You will know immediately when you have reached the Sistine Chapel because everyone is in the room standing with their eyes turned toward the ceiling. Deservedly one of the most famous places in the world, the Sistine Chapel is the site where the conclave for the election of the popes and other solemn pontifical ceremonies are held. Built to the design of Baccio Pontelli by Giovannino de Dolci between 1475 and 1481, the chapel takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV, who commissioned it. The first Mass in the Sistine Chapel was celebrated on August 9, 1483 dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
The Sistine Chapel is what might be considered the end of the Vatican Museums. It is located on the right of St. Peter’s Basilica, after the Scala Regia, and originally served as the Palatine chapel inside the old Vatican fortress. The exact dimensions of the chapel are that of the Temple of Solomon as described in the Old Testament – 40.93 meters long by 13.41 meters wide. Its structure is a large rectangle, divided into two unequal parts by a marble screen, with a barrel-vaulted ceiling reaching a height of 20.7 meters. The screen and the transenna were built by Mino da Fiesole, Andrea Bregno, and Giovanni Dalmata. The wider division together with the altar is reserved for proper religious ceremonies and other clergy uses. The smaller division is for the faithful.
The frescoes on the long walls illustrate parallel events in the Lives of Moses and Christ and constitute a complex of extraordinary interest executed between 1481 and 1483 by Perugino, Botticelli, Cosimo Rosselli, and Domenico Ghirlandaio, with their respective groups of assistants, who included Pinturicchio, Piero di Cosimo and others; later Luca Signorelli also joined the group.
Although the walls of the Sistine Chapel are covered with paintings by a number of Renaissance masters, they become secondary in the company of the magnificent frescoes adorning the barrel-vaulted ceiling. The ceiling was a blue sky with golden stars painted by Piero Matteo d’Amelia until Pope Julius II convinced Michelangelo Buonarroti to paint it in 1508-1512. “Everyday for four years, he was hoisted high above the chapel floor, lying on his back on planking, painting the ceiling.”
The original design was only to have represented the Apostles, but was modified at the Michelangelo's insistence to encompass a theme representing mankind waiting for the coming of the Messiah. The ceiling is divided into nine compartments in which the stories of Genesis are represented in nine scenes. These scenes include: Drunkenness of Noah, The Deluge, Sacrifice of Noah, The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Creation of Eve, Creation of Adam, Separation of the Earth from the Waters, Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Planets, and Separation of Light from Darkness. These scenes are surrounded by alternating images of prophets and sibyls on marble thrones, by other Old Testament subjects, and by the ancestors of Christ.
As part of the decorative scheme of the ceiling, above each of the thrones of the sibyls and prophets (except Zechariah and Jonah) are two figures of ignudi, sitting on plinths and bearing garlands of oak leaves and acorns. Michelangelo placed between each pair of ignudi a medallion, painted to resemble bronze, with episodes drawn from the books of Genesis, Samuel, Kings, and Maccabees. On the sidewalls of the chapel, five prophets alternate with the same number of sibyls, so that each prophet is paired with a sibyl on the opposite wall. This studied parallelism alludes both to the theme of the universality of the message of Redemption and the idea of the perfect concordance of the Revelation in the Judaic world and in the pagan one.
More than twenty years later at the age of 59, Michelangelo was summoned back by Paul III (1534-49) to paint the Last Judgment on the wall behind the altar. He worked on it from 1536 to 1541 making it the largest fresco of the Renaissance period. Most of the figures in the painting were nude. Ten years later, Daniele da Volterra was brought in to paint over all the nude figures. The Last Judgment depicts a young and vibrant Christ at the top of the painting, with figures on the left ascending toward Heaven and the figures on the right descending towards Hell. There are 381 figures in the painting and it is said that Michelangelo’s self-portrait appears twice: once in the flayed skin which Saint Bartholomew is carrying in his left-hand, and in the figure in the lower left hand corner, who is looking encouragingly at those rising from their graves.
The Sistine Chapel was restored between 1980-1994. All over the world there was an outcry and great controversy over the cleaning and restoration work. When it was finally restored, it revealed the brilliance of Michelangelo’s paintings that were covered by nearly five centuries of candle-soot, dust, oil, grease, varnish, and over-painting.