Sistine Chapel Frescoes
Vatican Church and Museum, Famous for Wall/Ceiling Fresco Murals by Michelangelo.

Last Judgement fresco (1536-41)
By Michelangelo. One of the
greatest Renaissance paintings.

Sistine Chapel Frescoes

The Sistine Chapel (Cappella Sistina) is the pope's own chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official papal residence in the Vatican City. It was built during the era of Renaissance architecture by the architect Giovanni dei Dolci for Pope Sixtus IV (hence its name). The chapel is a rectangular building with arched windows along each of the side walls and a barrel-vaulted ceiling. Although its exterior is drab and unadorned, its decorated interior is covered - from floor to ceiling - in frescoes by some of the most famous Early Renaissance artists. Its masterpieces of religious art, arguably the greatest fresco paintings ever, are the Genesis and Last Judgment frescoes, painted by Michelangelo.

Important ceremonial functions are still conducted in the Sistine Chapel, and it is used by the Sacred College of Cardinals during their election of a new pope. On such occasions the lowest areas of the side walls are covered with a set of tapestries originally designed by Raphael and produced by Flemish weavers at Brussels, around 1520. The chapel is considered to be one of the most beautiful art museums in Europe.

In addition to its papal and religious
functions, the Sistine Chapel is part
of the private Vatican Museums
complex, whose unique collection of
Renaissance paintings, sculptures,
tapestries and other works of art make
it one of the world's best art museums.

Pitti Palace, Florence
Uffizi Gallery Florence
Doria Pamphilj Gallery
Venice Academy Gallery
Capodimonte Museum, Naples
Prado Museum Madrid
Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister Dresden
Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin
Pinakothek Museum Munich
Kunsthistorisches Museum
Mauritshuis Art Museum
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
Musee Conde, Chantilly
Louvre Museum
Strasbourg Museum of Fine Arts
Antwerp Museum of Fine Arts


The Sistine Chapel, designed by the Florentine architect Baccio Pontelli for Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484), who wanted to have a building that would house the palace chapel and also serve as a Vatican fortress. It was to be built on the site of the Cappella Magna, a mediaeval fortified hall used by the Papal Court for certain ceremonial assemblies. The Sistine Chapel was erected between 1473 and 1481 under the direction of Giovannino de Dolci, who also supervised the pictorial decorations in the chapel until its formal inauguration in 1483.

The outside of the building has no facade, decorative elements, or processional entrances, as entry into the chapel is via internal doorways from within the Papal Palace. The main area of the chapel, whose architectural dimensions (134 x 44 feet) are based on those of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem - which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE - is topped with a vaulted ceiling rising to 68 feet in height.

Papal patrons of visual arts, include:
Sixtus IV 1471-1484
Innocent VIII 1484-1492
Alexander VI 1492-1503
Pius III 1503
Julius II 1503-1513
Leo X 1513-1521
Adrian VI 1522-1523
Clement VII 1523-1534

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.
For the chronology and dates
see: History of Art Timeline.

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There are six arched windows along each side wall, and on the floor a magnificent 15th century marble mosaic. A high marble chancel screen separates the presbytery from the general body of the chapel. The chancel screen and the choir stalls, decorated in delicate ornamental relief, are the work of Mino sa Fiesole and his assistants.

Early Frescos

When all the architectural work was finished in 1481, Sixtus IV summoned a number of important Florentine painters to decorate the chapel, including Alessandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94), Cosimo Rosselli (1439-1507), Luca Signorelli (c.1440-1523), along with Umbrian artists such as Perugino (c.1450-1523) and Pinturicchio (c.1454-1513).

The wall paintings of the Sistine Chapel were arranged in three tiers, as follows. The lowest tier is painted with trompe-l'oeil damask-like draperies in silver and gold, decorated with the pope's own coat of arms. The middle tier is painted with two complementary cycles of pictures: The Life of Moses and The Life of Christ. The uppermost tier contains a Gallery of Popes: eight portraits are attributed to Ghirlandaio; two to Rosselli; and seven to Fra' Diamante.

A total of 27 are still in place, but four others that used to be on the altar wall were destroyed to make way for The Last Judgment. All these fresco paintings were completed by 1482.

Genesis Ceiling Fresco

The decoration of the Chapel was finished by Sixtus IV's nephew, Giuliano della Rovere, who became Pope Julius II (1503-1513). Julius II determined to renovate the city of Rome, and to help him realize this dream, he asked Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) to paint the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. This vast undertaking - covering an area of 12,000 square feet - was executed by Michelangelo, virtually unaided, between 1508 to 1512. Known as the Genesis fresco, it consists of a series of 9 frescoed images depicting God's Creation of the World, The Creation of Adam, God's Relationship with Man, and Man's Fall from Grace. Prophets and Sibyls who prophesied Christ's birth are at the sides of the ceiling. It is regarded as one of the great works of figurative fine art, and exemplifies many of the ideals of High Renaissance painting - not least the exaltation of the male nude.


Raphael Tapestries

In 1515, Pope Leo X (1513-1521) commissioned the famous young painter Raphael (1483-1520) to design the cartoons for a set of ten tapestries to cover the lowest tier of the walls, and to compete with the soaring religious art laid out on the ceiling. He was already involved in the Papal-led Renaissance in Rome through his previous work for Julius II, who had entrusted him with the fresco decoration of the papal apartments (Stanza della Segnatura), now known as the Raphael Rooms (Vatican), and he finished the tapestry art designs within a year. They were then woven in Brussels in the atelier of Pieter van Aelst during the period 1515-19. Although the cartoons, all based on images from the Acts of the Apostles, rank among Raphael's noblest designs, only a proportion of the actual brushwork was executed by the artist himself.

See also our article: How To Appreciate Paintings.

Last Judgment Fresco

In 1534, some twenty years after completing the Sistine ceiling fresco, Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Paul III (1534-1549) to execute a mural painting depicting the Last Judgment on the altar wall of the chapel, after plans initially drawn up by Pope Clement VII (1523-1534). The painting was completed in 1541, 29 years to the day since the unveiling of the Genesis fresco, but light years away from it in feeling and meaning, with its menacing figures and mood of godly wrath. If the earlier High Renaissance-style Genesis work had captured the triumphant humanistic aesthetic of an ordered universe, the Mannerism-style Last Judgment reflected the new insecurity of an era characterized by the 1527 Sack of Rome and a European-wide contest of militancy between Protestantism and Catholic Counter-Reformation.

Greatest Religious Paintings Ever

From its very completion in 1512, Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling fresco was regarded as one of the supreme examples of pictorial art. His later Last Judgment, while attracting controversy for its use of nudity, is also thought to be one of the greatest works of religious painting. Given that Michelangelo is viewed principally as one of the world's most talented sculptors, one begins to appreciate why he heads the list of best artists of all time.

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