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.
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.