. I am sure you will make it one day. – Mike

      • I’ve been to Italy, and love it, but never Rome… it’s a definite destination one day! Love it. This was a fantastic taste of what’s to come! Just fabulous! Hey, and really love that Michelangelo had the good humor and bitchiness to paint Cesena as an ass. So cool!

  3. I see a business opportunity here Mike. A 12X12 in mirror with a loop attached to two corners. Put the strings over your neck, perch the mirror on your belt buckle, and look down to see the art, instead of up. Infinitely more comfortable for the neck. ~James

  4. Wow, a most fascinating and beautifully illustrated history lesson! Thanks.

  5. […] was glorious, no question.  For me, our visit to The Vatican was the greatest highlight.  I will always think of Rome as a must-see place, one that made me say […]

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