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The Sistine Chapel, located within Vatican City in Rome, Italy contains one of the most famous frescoes in the world. On the chapel ceiling, Michelangelo’s masterpiece inspires wonder. Security officers within the room encourage silence out of respect for the space. Truly, the magnificence of the paintings instill reverence. It’s not difficult to observe the silence.
Photos are not allowed in the Sistine Chapel either, to protect the vibrancy of the artwork. So when my daughter, grandson and I toured the room, we strove to soak it all in. Although I grew up seeing limited photos of the chapel, that someone took, I had no idea what to expect. Several things surprised me.
Check out these fun facts you may not know about the Sistine Chapel and see if any surprise you!
Fun Facts You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel
Because we could not take photos in the chapel, I’m sharing photographs of other ceilings within Vatican City, which truly contains amazing collections of art. While not painted by Michelangelo, these ceilings inspire awe as well, when you look up.
The photo of the chapel ceiling, used here in this post, is one I purchased from the Canva site.
Where Does the Name Come From?
The chapel is named for Pope Sixtus IV, who commissioned the chapel’s construction in 1475. It rests on the foundation of the original Cappella Magna (Great Chapel). The chapel’s layout is reminiscent of the Temple of Solomon, as described in the Old Testament.
Size of the Chapel
The small size of the chapel surprised me. I think because the paintings are so complex, covering the ceiling and parts of the walls, I expected a huge room. In reality, the chapel measures a little larger than a professional basketball court.
Michelangelo Covered Another Artist’s Work
When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, beginning work in 1508, he covered the original fresco on the ceiling. Artist Piero Matteo d’Amelia created a blue night sky filled with gold stars.
Michelangelo Didn’t Want to Paint the Chapel Ceiling
Michelangelo considered himself primarily a sculpture, not a painter. In fact, he didn’t feel qualified for such a massive project as the chapel ceiling. However, because the pope asked him to do the work, he could not easily refuse. Michelangelo even entertained the thought that his rivals set up the commission, just to see him fail.
Michelangelo Expressed His Unhappiness in a Poem
The artist disliked his commission so much that he wrote a poem about it. His friend Giovanni da Pistoia received the lament, which included the line, “I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture, hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy.” I somehow find it refreshing that the great Michelangelo could poetically tell it like it is!
Did He Paint Lying on His Back?
Although the story suggests that Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling while lying on his back, he in fact built his own scaffolding. This allowed him to stand near the ceiling, providing better precision and control of his brushes. As his poem suggests, however, the cramped working conditions and long hours looking up created physical pain for him.
Four Years of Work
It took Michelangelo four years to complete the Sistine Chapel ceiling, covering 12,000 square feet of space. He left the portrait of God until last, so that he could refine and perfect his technique. A year into the painting, a large portion of the fresco developed mold. He had to repaint that section. He tried to use this setback as proof that he wasn’t the right artist for the work, however the pope asked him to continue.
Depiction of God
Michelangelo painted God as an older man with white hair and a long white beard. While this image later became common, Michelangelo was the first to portray God in this way. The angels surrounding God create an image with their spread wings that resembles a brain. Scholars think Michelangelo perhaps showed off his knowledge of anatomy.
Cover Up Those Nudes
In the 1560s Pope Pius IV ordered painted fig leaves and loincloths added to strategically cover the nudity in Michelangelo’s paintings. Fortunately, when restoration work was done between 1980 and 1999, to remove layers of grime that built up over the years, these cover ups were removed.
The Last Judgment
Michelangelo also painted The Last Judgment on the wall above the altar. However, he returned 22 years after he completed the ceiling, to add this fresco. The artist included two figures in The Last Judgment that represent him and neither are considered flattering.
A reoccurring motif in Michelangelo’s work is the acorn. This is a nod by the artist to the patronage of Pope Sixtus IV, whose family name was Rovere, meaning oak in Italian.
Millions of Visitors
When we are not experiencing a pandemic, the Sistine Chapel draws more than five million visitors every year. If a visitor has exposed shoulders or clothing that ends above the knees, he or she is asked to cover up while within the chapel. Due to the high volume of visitors, sweat, carbon dioxide and skin flakes pose a threat to the frescoes. Methods of controlling humidity and temperature are underway.
Well Worth a Visit
Our 12 day tour of Italy began in Rome. On our first full day there, we visited Vatican City. Nothing prepared me for the experience. The vast collections of art astounded me. St Peter’s Basilica moved me to tears. And the Sistine Chapel, which was near the end of our tour, truly was the highlight of an amazing half day spent exploring the vastness of Vatican City. I think my mouth involuntarily dropped open when I entered the chapel.
Is Vatican City and the Sistine Chapel worth seeing? Yes. Allot at least three hours and more if you have time. There’s so much to see and experience.
I hope the collection of fun facts you may not know about the Sistine Chapel inspires you to plan a visit. It’s a sight I’m extremely grateful for.
For now, check out this virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel.
Check out things you may not know about Michelangelo’s David HERE
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