The Sistine Chapel

Have you ever been awestruck?  Completely overcome by the magnificence of an object of art?  Mesmerized by the story told within the art, as well as the story told concerning the creation of the art?


The Grand Finale of our Vatican Museum Tour was the incomparable Sistine Chapel, which houses what is most probably the most famous artwork of the High Renaissance.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which is 40.5 meters long and 14 meters wide, was painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, with a design of over 300 figures. The subject of the ceiling is the doctrine of humanity’s need for Salvation as offered by God through Jesus.

Michelangelo utilized a painting technique called fresco, where paint is applied to damp plaster.  Paint applied to dry plaster sinks into the plaster and the pigment can’t be changed or manipulated, you must remove the plaster.  Fresco allowed him to manipulate the pigment without having to remove the plaster.  

He drew directly onto the ceiling, and fresh plaster was laid in the new sections daily. The scene featuring God in the act of creation was completed in a single day.

The three groups of scenes are meant to be viewed from the altar to the main door, beginning with God creating the Heavens and the Earth; then God creating Adam and Eve, their disobedience and expulsion from Eden.  Finally the plight of humanity is revealed in the family of Noah.  

The largest figures on the ceiling are twelve prophetic figures (five along each side and one at each end) which represent in some way the Coming of Christ.  There are also twenty athletic, nude males painted as supporting figures. 

Raphael managed to sneak into the chapel before its completion to examine the paintings on the ceiling. He is reported to have immediately gone back to his painting of the Prophet Isaiah and scraped it off the wall.  He repainted it imitating the powerful manner of Michelangelo.  

Thirty years after completing the ceiling, Michelangelo painted The Last Judgment on the alter wall of the chapel, taking six years to complete it.  It includes more than forty angels, carrying the symbols of the Passions, as well as sounding the trumpets calling forth the dead, displaying the books of life and death, and casting sinners down to hell.  

It is as true today as it was 500 years ago, when Vasari stated “The whole world came running when the vault was revealed, and the sight of it was enough to reduce them to stunned silence”.

Michelangelo was a witness to the beauty of man, created male and female, by God. His view is well understood when we read his words “Whatever beauty here on earth is seen, to meet the longing and perceptive eye, is semblance of that source divine, from whence we all are come.  In this alone we catch a glimpse of heaven”.

Joy Crutchfield owns and operates the Joy of Travel.