The Sistine Chapel is without doubt one of the greatest art treasures of all time, one of the most celebrated masterpieces in the world. It's the last stop on the Vatican Museum tour and is the most ardently awaited moment for the millions of tourists from around the world that come here every year to admire it.
Step into the Sistine Chapel and the magic completely envelops you because literally everything in this place is priceless and rich in history, from the pavement to the amazing frescoed ceiling by Michelangelo.
From the outside, the Chapel gives an entirely different impression: its imposing defensive structure is almost fearsome with its powerful walls and menacing ramparts. It's like an ancient strongbox guarding a treasure: powerful and massive outside, rich in extraordinary and unimaginably precious masterpieces inside.
The creative force behind all this fame and beauty is the unsurpassed genius of Michelangelo and the most amazing thing is that he managed to complete this artistic miracle all by himself!
Normally, the artists of the time completed their artwork with the help of assistants. The master personally worked on only certain parts of the piece while the apprentices finished off the minor details. This wasn't the case with the Sistine Chapel: incredibly, all this beauty is the work of one single human being.
The Sistine Chapel takes its name from the pope that commissioned it, Pope Sixtus IV of the Della Rovere family. It's hard to believe, but, that which would later become one of the most famous religious sites in the world should have a totally prosaic beginning. In fact, it was originally intended to be a simple palace chapel.
The Vatican Palaces needed a new building to house religious celebrations and to host the conclave, the gathering of cardinals that elects the pope. Thus, in around 1473, the pontiff gave the job to architect Giovannino De' Dolci of building the Sistine Chapel, exactly on the spot where at one time had stood the so-called Great Chapel.
The architect designed a grandiose building that had the same dimensions as Solomon's Temple as it's described in the Bible: more than forty meters long and as high as a seven storey building!
Pope Sixtus IV wanted the walls of the Chapel to be decorated with stories of Moses, guiding light of the Hebrew people, and of Jesus, comparing the latter to the former as a guiding figure of the Church. For the occasion, he called upon the most famous artists of the time —Botticelli, Rosselli, Ghirlandaio and Perugino— to tell the stories of the Bible through pictures so that everyone could know them.
Besides that, he commissioned a costly pavement, an imitation of medieval floors, with multicolored mosaics that formed geometric designs and concentric circles—the very same pavement you walk upon in the Chapel today.
The Sistine Chapel's first years were not exactly happy ones; however it was the most unfortunate of events that led to the creation of a masterpiece. During the first years of the 1500s, all sorts of building sites had grown up around the edifice, above all, around the new Basilica of St. Peter that was right next door.
The excavations for the foundations caused very serious problems for the Chapel, so much so that an enormous crack appeared in the vaulted ceiling. Bramante, the palace architect, was hurriedly called in for a consultation and he resolved the problem by locking the roof timbers in place with a series of metal chains.
The frescoes, unfortunately, had suffered such damage that the new pope, Julius II, had the idea of asking Michelangelo to re-do the ceiling. Michelangelo lived alone and in total poverty, notwithstanding all the wealth he had accumulated. He was presumptuous with others, always unhappy with himself, obsessed with anxiety about death and salvation.
He was described as a "genius, inspired, almost removed and hostile to the world". Even the pope, despite his admiration for Michelangelo, agreed that there was simply no getting through to him. Neither was Julius II the "easiest person to deal with"; one story has it that, grown so exasperated with the artist, he finally took several whacks at Michelangelo with a stick!
But why exactly did the pontiff choose Michelangelo of all people?
According to gossip of the time, it was Bramante who suggested to the pope the idea of giving Michelangelo the job; the rivalry between Michelangelo and Bramante was certainly no secret, the latter being also friend and relative to Raphael, another avowed enemy of the artist.
The innocent proposal to the pope in reality was a way to put the hated sculptor in a bad light since he had never done a fresco in his life and wasn't familiar with the technique.
Even so, it wasn't a sure thing that the sculptor would accept the assignment. What's more, during that period, all of Michelangelo's energy was concentrated on one mighty project: the monumental tomb of Julius II.
This was to be a majestic Christian mausoleum that would give the tombs of the Roman emperors a run for their money.
It would have taken up most of the space in the new Saint Peter's Basilica and Michelangelo intended to dedicate the rest of his life to it.
But even though the pope had taken to the project with great enthusiasm, the monument was never finished. In fact, Michelangelo attributed the project's failure to the envy of both Bramante and Raphael.
So, when the pope made him the offer of re-frescoing the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo felt only humiliation, that his genius was unappreciated. The truth is that Michelangelo considered himself much more a sculptor than a painter because he thought painting was an inferior art.
What's more, they were asking him to paint on a ceiling that, at that time, was colored blue and decorated with gold stars, a place he despised so much that he compared it to "the roof of a barn."
After much arguing back and forth, the pope succeeded in his intentions by employing a subtle psychological trick: he challenged Michelangelo to transform the "barn" into the jewel of the Vatican; the artist accepted the challenge against his better judgment but considered this commission an attempt to pull him away from the tomb of Julius II and from sculpture; so, as a protest, during that whole period, he signed his letters as "Michelangelo sculptor".
On May 8th, 1508, the artist finally signed the contract that stipulated the decoration of the ceiling with giant figures of the 12 apostles and painted architectural elements. Michelangelo thought the project too empty for such a large space, however. He spoke with the pope who gave him carte blanche so that he could give his genius full rein.
Thus Michelangelo was free to design the entire ceiling and he made it much more complex so that it would be of the artistic level of the pre-existing frescoes on the lower walls.
Since there were already stories of Jesus and Moses on the side walls, to avoid repetition, he was forced to paint biblical episodes that went from the Creation to Noah.
How did Michelangelo paint the ceiling?
Michelangelo closed himself in the Chapel and began to work in complete solitude, he would let no one enter to see how the work was proceeding and even chased out the pope, forcing him to beat a hasty retreat by heaving wooden boards at him from up on the catwalk!
Michelangelo's tormented and lonely work went on for four interminable years. Imagine what it must have been like, forced to work for hours high up on a dangerous catwalk lit only by candlelight, in an incredibly uncomfortable position, lying on his back or with his arms continuously raised and his eyes fixed on the ceiling.
Imagine the cramps and the beating his eyes took—in fact, his sight remained damaged forever after—not to mention the bother of the paint constantly dripping onto his face! Michelangelo fell twice from that catwalk, even breaking his leg, but he continued to paint, to create.
In October of 1512, the work that would be remembered for centuries to come as one of the greatest treasures of humanity was finally finished and, on All Saints Day, November first, the Sistine Chapel was triumphantly inaugurated in full ceremony with a solemn mass celebrated by Pope Julius II himself.
Michelangelo, in those years of unbelievably hard, lonely work, had transformed the walls into masterpieces that spoke. A thousand square meters of frescoes told of the marvels of Creation and the story of Man, from the Beginning—to the Fall.
As Goethe said: "Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, it's not possible to have an idea of what one man is capable of doing".