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Vatican Museums - Sistine Chapel

Vatican Museums - Sistine Chapel (71)

The Sistine Chapel owes its name to Pope Sixtus IV who, in the fifteenth century, commissioned Giovanni Dolce to build it. 

It is world famous for its wall and ceiling frescos and is considered one of the best works ever. 

For a long time, moreover, it was the site where papal elections were held.

The wall paintings were painted between 1481 and 1483. The artists involved in painting them included painters the stature of Perugino, Botticelli, Roselli and Signorelli. Although these paintings are magnificent, they are nonetheless eclipsed by Michelangelo’s works of genius.

The series of frescos starts at the altar. On the left wall there are scenes from the Old Testament, which place particular emphasis on the figure of Moses. The right wall, on the other hand, features the story of Christ as told in the New Testament. 

In 1508, Michelangelo, commissioned by Pope Julius II, started work on painting the vault. It is said that initially Michelangelo did not want to accept the job as he considered himself a sculptor, yet he took it on solely to annoy his great rival, Bramante. He took four years to complete the job and had several disagreements with the Pope given that both men had very strong characters. It is said that on one occasion Michelangelo abandoned the work as the Pope was trying to hurry him. He left, scattering the paintings and telling the Pope that if the work were so easy, then he should do it himself. 

In total, the marvellous frescos on the vault cover an area of 800 square metres. Michelangelo used a special scaffold upon which he worked lying down. 

The frescos detail the creation of Earth and the early days of Man.

Start by looking from the end of the room where the altar is. You will see nine main scenes that include the Creation of the Sun and the Moon, the Creation of Adam and Eve, Original Sin and the fall from paradise, and the Great Flood. 

The most famous of these scenes is probably number 4, “The Creation of Adam”, in which the creator, after shaping Adam in clay, descends surrounded by angels to touch Adam’s hand in order to give him life. This is the zenith of creation. It is a breathtaking image with prodigious bodies, and a feeling of strength, vitality and movement. Observe the hands of God and Adam, which are the most expressive hands in the whole history of painting, and the most often copied too.

Around these scenes are the portraits of 7 prophets from the Old Testament. There are also 5 sibyls, women with divinatory powers, to whom governments and generals often resorted.

You will be able to appreciate that the musculature is powerful and much more characteristic of men than of a women. Michelangelo was truly fascinated by musculature. What’s more, according to testimonies from the time, the great genius was either bisexual or homosexual, which made him consider the male body as the perfect reference.

On the other wall is Michelangelo’s famous work “The Last Judgement”. This fresco was commissioned by Paul III after the Sack of Rome in 1527, an event that prompted a great feeling of pessimism and fear among the populace. The work reflects the drama of the period, although another theory suggests that it really expresses the artist’s torment regarding his own faith. 

It is a stunning work that features a large number of characters, religious and mythological scenes, and a profusion of nudes. He started in 1535 and took 6 years to complete it.

Its dimensions are enormous. It includes 400 figures, 50 of which have been identified.

“The Last Judgement” is a work of huge emotional intensity. It is a spectacular display of all Michelangelo’s principles: colouring, movement, terribilita and accurate drawing. It is a song to the human body, to its beauty and its strength. 

The heavens are represented at the top: Christ the judge presides the scene. Beside him is the Madonna. On both sides are saints, apostles, martyrs and virgins, the symbols of passion: the crown of thorns, the cross and the column. This all symbolises the salvation by Jesus Christ of humanity. 

At Christ’s feet is Saint Lawrence with the gridiron, and Saint Bartholomew, who as martyred by flaying, holding his own skin, the face of which is said to be a self-portrait of Michelangelo.

In the middle zone there are three groups: on the left are the damned, falling to hell, and in the centre are angel trumpeters, waking the dead who appear on the right.

At the bottom, Charon is driving the damned from his boat before Minos, the demon with serpents coiled around his body. 

If you take a good look at Minos, you will notice he has the ears of an ass. His face was that of Biagio da Cesena, the Pope’s assistant. It is said that on one of the Pope’s visits to check how the work was coming along, Biagio da Cesena was scandalised and criticised the number of naked bodies represented. The Pope told him he should not question the artist’s work. Michelangelo said nothing but on the following visit the assistant saw that he was portrayed as the face of the demon Minos. He protested but Michelangelo answered using the Pope’s words: he should not question the artist’s work.

On the left hand side, corpses and skeletons, flames and devils are evidence of hell.

Many of the characters were portrayed nude, including Christ, until Daniele de Volterra was commissioned in 1564 to cover them up.

Enjoy one of the most moving and striking works from the world of art. Observe, unhurriedly, the details in each scene and you will discover many surprises.

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