10 Fascinating Facts about the Sistine Chapel


Not many buildings become world famous for their ceilings. The amazing array of frescoes that Michelangelo painted over the course of four years is full of instantly recognizable scenes and attracts more than five million visitors annually. Naturally, there’s much to be said about the creation of such historic art.

10. People Hated It When The Frescoes Were Restored


You’d expect the fact that an invaluable classic was having some work done to keep the elements from slowly eroding it would have been almost universally applauded. But when restoration was announced in 1986, art historians and others began criticizing the proposal. First there was concern that the restoration process would backfire and damage the images, despite experimental work done on a designated portion of the ceiling to show the effectiveness of the technique. When it was completed in the 1990s with no evidence it had done physical harm to the frescoes, the grievances shifted to being concerned that as a result of over-cleaning, the Sistine Chapel was left more bright and colorful than Michelangelo had intended. Still, even the harshest critics seemed to admit that the images weren’t ruined.

9. Tourists Are A Major Threat


You’d think the frescoes would be relatively safe to the corrosive effects of tourists since they’ve had access to the building for five centuries and it was just restored. Since flash photography is prohibited, how else are the tourists supposed to affect images painted as high as 60 feet above them? Well, according to museum chief Antonio Paolucci, their sweat, skin flakes and exhaled carbon dioxide are a significant problem for the restored masterpiece. He said that the Vatican was going to look into installing a system to regulate humidity and temperature, but as of 2014 no system was installed. The management for the esteemed building seems inclined to adopt a strategy of restricting tourist access.

8. Michelangelo’s First Big Color Project


The claim that the Sistine Chapel was intended by Michelangelo to be less colorful than it currently is seems to owe to his history with colors. Specifically, art historians found that he hadn’t previously worked with colors. He was a sculptor who was best known for his famous David statue. None of his great sculptures were painted, as that would only distract from the fine work he’d done with the shaping. He seemed to figure out colors well enough, though.

7. Michelangelo Didn’t Think He was Up to It


If the above revelation makes it seem like more of a gamble to commission Michelangelo than you might have thought the church would be comfortable with, it seems that Michelangelo would have agreed. As he wrote in his journal shortly after he received the commission, “(he was) no painter.” It just wasn’t his area of expertise. But Michelangelo’s true goal was a dogged pursuit of artistic perfection, so of course he wouldn’t let fear and hardship hold him back. Also the church paid him enormously in advance, and presumably he wasn’t the type to give refunds.

6. World War II Threat


When the Allies began the invasion of Italy in 1943, there was an extreme likelihood that the Sistine Chapel would be reduced to rubble. Bombing back then was very unreliable — a bomb nearly destroyed Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The frescoes at the Camposanto in Pisa were completely destroyed, and it was 20,000 square feet compared with the Sistine’s comparatively modest 12,000. Even with special units that were supposed to protect priceless pieces of art (now known as the “Monuments Men”) there wasn’t too much to keep the chapel out of harms way when Rome was being bombed. Famous art also had to survive Nazi looters, although we suppose it would have been difficult to stroll off with an entire ceiling.

5. Michelangelo’s Poem of Grievances


Since Michelangelo was candid about his lack of experience with painting, it stands to reason that he would be just as candid about the agony of making a massive painting in an uncomfortable position over the course of four years. What’s great is that given the kind of temperament Michelangelo had, he couldn’t just write a list of complaints — he needed to write the poem “When the Author was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel” in 1509. The language is so blunt that he opens by saying “I’ve got a goiter for this torture” but at other times the imagery is more vivid and mythological. A real standout is “my face makes a fine floor for droppings,” referring to the paint that kept dripping in his eyes and nearly blinded him. He ends the letter with his by now familiar lament “I am not a painter.” History disagrees.

4. Michelangelo Painted It on His Back… Or Not


One of the more popular facts about the painting of the frescoes was that Michelangelo was on his back atop 60 feet of scaffolding as he plied his craft. But this isn’t true — Michelangelo was apparently standing most of the time. Other times he was, as described in his poem, “Hunched up (there) like a cat in Lombardy… breast twisted like a harpy.” Under conditions like that, Michelangelo was probably half-relieved when painting would have to be put on hold for issues like his client Pope Julius II going to war or falling so ill he almost died.

3. You Can Rent the Place Out


Most tourists, with their sweat, breath, and skin, don’t get to linger under the frescoes for long. But on October 20, 2014, Porsche enjoyed a historically unprecedented event. For a donation of $236,000 to Pope Francis’ charity Art for Charity, 40 Porsche big-shots were allowed a prolonged private visit where they could really drink in the amazing art as part of a tour of Rome the company was having. They also enjoyed some music, since the event was billed as a concert.

The Vatican was quick to point out that you can’t actually “rent” the chapel and that media outlets were using misleading language. They’re merely reserving the chapel for art events to raise money for charities. So you might have to reschedule your birthday plans.

2. The Brain Theory


Dan Brown’s widely disparaged movies have made analyzing classic art pieces for hidden meaning seem farcical, but this theory’s fun and doesn’t have any deeper conspiratorial meaning beyond Michelangelo indulging his own interests. Starting in the early 1990s, Dr. Frank Lynn Meschberger (curiously, considering the subject matter of his most famous proposal, a gynecologist) proposed that the fresco Creation of Adam is not simply a recreation of the Book of Genesis, but a tribute to the human brain. Supposedly the red cloth behind God is in the shape of a human cerebrum, cerebellum and brain stem. So in essence, Michelangelo is saying that God isn’t giving Adam life, but intellect. It’s not universally accepted in academic circles, but it is consistent with the obsession over anatomical studies that pervaded Renaissance art for centuries.

1. Michelangelo’s Curious Self-Portrait


In 1537, 24 years after he finished the frescoes, Michelangelo returned to the chapel for a second job. He spent the next four years painting The Last Judgement, wherein God cast all sinners into the Lake of Fire. A lot had changed since he’d finished his first frescoes. The ruling family he’d been loyal to, the Florentines, had been ousted by the Medicis. The painting came at a time now known as the CounterReformation, where the influence of the corrupt Clement VII was being felt and artistic expression like Michelangelo’s nudes were about to be suppressed with fig leaves. In a climate like that, it’s no wonder that Michelangelo decided to put himself into his final fresco for the Sistine Chapel as St. Bartholomew, a saint best known for being skinned alive.

So, while we, you and millions of people a year may see a grand triumph of art in the Sistine Chapel, for Michelangelo it was mostly just a site of misery.

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1 Comment

  1. Nice! I like the high quality photos.
    In The Last Judgment, Michelangelo’s self-portrait is the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew, not explicitly stated in your write-up.