Approximately 25,000 people visit the Sistine Chapel every day. Unfortunately, too many of those people are herded through the chapel without really understanding what they’re looking at, or the significance of Michelangelo’s masterpiece.
Our Vatican private tours explore the fantastic collections of the Vatican Museums, which contain beautiful statues from antiquity, allowing you to discover the passions, culture and innovation of the Renaissance. By the time you reach the Sistine Chapel, you’ll have a fuller understanding of Michelangelo’s cultural context, enriching your comprehension and appreciation of his art.
Everyone knows that the Sistine Chapel was decorated by Michelangelo, and that famous scenes on the ceiling include the Creation of Adam. But here are ten things you may not have known:
1. The Sistine Chapel was named after a pope
Unless you’re Justin Bieber, you probably know that the correct name is “the Sistine Chapel”, and not “the Sixteenth Chapel”. The chapel is named after Pope Sixtus IV, who commissioned the restoration works in 1477. Get the full story on our Virtual Sistine Chapel tour.
2. Michelangelo didn’t paint on his back
It’s a common myth that Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel while lying on his back, but Michelangelo and his assistants actually worked while standing on a scaffold that Michelangelo had built himself.
3. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Michelangelo didn’t enjoy his work
He suffered from backache while painting the Sistine Chapel, and even wrote a poem lamenting his suffering.
I've already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water's poison).
My stomach's squashed under my chin,my beard's
pointing at heaven, my brain's crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy's. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!
My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine's
all knotted from folding over itself.
I'm bent taut as a Syrian bow.
Because I'm stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.
My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.
A surprising conclusion from one of the most famous artists of all time...
4. Michelangelo’s self-portrait takes the form of flayed skin
One of the many figures in the Last Judgement painting on the altar wall is St Bartholomew, who was flayed alive. The saint holds his own skin, which is commonly interpreted as the artist’s own melancholy portrait. On your Vatican tour your guide will show you other fascinating details in Michelangelo’s frescoes, and tell you the story behind the painting.
5. There may be a hidden brain in The Creation of Adam
The shape created by the angels and robes surrounding God bears an uncanny resemblance to the human brain, complete with stem, frontal lobe and artery. Given Michelangelo’s anatomical studies, it’s unlikely to be coincidental. And on the subject of anatomy - if Adam didn’t have a mother (and therefore an umbilical cord), why does he have a belly button? Get the answer to these questions and more on a visit to the Sistine Chapel with our expert art-historians!
6. Michelangelo designed God
The stereotypical depiction of God as a wise old man with long white hair and a beard can be traced back to the ceiling of the chapel. Before Michelangelo, God was usually depicted as a hand coming down from the clouds, and this was the first time God had been depicted in such a dynamic way.
7. The nudity in the paintings was controversial
Although we may be used to seeing a lot of nudity in Renaissance art, Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel were considered pretty risque at the time. The Papal Master of Ceremonies complained that “it was mostly disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully”. After Michelangelo’s death, the painter Daniele da Volterra was commissioned to cover up the genitals with fig leaves and loincloths, earning him the nickname “Il Braghettone” (“the breeches maker”).
8. Popes are elected in the Sistine Chapel
Many tourists assume that they’re the only ones who use the chapel, but it still serves an important religious function. Since the 15th century, papal conclaves have been held in the Chapel, and it is here that the future pope is chosen. Those outside the chapel have to watch the chimney - black smoke means they’re still deciding, while white smoke signals the election of a new pope.
9. There are replicas of the Sistine Chapel in England and Mexico
Inspired by a trip to the Vatican in 1987, Gary Bevan decided to paint a replica of the Chapel ceiling in a church in Goring, West Sussex, despite never having had an art lesson. More recently, a temporary life-sized replica of the Chapel was unveiled in Mexico City. The replica was created with 2.7 million photos printed on cloth, which suggests that the creators were allowed to take photos in the original chapel. Unlike the average tourist...
10. You can’t take photos
No ifs, no buts. While you can take photos in the rest of the Vatican Museums, in the Sistine Chapel it’s strictly forbidden, for reasons that have more to do with copyright laws than protecting the paintings. But rather than risking the wrath of the guards by trying to take a sneaky photo on your phone, forget about photos and use your eyes. When we’re sightseeing we often feel the pressure to take photos, but it can distract us from enjoying the moment. Look on the positive side - if you can’t take photos, all you can do is focus on the masterpiece in front of you.
To get an in-depth understanding of Michelangelo’s extraordinary masterpieces in context, join one of Through Eternity’s Vatican and Sistine Chapel tours. With over 20 years of experience and a team of expert guides, there’s no better way to visit the Sistine Chapel!
~by Alexandra Turney~