Vatican City, St. Peter's Basilica and Their Famous Artworks

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Saint Peter's and the Vatican obelisk

Vatican City is the world's smallest country. It covers 108.7 acres and is ruled by the Pope, who also carries the title of Bishop of Rome. Some 2000 people work in the sovereign enclave, mostly craftsmen and workers, and about 300 people live within its walls. It has its own bank, commissary, and pharmacy as well as a post office that sells Vatican issued stamps. It may be the world's smallest state but it has the world's largest constituency: 1 billion Catholics — or almost a sixth of mankind. [Source: James Fallows, National Geographic, December 1985]

In addition to Saint Peters Basilica and Square and eight museums, the Vatican contains the Ethiopian College, Pilgrim Tourist Information Office, the Vatican Post Office (with branches in the Vatican Museum and St. Peter's Square near the Pilgrim Tourist Information Office), Vatican Radio, the Papal apartments and the Secret Archives. To help the Pope get around the Vatican it has its own heliport and train station. About half of the Vatican's 108.7 acres is covered by gardens which like most of the city is closed off to visitors.

Rome is the See of the Pope (the Holy See), who resides in Vatican City, an independent papal state within the boundaries of Rome since February, 1929. A see is the jurisdiction area of a Bishop and the Pope is the Bishop of Rome. The word "see," as in the "Holy See" come from Latin “sedes” ("seat"). It refers to the "Holy Seat" of the Bishop of Rome, or the Pope. Rome has been the home of the Holy See since A.D. 42.

Vatican City came into existence in 1929 as separate state with the Lateran Treaty, a deal struck between the church and the Italian leader Benito Mussolini that gave the Pope legal authority in Vatican territory in exchange for the church remaining neutral in Italian political affairs. Before the Lateran Treaty the Pope ruled over a shrinking and warring kingdom known as the papal states.

The papacy — the Holy See — has endured for 1,500 years in what is purportedly an unbroken succession, a fact which is close to, but not quite, the truth. Of the 266 popes recognized by the Catholic church, many of the early ones were at best bishops of Rome, who were recognized as popes hundreds of years after their death. St. Peter, one of Jesus’s Apostle, was technically the first Pope. He is said to have served from around A.D. 30 to 64. But some reports say he never even visited Rome. He was purportedly succeeded by St. Linus (served A.D. 64-76). Most of the early popes were canonized as saints.

model of Vatican City

Most of the popes said to be buried at the Vatican never lived there and instead resided near the Cathedral of St. John Lateran, on the other side of town, which was the center of the Roman seat up until about 600 years ago. During most of the 14th century the popes were headquartered in Avignon France and only after that was he papal residence moved to the Vatican.

Websites and Resources Holy See ; Catholic Online ; Catholic Encyclopedia ; Lives of the Saints: ; BBC on Christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Answers ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Sacred Texts website ; Internet Sourcebook ;

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica is the world's largest church. Nearly 220 meters (720 feet) long and 150 meters (490 feet wide), covering 2.3 hectares (5.7 acres), it can hold up to 50,000 worshipers, a number more associated with stadiums than churchs. It's dome was the world's largest until a bigger one was completed in Ivory Coast in Africa in the early 1990s.

St. Peter's Basilica is believed to have been placed where St. Peter — the fisherman disciple of Jesus who was selected by Jesus to carry on the Christian religion — was buried. The roof of the dome and the main alter are all said to line up exactly with a grave site that is said to be his.

Designed by Michelangelo, the glorious dome is decorated with on the inside with a kaleidoscope of brilliant but understated mosaics. It is 137 meters (448 feet) high and crowned by a lantern tower and cross that adds 16 meters (52 feet) more. The dome is three meters (nine feet) thick and has an internal diameter of 42 meters (137½ feet) at its base. Bronze letters on the floor give the measurements of Notre Dame in Paris, St. Paul's in London and St. Patrick's in New York, showing how St. Peter's dwarfs them all.

Saint Peter's in 1630

Sunlight piecing through the domes windows is magnified by yellow stone glass to illuminate "Throne of St. Peter", designed by the Italian architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, which lies directly below. This canopy consists of four twisted bronze columns, decorated with what looks like tangles of vines, and toped with a gilded roof adorned with a cross and statues. The canopy is 30 meters (95 feet) high and even the cherubs are over two meters tall. Underneath the alter in the confession, which lies in a sunken chamber below the main floor, is an illuminated mosaic of Christ. Below and behind this mosaic is the grave of a 60-year-old old man believed to be St. Peter.

There is only one painting in the church. The hundreds of images that you seen on the dome and curved ceiling are all mosaics. The walls of the main chapel are composed of travertine, a kind of limestone, and the large chambers which extend off of the main chapel are made from colored marble. Inside of the large recesses within the walls are large Greek-style sculptures.

In the back corner of the church is a black statue of St. Peter. On his feast day he is cloaked with a robe and crowned with what looks like a jewel encrusted turban. His right side is worn down from centuries of caresses and kisses which are said to bring good luck.

It is possible to visit the Vatican Grottoes, the final resting place for many saints and popes. Near the exit to the grottoes is a set of 340-step stairs and an elevator that lead to a ledge next to the cupola where there is superb view of St. Peter's Square.

As many as 20 priests at a time may celebrate mass in St. Peter's cathedral. Many of them are simple country priests whom the ceremony is the climax of their lives. Huge iron chains have been places around St. Peters to hold it together.

St. Peter and the First St. Peter's Basilica

upside down crucifixion of Peter by Caravaggio

According to the BBC: “ Tradition has always maintained that Peter was martyred in Rome, crucified upside down so as not to be equated with his master. The written accounts of this event are detailed but relatively late. The strongest evidence lay unchecked for centuries, right under the noses of the Vatican. [Source: BBC, June 21, 2011 |::|]

According to the traditional story, in 67 A.D. St. Peter was hung upside down and beheaded at the Circus Maximus during a wave of brutal anti-Christian persecution under Emperor Nero, after the burning of Rome. His brutal treatment was partly of the result of his request not to be crucified, because he didn’t consider himself worthy of the treatment of Jesus. After Peter died, it is said, his body was taken to a burial ground, situated where St. Peter's cathedral now stands. His body was entombed and later secretly worshiped.

The Teimpietti at S. Pietro in Rome marks the spot were St. Peter was supposedly crucified. The Cathedral of St. John Lateran, the oldest Christian basilica in Rome, founded by Constantine on A.D. 314, contains reliquaries said to hold the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul and the chopped off finger doubting Thomas stuck in Jesus' wound.

St. Peter's Basilica sits on the place where St. Peter purportedly was buried. The roof of the dome and the main alter are all said to line up exactly with his grave site. The present St. Peters Basilica is not the first church to occupy the site. In the A.D. fourth century Emperor Constantine built a basilica that was replaced by the present St. Peters when the original was on the verge of crumbling. An important question is why was the first church built where it was, especially since more than a million cubic feet of dirt had to be removed from a hill to make the land flat enough to accommodate it. The nine foot thick foundation of the first St. Peters still bears the weight of its replacement.

According to the BBC: “The magnificent basilica that now stands in the centre of Vatican City was built to replace the original structure built by Constantine, the first Christian emperor. Constantine's basilica was a remarkable engineering feat: his men moved a million tonnes of earth in order to create a platform for the structure and yet there was a flat plot just yards away. Constantine went to such lengths because he believed that this was the very spot where Peter was buried, on the side of the Vatican Hill. This tradition remained strong throughout the ages but without concrete proof. Then in 1939 routine alterations under the floor of St Peter's unearthed an incredible find.

Discovery of St. Peter’s Bones?

There is archaeological evidence to support the claim that St. Peter's Basilica sits on the place where St. Peter was buried. . During the construction of a tomb in 1939 for Pope Pius the XI an ancient burial chamber was discovered. Later archaeological work uncovered the words "Petro eni" among some ancient graffiti, which could be interpreted as "Peter is within."

Saint Peter's Bones?

In 1960 some bones were discovered that belonged to a robust man between 60 and 70, a description which matches up with the traditional profile of St. Peter at the time of his death. The Vatican conducted an investigation. In 1968 Pope Paul VI announced publicly that bones confirmed what the Vatican knew all along that Peter was in fact buried under the cathedral. The evidence is certainly not beyond reproach but it is plausible the bones belonged to Peter. When the bones were re-interned the bones of a mouse that had wandered into the repository and perished there sometime in the last 1,800 years were also reburied.

According to the BBC: “Archaeologists discovered a whole street of Roman mausoleums, highly decorated family tombs of both pagans and Christians dating to the early centuries AD. They asked for papal permission to dig towards the high altar and there they found a simple, shallow grave and some bones. It took years for these bones to be analysed and the anticipation grew but the results were bizarre and disappointing. The bones were a random collection consisting of remains from three different people and several animals! But this was not the end of the saga. |[Source: BBC, June 21, 2011]

“Years earlier, one of the Vatican officials overseeing the dig removed some bones from a niche above the grave for safe keeping after the team had gone home. Amazingly no one gave them a second thought until one of the experts asked whether there had ever been anything found in the niche. These bones were then analysed and the tests showed they were the remains of a man in his 60s or 70s and of stocky build. Yet perhaps even more revealing was the fragment of graffiti-covered plaster discovered next to the bones. The words were incomplete but could read petros emi, which means 'Peter is within'. It could be that the remains of Peter the apostle had finally been found.

History of St. Peter's Basilica

At the at the beginning of the 16th century, the original St. Peters Basilica was in such sorry shape that Pope Julius II commissioned the famous Renaissance architect Donato Bramante to replace it with a church so magnificent it would dwarf the monuments of ancient Rome. One of the reason Juilius II wanted it built was so there was a church big enough to hold his magnificent tomb which he commissioned Michelangelo to build. [Source: Aubrey Menen, National Geographic, December 1971]

The present church was mostly built between during the 16th and 17th century. Bramante reportedly said: "I shall place the Pantheon on top of the Basilica of Constantine." Bramante’s building of the Tempietto in 1502 shifted the center of Renaissance architecture from Florence to Rome. Bramante who envisioned a church with the floor plan of a Greek cross (four legs of equal length) crowned by a large cuppola. If his design had not been altered St. Peters would have had a floor plan like a paper snowflake. It would have had four identical facades and four naves that came together like a Greek cross, everything was to be symmetrical. Each nave was supposed to the size of present-day Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (at that time the largest building in the world). Because stone and brick would have been too heavy, Bramnte proposed that the entire building be made of concrete, a construction material used by the Romans, but all forgotten during the Middle Ages.

Saint Peter's grave

After Bramnte's death several artists including Raphael Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (1484-1546) created a daring new design for St. Peters but when the project was fully underway it was an elderly and ailing Michelangelo that took over the project. Michelangelo took over the commission at the age of 72 and gave St. Peter's its present shape. He nixed much of Sangallo's design and came up with his own design. Michelangelo said he wanted more light and Sangallo's designed created dark passageways for "criminals, forgers, rapists and other such scoundrels." It was more akin to the "German manner than the good method of the ancients."

The dome was designed by Michelangelo. Bramte had designed a dome with a stepped exterior and a small compressed interior. Michelangelo borrowed the double-shell design of the cathedral in Florence to produce dome that seemed to climb in the sky like unclimbable mountain. The floor plan was radically revised after Michelangelo's death and changed to a Latin cross (which has one longer side), an alternation that obstructed the view of the dome from the piazza.

Saint Peter's facade was designed by Carlo Maderno and built between 1607 and 1612. In 1999, $5.4 million was earmarked to restore it.

When the dome and exterior were done, only half of the job was complete. The next step was what to do with the massive space in the interior. In the early 17th century, Italy's most famous Baroque architect and sculptor Lorenzo Bernini was called to finish the job. He began working at St. Peter's when he was 31 and worked on various part of St. Peters interior throughout his long life. His first job was completing the "Baldacchino," the huge twisted column canopy over the alter and under the dome. It features statues of angels and curved scrolls. Later he designed the choir of at the far end of the entrance, with the bronze throne of Peter and a grand light- collecting stained glass window, framed with swirling bronze clouds and cherubs. Before he was finished he reorganized St. Peter's Square and designed and the magnificent colonnade that surrounds St. Peter's Square. The interior of St. Peter's was filled with larger-than-life saints, monumental vaults and vault decorations.

Michelangelo's Pietá

Michelangelo's Pietá

Michelangelo's Pietá (on the right side of nave, near the entrance) has been protected by a plate of bullet-proof glass since 1972, when Laszlo Toth, a Hungarian-born Australian, believing he was Jesus Christ, whacked the statue 15 times with a hammer. In the attack Mary's nose was knocked off, her face was chipped and her left arm was shattered and knocked off.

Michelangelo sculpted the Pietá when he was 24 years old and it was the only statue that Michelangelo ever signed. After overhearing a conversation that attributed the work to another artist, the story goes, he snuck in during the night to chisel his name on the sash. The entire sculpture is carved from one piece of Carrara marble which the artist himself chose at a quarry.

After the attack, the statue was considered too precious and delicate to move. Restoration was done in situ by a team that mixed powder fragments of the native marble with resin to glue the large pieces and mend the tiny chips. The repair work took 10 months and was so expertly done, the statue looks unblemished.

Behind the Pietá is the bricked over Holy Door which is opened by the Pope only once very 25 years during Jubilee years (the last time was in 2000) by knocking the bricks with a silver hammer.

St. Peters Square

St. Peters Square is a huge piazza that is situated in front of St. Peter's cathedral. It is shaped like a thick keyhole and has an 25-meter-high (82-foot-high) Egyptian obelisk lying at the center of the circle and a series of gently sloping stairs leading to the entrance of the church in the notch. Surrounding the piazza like a giant pair of tongs are Bernini's magnificent twin colonnades. Each one is lined with rows of columns on both sides, and capped with an orange tile roof.

On the inside of the colonnades are 140 travertine statues of martyrs and saints, many of them over three meters (10 feet high). On the basilica itself are the statues of Christ (in the center), John the Baptist and the Apostles (except for St. Peter). On Easter Sunday upwards of a 100,000 people gather in the square to hear Easter Mass delivered from a banner-draped balcony half-way up the facade of St. Peter's Basilica.

The obelisk in St. Peter's Square was erected in 1586 with a 92-foot wooden tower outfit with pulleys, 900 men and 74 horses. The fountain at St. Peter's is fed by water from Lake Brocciano. Sometimes eels make the journey from the lake to the fountain and are shot up in the air by the fountain and re-circulated.

Vatican Museums

The Vatican Museums contains one of the world's best collection of art and treasures, and is especially strong in Roman sculpture and Renaissance painting. Pieces that would be the prized possession at any other museums are stashed away in back chambers and passageways.

The spaces occupied by the museums were never intended to accommodate the millions of tourists that pass through them. In preparation for Jubilee 2000, the main entrance was redesigned to reduce bottlenecks and ensure a steady flow of tourists, who are monitored by close-circuit television and plain-clothed special police to prevent a "Pietá incident" from recurring.

Altogether there are eight museums, housing everything from pagan relics to modern religious art in seven kilometers of exhibition space. They include the Egyptian Museum, Etruscan Museum, Pio Clementine Museum, Pinacoteca (Picture Gallery), Historical Museum (with papal relics and carriages), the Modern Religious Art Museum, Missionary-Ethnological Museum, and Chiaramonti Museum.

The nucleus of the collection are works collected and commissioned to be displayed in a "sculpture garden" designed for Pope Julius in 1503. It was added to over the years primarily by purchases made by Popes and gifts given to the Catholic Church.

The museums are organized for one way passage and somewhat confusing. Many tourists follow the signs straight to the Sistine Chapel and barely glance at masterpieces that lie along the way. To properly visit the most important works requires about three or four hours. If you miss something, which is not difficult to do, it is difficult to retrace your steps but possible in the first parts of the museum.

The Vatican Egyptian Museum (near the entrance) is the first main museum you come to. It has a first-rate collection of mummies, mummy cases, mummy-shroud paintings, mummifying tools, sacred objects, make up, Roman-Egyptian sculpture, hieroglyphics, everyday objects and magnificent tomb paintings. One of the museums most interesting features is the recreation of an Egyptian-style room found in the palace of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Among the many Egyptian-style Roman pieces here is a Pharaoh-like rendering of Hadrian's male lover Antinoüs.

The Pio Clementine Museum (after the Egyptian Museum) contains one of the worlds best collection of antique sculpture, most of its from ancient Rome. The museum's most outstanding sculpture is “The Lacoon” which features a father and two sons struggling to disentangle themselves from the grasps of giant serpents. The 2000-year-old statue depicts the punishment meted out to a priest who warned the Trojans to beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

Etruscan Museum (off the Pio Clementine Museum) contains one of the world's best collections of Etruscan art. The most outstanding pieces, which were found in Etruscan tombs in Tuscany and Lazio, include gold and silver jewelry, dice that looks just like modern dice, chariots, vase paintings, and small sarcophagi that held the cremated remains of wealthy Etruscans. Among the highlights are lovely Etruscan paintinga and a bronze statue of boy from the Etruscan site of Tarquina. Connecting the Etruscan Museum with the Pio Clementine Museum is the famous Simonetti spiral staircase.

School of Athens by Rafael

Between the Pio Clementine Museum and the Raphael Rooms is the Gallery of Tapestries, which contains a tapestry of Raphael's “Miraculous Draught of Fishes;” a 16th-century tapestry chasuble of Pope Clement VIII. Among the other spaces are the the Gallery of Maps, a 100-yard-long corridor with ornate Italian wall maps: the Tower of the Winds, a room built during the Renaissance with a ceiling covered with winds, represented by puff-cheeked figures; the Room of Sobieski, and the Room of the Immaculate Conception,

The Collection of Modern Religious Art (between the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel) houses works of religious art by famous modern artist such as Francis Bacon. It also contains a lot of trash. Most people skip it. One of the weirdest sculptures shows beloved Pope John XXIII in macabre room of sufferers.

The Historical Museum (after the Sistine Chapel) contains relics and gifts given to the Catholic Church over the years. Among its smaller treasures are a plate decorated with lions and an ornate armlet, both made of gold, discovered in an ancient tomb; a dazzling chalice made of gold and precious stones that was a gift to the Vatican from a Turkish Sultan; and an exquisite jewel-encrusted ring that has a portrait of Pope Pius IX made completely of diamonds. The Missionary-Ethnological Museum has interesting works from Africa and the Pacific.

The Vatican Library holds some of the world's oldest and greatest books and manuscripts, including documents by Martin Luther, Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus, Catherine de Medici, Mozart, Voltaire and Napoleon. Within its 15,000 square meters of corridors are 2 million books and 150,000 illuminated manuscripts and codices. The library relies on donations to cover its costs.

Famous Art Works at the Vatican Museums

“The Laocoon” and the Vatican Museum’s other most famous statue —the “Apollo Belvedere” — are located outside in a protected area around a round courtyard. Described by one critic as "a symbol of all that is young and free, strong and gracious," the “Apollo Belvedere” glorifies the male body and is most likely a copy of a Greek bronze made by Leochares around 330 B.C. The original once stood in the Agora in Athens but is now lost. The copy at the Vatican lacks its left hand and most of its arm. Scholars believe the right hand held a quiver and the left hand a bow. The elegant cloak is still in place.

The first item in the Vatican collection, the Apollo Belvedere stood for four centuries in a niche in the Octagonal court until it was taken by Napoleon's army in 1798 and kept in Paris until 1816, when it was returned. For several centuries it had an fig leaf over it private parts.

The Laocoon

Other works worth checking out are a realist portrait of an Arab, a colorful first century B.C. Roman painting of the Fleet of Odysseus, the sculpture “Aphrodite of the Cnidians,” the red sarcophagus of Saint Helen (Constantine's mother), and two rooms full of sculptures of animals. One 25-meter-long hallway contains several pieces of Roman sculpture. It is worthwhile to check for hairstyles and faces to get a sense of what people were like in ancient Rome.

The Raphael Rooms (before the Sistine Chapel) houses many of Raphael's famous paintings as well as a room designed by him with paintings of his followers. Raphael worked in the Vatican Palace at the same time that Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel. In pope Julius II's library Raphael painted perhaps his most famous masterpiece, “The School of Athens.” In this work it looks as if the Old Testament figures of Sistine Chapel come to a Last Supper in Greece. Plato, Aristotle and the other Greek philosophers have the same sort of muscle tone and fluidity of Michelangelo figures; the way the are composed resembles Leonardo's most famous fresco; and the towering Greco-Roman architecture in the background give the painting and its subjects a monumental quality. [Source: "History of Art" by H.W. Janson, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.]

Pinacoteca (after the Sistine Chapel) houses works by Renaissance and post-Renaissance masters. This Picture Gallery features Raphael's “Transfiguration” (showing a glowing Christ ascending to heaven). One of his most famous paintings the “Liberation of St. Peter” is located in a dark room and is easy to miss. It also includes Caravaggio's “Deposition,” Guercino's “Magdalene,” Titian's “Madonna of San Nicoletta dei Frari,” and Fillipo Lippi's “Coronation of the Virgin.” Other famous pieces include Bernini's 17th-century terra cotta study for a Charity, a figure on the tomb of Urban VIII.

Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel is technically a private chapel of the Pope. Built in 15th century by Pope Sixtus IV, it is where elections of new popes are held after the old dies. It is also the home of arguably the world's most famous work of art after the Mona Lisa. The restoration project to clean 132-x-44 foot curved ceiling painted by Michelangelo has been completed for several decades now. For a long time it, as one of the restorers said, it was thought that the painting presented a dark, gloomy, despairing view of sinful humanity. "Now we see it is not that at all-the pictures were just dirty!" [Source: David Jeffrey, National Geographic, December 1989]

Sistine Chapel

The top of the 85 foot-high ceiling is composed of nine panels that depict scenes from Genesis in the Old Testament. Beginning at one end are three panels that show God creating the heavens and the earth and then separating the sky and the sea. In the forth and fifth scenes he gives life first to Adam, the chapel's most famous painting, and then to Eve. The following panel, shows Adam and Eve being tempted by the serpent, who has the tail of a snake but the torso of a woman, and then being banished from heaven. The seventh scene shows Noah sacrificing a lamb which is followed by the Great Flood, with the death of Noah being the ninth and final scene.

Flanking the Genesis scenes, on the curved part of the chapel between the ceiling and the wall, are portraits of the prophets and sibyls, and below, under the arches where the walls begin, are the ancestors of Christ. Below these are more religious figures painted by Botticelli, Paragon and other Renaissance artists. Adorning the wall at the back of the chapel is the Michelangelo’s ominous depiction of the "Judgement Day" which was completed 22 years after the ceiling was finished.

For all intents and purposes the Sistine Chapel was the only painting that Michelangelo ever did, and when it was unveiled in 1512 one contemporary wrote "All Rome admired it and crowded to see it." Another said "it was such as to make everyone speechless with astonishment." Admirers today, who pretty much see that same painting that those in 1512 saw, react the same way.

Producing the Sistine Chapel Paintings

Many of Michelangelo's figures are posed like Greek statues and have physiques found in such statues. Even Michelangelo's women have broad shoulders and big bulging muscles. The reason for this is that he sketched only from male models and later feminized and softened his images into women. Michelangelo learned about human anatomy by dissecting corpses, a practice he finally abandoned, a friend said, because it "affected his stomach." One of his biggest challenges was dealing with the curvature of the ceiling to create images that didn't look distorted to viewers below. Although Michelangelo was considered a rookie at such thing, he was able to pull it off with great success. [Source: David Jeffrey, National Geographic, December 1989 The Sistine Chapel consists of panels of frescos — paintings done on wet plaster that dry in a few hours, giving the artist little time to work and little room for error. 1) During the first step of this procedure a layer of wet plaster was trawled on top of a dry layer. 2) Next a drawing was made. When the drawing was finished, pin holes were pricked along the lines of the drawing which was then tacked over the plaster. 3) Charcoal was rubbed over the holes which produced a dotted outline of the image the artist wanted to draw on the plaster. These dots are still evident on many of Michelangelo's figures. The artist also outlined his figures by pressing a stylus along the lines of the paper which left a groove in the wet plaster. 4) The artist then painted the picture, with colors darker than he wanted because when the water-based pigments bonded with the plaster their color lightened.

The Sistine chapel paintings show that Michelangelo was so bold he dared to play with the hand of god. Stylus grooves show he changed the positioned of God's left arm in his depiction of the first day of creation. Either they had large acorns back in the time of Michelangelo or the artist took some liberties. One of his nudes is leaning back on a bunch of acorns that are the size of grapefruits. Among Michelangelo's work that has been over-painted and later restored is a woman's breast that is eyed longingly by her infant son.

Michelangelo and the Painting of the Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo began working on the Sistine Chapel in 1508 when he was 33. It took four years to complete, which seems like a long time, but the painting is so immense and filled with so many figures, it is actually more surprising that he finished it as quickly as he did. Many of the individual figures, several times the size of normal humans, were completed in two or three days. [Source: David Jeffrey, National Geographic, December 1989]

During the Papal Enclave, cardinals meet in the Sistine Chapel to select a new pope

Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II for the project, a job he never wanted. Although he was trained as a painter Michelangelo considered himself first and foremost a sculpture. He had already completed the "Piety" and "David," sowing his reputation as a genius, and was more anxious to work on Julius II's grand tomb, which the pope wanted the artist to work on after the Sistine Chapel was done. Michelangelo was hounded and berated by the Pope to the finish the project and once even hit the artist with a cane. Michelangelo responded by constantly asking for release and signing his letter, "Michelangelo, the sculptor."

Contrary to the popular myth Michelangelo most likely did not lie on his back when he painted but rather worked standing up. In a sonnet written to a friend he complained of dripping paint that turned his face into a "rich mosaic" and said he was "stretched like a Syrian bow." A comical sketch which accompanied the sonnet showed him standing erect.

Restorers think that Michelangelo may have used old brushes. They have found many bristles from his paintbrushes still embedded in the paint as well as small indentations made when he was testing the setting of the plaster with his fingertips. Originally assistants were supposed to help but he dismissed them all and completed the work all by himself. "I live here in great toil," he said, "and great weariness of body, and have no friends of any kind and don't want any, and haven't the time to eat what I need."

According to restorers Michelangelo went through a personal transformation while he worked on the chapel and this is reflected in the paintings themselves. The images of the creator of Eve, for example, which were painted early, look fairer and younger than the creator of the sun and the moon which was painted later. After getting over a hump he seemed to grow more relaxed. Restorer Gioluigi Colalucci feels that in a sense the artist salvaged the design of the tomb he wanted to build by turning it inside out. "He is given a job he doesn't want , but at a certain point he starts to enjoy what he is doing. His designs become less constricted. It is hard to say exactly where, but the feeling begins to change."

Restoration and Cleaning of the Sistine Chapel

The restoration and cleaning of the Sistine Chapel took place between 1980 and 1994, three times as long as it took to paint it. Restorers used the same attachment points in the walls to install their scaffolding that Michelangelo used. [Source: David Jeffrey, National Geographic, December 1989]

Sistine Chapel ceiling

The three million dollar project to restore the chapel was financed by a Japanese television station in exchange for the exclusive rights to record the restoration. Before the restoration began the chapel was covered in dust and chemicals from Rome's polluted air and soot from burning tallow candles. What discolored the chapel the most, however, were varnishes made from animal glues that were applied to brighten the darkening surfaces, but in the end deteriorated, turning paintings darker than they were before. In addition, many parts of Michelangelo's work had been painted over by other artists to cover up the darkening.

To restore the frescoes, first a solvent with a fungicide was applied with a brush. After three minutes the solvent, along with dirt and old varnish, was removed with a sponge soaked in de-ionized water. The process was repeated again 24 hours later. Each section restored was cataloged by a computer which also showed the locations of cracks, loose plaster and areas of past restoration. Ultraviolet light and X-rays helped the restorers detect overprinting and discover what was underneath. To preserve the painting in the future a climate control system was installed to filter out dust, chemicals and monitor the biggest threat, the humidity generated by as many as 19,000 visitors a day.

Last Judgement by Michelangelo

Last Judgement is the painting on the far wall on the Sistine Chapel. It was unveiled in 1541, nearly 30 years after the ceiling, and like the ceiling, Michelangelo never wanted to paint it but was forced to by the Pope. This time it was Paul III who declared he had waited 30 years to employ the great artist and he commanded Michelangelo to finish it. Preparations alone took two years. Windows were covered, works by the 15th century artist Perugino were painted over, and Michelangelo demanded the wall slant slightly inward so that dust didn't accumulate on the painting. [Source: Meg Nottingham Walsh, National Geographic, May 1994].

The Last Judgement was much more controversial than the Sistine Chapel. Among other things it contains a beardless Christ that looked more like a Greek God than the humble servant most expect. In addition the angels had no wings and the saint no clothes. One 16th century critic declared the painting "did not belong in a papal chapel, but in public baths or brothel.” Later artists gave nude women skirts and tops and one artist even earned himself the title of Daniele da Volterra "the britches maker."

Michelangelo began the work in 1536 when he was 61 and spent 400 days working on it. Part of the time he ate and slept on the scaffolding. He was forced to climb six or seven levels of scaffolding every day and once he fell, injuring his leg badly. He completed the painting in 1541 when he was 66. To avoid drips and spill from landing on completed sections of the painting Michelangelo worked from the top down.

Michelangelo used the same fresco techniques he used on the ceiling but "brushed on his paint in rich impasto, " says writer Meg Nottingham Walsh, "and made many ‘secco’ alterations—a technique notable different from his work on the ceiling. For the sky he used crushed lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone applied in two layers."

Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel

There are more than 350 figures on the 34-by-47-foot fresco, displaying a wide range of emotion that you might expect from a group of people being escorted to their afterlife fate, some condemned to hell, some going to heaven and others waiting their turn to find out. Jesus is at the top center of the painting with Mary on his right. John the Baptist is the large figure slightly to Jesus's right and St. Paul and St. Peter are on the left. The bald, bearded man straddling a rock underneath Jesus holds the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew. If you look closely at the skin you can make out the broken nose and distorted features of a Michelangelo self portrait. If you look closely at the tormented man being dragged to hell on the lower right of the skin you will see a grayish colored demon with a flesh-colored hand—an oversight by Michelangelo.

In the lower left hand corner of the painting the dead are shown slowly coming back to life. In the lower row are a group ram-headed and monkey-faced demons straight out of Dante's “Inferno,” which Michelangelo could recite completely by heart. The donkey-eared man encircled by serpents is caricature of Biagio da Cesana, an assistant to the Pope who angered Michelangelo by sneaking a peak of the work and criticizing the nudity. When Biagio asked the Pope if it could be removed, Paul III replied that his authority did not extend to hell. Michelangelo himself was a very religious man who worried very much about his own salvation.

The restoration of the entire Sistine Chapel, including the “Last Judgement,” took two decades. The last scaffolding came down in 1999 after the frescoes below Michelangelo's ceiling were cleaned. These paintings include works by Botticelli, Roselli, Ghirlandaio, Pinturicchio, Signorelli and della Gatta. A special air filter system was installed to filter out polluting particles. About 3 million people a year enter the chapel.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except St. Peter's bones, BBC, and his grave site, SSPX, and the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, Catholic Answers Forum

Text Sources: Internet Sourcebook ; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time,, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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