Churches of Rome Wiki

The Cappella Sistina (Sistine Chapel) is the main papal chapel of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican City, named after its founder Pope Sixtus IV. The fabric is 15th century. Pictures on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The chapel is especially famous both for its decorations by Michelangelo, and for being the place where papal conclaves (elections) are held.

The dedication is to the Blessed Virgin Mary, under the aspect of her Assumption.

Do not confuse it with the Cappella Sistina at Santa Maria Maggiore.



It should be remembered that for the first thousand years of the civic existence of the papacy, since its erection as a recognized public institution by the emperor Constantine in 313, the popes resided at the Lateran Palace. A "palace" (basically a fortified residence) was erected next to the Constantinian basilica of St Peter's in the 5th century, but was of subsidiary importance and was not the seat of the mediaeval Papal court.

This changed after the Avignon Captivity from 1309 to 1377, when the popes lived in France. The Lateran Palace fell into ruins, so when Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome he did not reside there. His successors chose the Vatican instead, and lived there until the early 17th century when they moved to the Quirinal Palace.

The palace began to deserve its appellation in the reign of Pope Nicholas V (1447-55), who transformed the fortified house into a palazzo around the present Cortile dei Pappagalli. To the west of this, and parallel to the nave of the ancient basilica of St Peter's, was the so-called Cappella Magna which was the main assembly hall for the palace.


This edifice was apparently in poor condition when Pope Sixtus IV commissioned its rebuilding on the same foundations in 1475. It used to be thought that the architect was Giovannino dei Dolci, but it is now known that the plans were by Baccio Pontelli with Giovannino supervising on site. What he produced was a rather minimalist and uninteresting edifice, but the interior decoration was a different matter. Unfortunately, the structural work was incompetent and almost led to ruin in the following century.

The original Cosmatesque floor survives, as does the sanctuary screen (not in its original place) and choir which are thought to have been principally by Mino da Fiesole. The walls were frescoed in large panels by a team of brilliant Renaissance artists under the authority of Pietro Perugino, who had Pinturicchio as his assistant. They worked from 1481, when the roof went on, to 1483. Known members of the team are Botticelli, Cosimo Rosselli assisted by Piero di Cosimo, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Luca Signorelli, and they covered all four walls with fresco work in three horizontal registers (the scenes on the end walls have since been lost).

The shallow-curved barrel-vaulted ceiling was painted in ultramarine blue (a fabulously expensive pigment from Afghanistan) with gold stars. This was by Pier Matteo d'Amelia.


The chapel was consecrated by Pope Sixtus in 1483. It took over the role of its predecessor as the main meeting-hall of the palace, and this explains the tradition of holding Papal conclaves here. It has also remained the most important of the several chapels in the palace. The alternative name of the Cappella Major distinguished it from the Cappella Minor, otherwise known as the Cappella Paolina which was the Pope's purely private chapel in the palace (there's a virtual reality view of it here).

Do not confuse this Cappella Paolina with the one at the Quirinal Palace, which supplanted the Cappella Sistina as the most important papal chapel for two centuries, nor with that at Santa Maria Maggiore.

The first conclave held here was that of 1492, when Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) was elected. He was one of Sixtus's nephews.

Pope Julius II -Ceiling[]

Another one of the old pope's nephews then became Pope Julius II (1503–1513), famous for being the patron of Michelangelo. This pope took a dislike to the simply decorated ceiling vault, and ordered the artist to fresco it figuratively. At first Michelangelo refused as he considered himself a sculptor, not a painter, and suggested that Raphael should do the work instead. But the pontiff pressured him into accepting the task, and on 27 July 1508, he climbed the scaffold for the first time. He was thirty-three, and had almost no experience of buon fresco work. His previous painting was in egg-tempera on wood, very different from fresco where the artist needs to paint quickly on wet plaster before it dries out. He was about to paint over five hundred square metres of ceiling.

The pope's original idea was to have the Twelve Apostles depicted, but Michelangelo persuaded him otherwise (he never started to paint this theme, as has been claimed).

A side-effect of this monumental work was the failure of the project for the Tomb of Pope Julius II on which Michelangelo had been working. His attention being diverted, the end result was the rather sad memorial in San Pietro in Vincoli instead of the enormously magnificent monument in St Peter's that was proposed.

Michelangelo spent the next four years standing under the vault and looking up to paint, and it is said that for a long time afterwards he could not read a letter unless he held it above his head. He designed for himself a fixed, arched wooden platform which was a constant two metres below the vault surface and which could be dismantled and moved along when one transverse band of fresco was finished. This meant that he could not view his work in progress from the floor below, because the platform was in the way -he had to keep the image of the work entirely in his mind.

There is a persistent urban legend that Michelangelo carried out the painting while lying on his back. This is false, and the universality of the delusion is blamed on the 1965 film "The Agony and the Ecstasy" in which he was played by Charlton Heston.

The ceiling was finally unveiled on 31 October 1512.

Raphael tapestries[]

The next pope, Leo X, commissioned Raphael to paint modelli for sixteen figurative tapestries to be hung below the main wall frescoes in the chapel. The theme was to be the Acts of the Apostles. The idea was that six tapestries would hang on each side (the chapel has six bays), and two at each end. Raphael's work is usually referred to as the Raphael Cartoons, although obviously the meaning of the word cartoon mutated massively in the 20th century and the word modello is now to be preferred.

The tapestries were first hung in 1519. Very unfortunately, the Sack of Rome in 1527 saw the destruction or looting of the set -some were allegedly burned by looting soldiery in order to recover the gold woven into them. However, an effort was made to recover the survivors and ten are now in Room VIII of the Pinacoteca. However, several of these are not originals but duplicates. They are returned to hang in the chapel only on rare occasions, the first being in 1984. The seven surviving modelli are at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England.

Pope Paul III- Altarpiece[]

After the Sack, which terminated the Renaissance at Rome, Michelangelo returned in 1536 to fresco the entire far wall as a new altarpiece. This, his Day of Judgement, was executed on the orders of Pope Clement VII (1523-34), confirmed by Pope Paul III (1534–1549), and entailed the destruction of part of the original fresco cycle. This wall originally had a central altarpiece featuring The Assumption of Our Lady, and two side frescoes by Pietro Perugino. To the left was The Finding of Moses, and to the right The Nativity of Christ. Also lost were some figures of popes, and two lunette scenes showing "Ancestors": Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Judah and Perez, Hezron and Ram.

The theme is the Second Coming of Christ at the Last Judgment, accompanied by a crowd of naked saints many of whom have so-called "attributes" or identifying symbols. The dead are being raised, and sorted out into those to join Christ in Heaven and those doomed to Hell (the entrance of which is to the bottom right).

Michelangelo's mature composition covers the entire wall above the exit doors flanking the altar. He spent five years working on it, and it was first formally revealed on All Souls' Day 1541. The Holy Father fell to his knees in prayerful admiration, and expressed his support for the artist by confirming the commission to paint two large wall frescoes in the Cappella Paolina. The resultant works, The Crucifixion of St Peter and The Conversion of Saul, were the last frescoes that Michelangelo painted.

However the depiction of so many nude figures caused a violent controversy, the so-called "Fig-Leaf Campaign". Even while Michelangelo was at work Biagio da Cesena, the Master of Ceremonies of Pope Paul, objected and so the artist gave Minos the gate-keeper of Hell his features in revenge. Cardinal Gian Pietro Carafa, the future Pope Paul IV (1555-9) called the fresco I stui di nudi or "the public bath full of naked people", but left the work alone when pope. In 1563 the Council of Trent condemned nudity in religious art, and in the following year Daniele da Volterra was commissioned by Pope Pius IV to provide loin-cloths and drapes to cover any genitalia. It used to be thought that he did this in soluble tempera, which meant that the additions could be easily removed. However, in the restoration at the end of the 20th century it was found that he had actually used fresco and had scraped off the original paint. Two figures had been completely re-done, those of St Blaise and St Catherine of Alexandria, because the former was previously apparently admiring the latter's naked cucurbitine mammaries. The "restoration" was completed in 1568.

Marcello Venusti executed a copy of the fresco before the censorship, and an online version is here.

Early conservation problems[]

Meanwhile, before the Sack in 1522 the lintel of the main entrance collapsed and took the two fresco panels on the wall opposite the altar with it. These were re-painted, but the work has historically been consider inferior to that which was lost.

More seriously, problems with leaks in the roof led to water penetration into the fresco plaster of the vault, with cracking and the efflorescence of saltpetre onto the surface. Paolo Giovio was the first to describe this, in 1547. It seems that the campaign to provide underwear for the nudes also involved the glazing of the roof vault frescoes with linseed oil in order to make the crystalline deposits transparent.

The "fig-leaf restoration" mentioned above coincided with the structural failure of the chapel, which was another reason for the ceiling cracking and which might have caused the 1522 collapse. The north side wall especially was bowing outwards. Pirro Ligorio was employed for three years from 1565 to provide the massive buttresses which now support the external side walls, without which the whole structure might have failed catastrophically.

Partial eclipse[]

Pope Gregory XIII began the construction of a summer palace on the Quirinal, in a cooler location with fewer malaria mosquitoes. Pope Paul V (1605-21) moved the official residence of the popes to this Quirinal Palace, where it remained until 1870. As part of the new arrangements, the palace was provided with its own chapel which has the same proportions as the Cappella Sistina. This Cappella Paolina al Quirinale (which should not be confused with the one in the Vatican -Cappella Paolina al Vaticano) became the place where papal conclaves were held, and a long wing was added to the palace as accommodation for the cardinals during one (this was always a problem at the Vatican, until the Casa Santa Marta was built).

So, the Cappella Paolina was to be the principal papal chapel for a quarter of a millennium. The Cappella Sistina was left alone, and the only change since Michelangelo finished his work was that the marble sanctuary screen was moved back to make more room for officiating clergy. It used to be halfway down the chapel, as you can tell if you look at the pattern of the original floor. Also, a dais for the papal throne was added to the top left hand side of the nave.

In 1625, there was a cleaning of the frescoes which involved rubbing them with damp bread and (apparently) sealing them with glue-varnish in response to craquelure.

Another major restoration of the frescoes took place in 1712, by Annibale Mazzuoli. This was very important, because it is claimed that he resorted to overpainting especially to restore worn areas and to provide better contrast to details such as draperies. He also washed the frescoes with retsina or wine in which pine resin had been dissolved. The evaporation of the wine then left a layer of resin on the paintwork, on which he applied a further layer of varnish.

There was a minor disaster in 1797, when the gunpowder store at Castel Sant'Angelo (incredibly, still a military installation) exploded. The shock detached a piece of the ceiling, which shattered on the floor and was then swept up and thrown away. The hole in the fresco is still there.

Return of importance[]

The last conclave held in the Cappella Paolina at the Quirinal Palace turned out to be that of 1846, when Pope Pius IX was elected. He lived long enough to see the palace sequestered for the king of Italy when Rome was conquered in 1870. Refusing to accept this, he put the chapel under interdict and retired to the Vatican Palace.

This brought the Cappella Sistina back into prominence, and conclaves have been held here ever since. When a conclave is to take place the eligible cardinals are assembled in the chapel, and then it is sealed of from the outside world until a new pontiff has been elected.

Campaigns of cleaning were carried out for two years to 1905 and three to 1938, but these were not satisfactory.


The major problem with the frescoes towards the end of the 20th century was that they had become very dirty. The chapel was regularly used for liturgical services until then, which meant the burning of candles and incense and hence the production of a steady supply of soot, grease and dust. Further the previous restorations had used fixatives in response to worries about the cracking of the paint, and so the surface was covered in what amounted to several layers of glue which had absorbed dirt.

A thorough and systematic cleaning and restoration was begun in 1980, and only finished in 1994. All the dirt was removed in this very expensive restoration, so that the original colours as used by Michelangelo would be revealed The experts who were consulted expressed the consensus that the artist had worked entirely in buon fresco (that is, on wet plaster), then said "job done" and walked away. Thus, everything on the surface not fixed by the fresco technique was not Michelangelo's but later, and could be removed.

The work was sponsored by Nippon TV, in return for exclusive coverage rights.

A lot of criticism has resulted, mainly because the colours of the frescoes have become so bright. However, chemical analyses of the pigments used in mediaeval and Renaissance art show that the artists did indeed use bright colours, The old, commonly held opinion that Medieval and Renaissance art preferred dark and gloomy hues is a result of what people were used to seeing in the 19th century - uncleaned paintings, with pigments covered by dirt - and not based on true knowledge about what the artworks originally looked like.

One violently expressed view was that Michelangelo must have overpainted the frescoes with varnish, in order to tone down the brightness of the colours. This profoundly stupid opinion was based, ultimately, on a modern imperialist and racist prejudice that "bright colours are for primitive people only".

However, a much more nuanced criticism has claimed that Michelangelo went over the finished work a secco (when the plaster was dry) with carbon black, especially to provide tone contrasts to drapery and areas in shadow. "Before and after" photos certainly show a loss of shadow detailing in some areas of the ceiling vault, but the restorers claimed that the a secco additions were as a result of the work of Mazzuoli in 1712.

There is no documentation to support either side of the debate.

A very good summary of the restoration and the ensuing controversy is in a Wikipedia article here.


The chapel has become one of the most heavily-visited tourist attractions in the world. The total floor area is 540 square metres, yet the Vatican estimates that it is visited by 20 000 people every day (not Sundays and major Church solemnities).

This is regarded as untenable, for two reasons. Firstly, it is impossible for an ordinary visitor actually interested in the artworks to appreciate them. Secondly, serious warnings have been made that the paintings themselves will suffer serious damage in the long term, especially as they are not now sealed by protective varnish from whatever might be in the atmosphere.

On the other hand, the Vatican needs the income that an admission charge of sixteen euros per head provides.

In October 2014 a new lighting system was installed to make the frescoes easier to see, and an intimation given that visitors may be capped at 20 000 a day.


The exterior is best viewed by the ordinary visitor from the dome of St Peter's, as in the photo here. There is a depiction of the chapel's original appearance here.

The building is a three-storey brick box, with the chapel forming the second storey. There used to be a total of sixteen large round-headed windows, six in each side wall and two in each end, but the latter have been blocked. Three string courses in limestone used to run round the entire exterior, the top one at the level of the imposts of the window arches, and these are matched in the interior -again, alterations to the fabric and the building of ancillary edifices have obscured this feature.

The first storey is a set of vaulted chambers, the vaulting of which supports the chapel floor. The roof vault of the chapel begins at the level of the highest string course, and above this is another set of rooms before the actual roof. The latter is pitched and tiled, and has a separate narrow tiled drip-eave below the guttering and running under the gables in order to try and keep rainwater from running down the walls.

At the level of the top of the interior vault is a roofed passage with open square portals, which is corbelled out on sloping brick arches and used to run right round all four sides. This is actually a feature derived from mediaeval castle design, and is called a chemin de ronde. The idea was that there would be apertures called machicolations between the corbels, through which the defenders could drop things on any attackers at the foot of the wall.

It has been seriously suggested that Pope Sixtus was worried about his palace being attacked by his enemies in Rome, and that was why the chapel had a castellated exterior. This is an unnecessary hypothesis, as the style of architecture was a simple demonstration of secular power fashionable at the time.

The famous chimney through which the black or white smoke passes during conclaves is a simple and ugly iron stove-pipe bolted onto the exterior at the east gable, which is visible from the Piazza di San Pietro.


Layout and fabric[]

Take away the frescoes, and the chapel becomes very simple indeed. It is a straightforward rectangular space, with a shallow vaulted roof and no structurally separate sanctuary. An original marble screen divides the presbyterium, the area reserved for the clergy, from that reserved for the faithful. On the right hand side wall is a sort of opera-box or balcony which is what the Italians call a cantoria, and the English a choir-loft. It occupies a whole bay of the nave.

Each side wall has six large round-headed windows, which demonstrate how thick the walls are. Each window has a single colonnette mullion, ending in an anulus at the top. The fenestration is mostly in clear glass hexagons, with some stained-glass heraldry inserted.

A low marble bench runs all along the bottom of both side walls.

The sanctuary is raised, and is approached by four steps. Unusually the floor area of this is L-shaped, with a projection on the left for the papal throne.

The measurements of the chapel are 40.5 metres long, 13.2 metres wide and 20.7 metres high. The proportions give the impression of the height being too great for the width. However, the dimensions agree with those of the Temple of Solomon (1 Kings 6:2) and, by coincidence, those of the Senate House at Rome (the coincidence was noted in ancient times). It is uncertain as to whether Pope Sixtus was influenced by either of these observations.


The floor is Cosmatesque, and is of very high quality. However by the time the chapel was built the style was already old-fashioned, so it used to be thought that was laid in the reign of reign of Pope Nicholas V (1447-55). This is incorrect -it is part of the overall project of Pope Sixtus.

If the crowds allow, you can see where the marble screen used to be before it was moved back to its present position. This is marked by a black band.

The sanctuary floor is part of the same scheme, and matches the nave floor. However, the dais for the papal throne was added later and does not, being paved in grey marble.

Perhaps understandably the floor is neglected in the literature in favour of the frescoes. The Vatican Museums virtual tour gives the best view of it here.

Screen and gallery[]

The screen and matching cantoria are original, and are ascribed to Andrea Bregno, Mino da Fiesole and Giovanni Dalmata.

The screen consists of six solid marble slabs or transennae, separated by little pilasters. The inner pair bear the coat-of-arms of the family of Pope Sixtus IV, the Della Rovere, supported by putti. The emblem is an oak-tree, since robur is Latin for oak timber. The other four slabs bear swags of pears with vine-scrolls in a Grotesque style. Above the pilasters are six pillars embellished with more grotesquery, and supporting a horizontal molded architrave. In between the pillars are iron grilles in squares. The single entrance, with an embellished doorcase, now has a wooden door but this used to be in wrought iron too. On the architrave are six stone candlesticks.

The cantoria has a pin balustrade, also embellished with grotesquerie. Such a balustrade is a very familiar architectural feature nowadays, but this one is one of the earliest and in fact has been claimed to be the first (it was installed in 1484).

The relief decoration on the screen and cantoria has been re-gilded.

That stove![]

The famous cast-iron stove used to burn the ballot papers at papal conclave sits unobtrusively in the bottom left hand corner, and has a highly-polished copper chimney. As everyone knows, black smoke means a failed ballot, and white smoke a result. The former used to be produced by adding a handful of damp straw, but nowadays chemicals are used to avoid ambiguity.

Original wall decorative scheme[]

The side and entrance walls (and once the altar wall as well) are divided into three horizontal registers by three string courses, the first two being full entablatures but the top one being a simple cornice. The latter is at the levels of the imposts of the window archivolts, and from it springs the ceiling vault decorated by Michelangelo.

The first register is painted to resemble hanging curtains. The middle register contains the figurative scenes from the Old and New Testaments, described below. These were executed by a number of artists. As with the mosaics in San Giovanni in Laterano, they point out parallels in salvation history between the two Testaments. To the left, the subject is The Life of Moses, and to the right it is The Life of Christ. The top register contains the windows, and in between these is painted the so-called "Gallery of Popes".


The painted trompe-l'oeil curtains of the first fresco register are depictions of fabrics in cloth-of-gold and cloth-of-silver, the colours alternating with the bays. This sort of representation of hanging drapes is a very old Christian tradition, and remains of it have been found in Rome's palaeochristian churches dating back to the 4th century. The depictions include "embroidered" heraldic shields of Pope Sixtus.

The curtains are separated by wide pilasters in a derivative Corinthian style with gilded capitals, which bear panels having reliefs of grotesque scrollwork erupting from a vase on a gilded background and surrounding more shields of Pope Sixtus. These pilasters support an entablature which runs round the interior (except The Last Judgement), and this has acanthus leaves on its frieze and rosettes on its cornice. The background of the frieze is mostly in blue, but for the second to last bay on the right it is in gold and this indicates that the papal throne was here when the chapel was first built.

Gallery of popes[]

The third wall fresco register features twenty-eight figures of popes, painted as if in round-headed niches with scallop shell conchs and with identifying epigraphs below them. There are two between each pair of windows, four in the corners and four on the entrance wall.

The scheme features the early popes, from St Peter to St Melchiades who was the last pope before the foundation of the basilica of St Peter's. Since no authentic portraits survive, all the portraiture is schematic.

The altar wall used to have four further depictions, but these were destroyed for the Last Judgement. Although there is uncertainty, these are thought to have been: Peter, Eusebius, Melchiades and Linus.

The popes depicted are, from the far right hand corner near the altar and proceeding anticlockwise: Anacletus, Alexander I, Telesphorus, Pius I, Soter, Victor I , Callixtus I, Pontian, Fabian, Lucius I, Sixtus II, Felix I; (wall over entrance) Caius, Marcellinus, Marcellus I, Eutychian; (left hand wall) Dionysius, Stephen I, Cornelius, Anterus, Urban I, Zephyrinus, Eleutherius, Anicetus, Hyginus, Sixtus I, Evaristus and Clement I.

Botticelli is known to have painted Evaristus, Cornelius, Stephen I, Pius I, Sixtus II and Marcellinus. Ghirlandaio was paid for eight (he is known to have painted Clement I, Hyginus, Anacletus, Victor, Felix I and Eutychian), Rosselli for two and Fra Diamante for seven (he is known to have painted Anterus and Alexander I).

Frescoes of Lives of Moses and Christ -summary[]

The following table lists the figurative frescoes, in order from the altar left to right in turn. The Life of Moses is to the left, and The Life of Christ is to the right. Several frescoes contain more than one scene. On the frieze of the entablature above the panels are titles in Latin.

Many of the figures are thought to be portraits of real people alive when the frescoes were painted. These would have been part of the court of Pope Sixtus, and identifying them has been the focus of much scholarly activity.

The principal artist responsible for each fresco is listed below. However it should be remembered that the crew of artists assembled under the leadership of Perugino were happy to help out wherever needed, and most of the frescoes show evidence of more than one hand. Since identifying the contributors relies on stylistic considerations, there can be no certainty of the details of attribution.

Subject Artist Biblical reference
The Infant Moses Found in the Rushes Pietro Perugino Ex 2:5ff.
The Nativity of Christ Pietro Perugino Mt 1:18ff.; Lk 2:1-19
The Return of Moses to Egypt Pietro Perugino Ex 4:18 ff.
The Baptism of Christ Pietro Perugino Mt 3:13-17; Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-22
Moses Receiving the Call Botticelli Ex 2:11 ff.
The Temptations of Christ Botticelli Mt 4:1-11; Mk 1:12-13; Lk 4:1-13
The Crossing of the Red Sea Cosimo Rosselli Ex 14:15.ff
The Calling of the Apostles Ghirlandaio Mt 4:18-20, Mk 1:16-18
The Adoration of the Golden Calf Cosimo Rosselli Ex 19:16.ff
The Sermon on the Mount Cosimo Rosselli &
Piero di Cosimo
Mt 5-7
The Punishment of the Rebels Botticelli Ex 32
The Delivery of the Keys to St Peter Pietro Perugino Mt 16:18-19
The Testament and the Death of Moses Signorelli Dt 31-34
The Last Supper Cosimo Rosselli Mt 26:17-29; Mk 14:12-25; Lk 22:7-38; Jn 13:1-30
The Disputation over the Body of Moses Matteo da Lecce Jude 1:9, from a pseudepigraphical text.
The Resurrection Arrigo Paludano Mt 28; Mk 16; Lk 24; Jn 20-21

Life of Moses[]

The Infant Moses Found in the Rushes. This fresco was destroyed to make way for The Last Judgement.

The Return of Moses to Egypt. The traditional description of Pinturicchio as having painted some of the figures is now questioned. There are three scenes: Moses saying goodbye to his father-in-law Jethro, Moses confronting the angel on his return into Egypt and the circumcision of Moses's sons. The pastoral background, with the dancing shepherds and long view, is typical of the period. Moses is the one in the golden tunic with a green mantle, and is dressed the same in the other frescoes. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

Moses Receiving the Call. There are seven separate scenes, starting from the right: Moses kills the Egyptian beating the Hebrew (who is receiving help from a woman), Moses flees Egypt, Moses drives away the shepherds from the well, Moses waters the flock of Jethro's daughters (he marries one of them, Zipporah, the bionda on the left), Moses removing his shoes at the Burning Bush, God talking to Moses from the bush, Moses leading the people out of Egypt. The group of exiles contains a little white dog being carried, and it re-occurs in the following fresco. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The Crossing of the Red Sea. There is one scene, showing the Hebrews as already having crossed and the army of Pharaoh drowning. Miriam is shown playing a zither (in the Bible she has a tambourine). The old man with a white beard to the right of Moses is certainly a portrait of Cardinal Bessarion. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The Worship of the Golden Calf. The main scene shows Moses breaking the Tablets of the Law (the "Ten Commandments") in anger at the worship of the Golden Calf. This scene contains a monkey. In the far right is the punishment of the unrepentant, at the top is Moses receiving a duplicate set of tablets from God, and then to the left he is presenting them to the repentant people. The young man in the pale blue overmantle is Joshua. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The Punishment of the Rebels. There are three scenes. To the right is the rebellion of those wishing to return to Egypt under a leader other than Moses, to the right is the earth swallowing up Dathan and Abiram, and in the middle is the rebellion of Korah. The rebels are offering incense around an altar, and suffering for it. The legitimate priest Aaron is the one in the Papal tiara. The triumphal arch in the background is the Arch of Constantine, with an epigraph saying Nemo sibi assummat honorem nisi vocatus, adeo tanquam Aron ("Let no-one take honour, unless he is called just like Aaron"). There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The Testament and the Death of Moses. Moses is depicted five times. In the middle near distance he is shown after being told by God that he would die before entering the Promised Land, to the right he is reading out his Testament, to the left he is passing is authority on to Joshua, on top of the mountain he is dying, and to the top left his corpse is being laid out.

The Disputation Over the Body of Moses. This was originally painted by Signorelli, but the collapse of the lintel of the entrance door destroyed the work and it was re-painted by Matteo da Lecce who is also known as Matteo Perez d'Aleccio. The scene showing the archangel Michael arguing with Satan over the body of Moses is not in the Bible, but is alluded to in the Epistle of Jude. It is thought to have come from a Jewish text called the Assumption of Moses, although the incomplete single surviving manuscript does not contain it. The battle is in the foreground, and the funeral procession is at the top left. There is a photo here.

Life of Christ[]

The Nativity. This fresco by Perugino was also destroyed for The Last Judgement.

The Baptism of Christ. This fresco has been heavily restored, and is not in good condition. The main scene depicts the actual baptism, with God the Father and the Holy Spirit descending as a dove. The rather disinterested spectators on either side are portraits of members of the court of Pope Sixtus. In the background, St John the Baptist is preaching to the left and Christ, to the right. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The Temptations of Christ. The foreground scene actually depicts the purification of a leper as described in the Book of Leviticus, which seems to be an allusion to the first miracle performed by Christ in the Gospel of Matthew (Mt 8:3). Christ is shown to the left, discoursing to a group of angels about the event. This seems to be a reference to the cleansing of a leper in the Old Testament being a model of the universal redemption of the human race achieved by Christ. The actual temptations are in three scenes in the background; to the left, Christ is tempted to make stones into bread; in the middle he is on the gable of the Temple, being tempted to jump off; and to the right he is shown all the kingdoms in the world in one view, to rule in exchange for worshipping Satan. Why Satan seems to be dressed in a Franciscan habit, with a rosary, is a puzzle especially since Pope Sixtus IV was a Franciscan himself. One suggestion is that what is actually depicted is Satan as a Fraticello, a heretic Franciscan. The depiction of the Temple is not of a church, but of the Ospedale di Santo Spirito in Sassia which Pope Sixtus founded. A modern view of the same frontage is here. Compare it with the view of the fresco on the English Wikipedia article here.

The Calling of the Apostles. The invitation by Christ to the fishermen SS Peter and Andrew is shown in three scenes. In the left background Christ is telling the two apostles where to drop the nets for a miraculous catch of fish, in the foreground he is telling the pair that they are to be "fishers of men", and in the right background they are accompanying Christ as he calls SS James and John in a boat. There is an English Wikipedia article here.

The Sermon on the Mount. This fresco is not as highly regarded as the others, and has suffered some damage. Christ features in four scenes. On the mountain in the far background he is praying, in the near background he is assembling the Twelve, to the right he is curing a leper and the main scene shows the Sermon on the Mount. There is no English Wikipedia page, but a representation is here.

The Delivery of the Keys to St Peter. This fresco is set in the Temple at Jerusalem, and the octagonal building in the background is actually an echo of the Muslim Dome of the Rock. The foreground scene is the commissioning of St Peter as the holder of the keys of heaven (this actually happened at Caesarea Philippi), at the top left is the delivery of the Temple tax for Christ and St Peter (Mt 17:24-7) and to the right Christ is being stoned for blasphemy (Jn 10:30-33). There is an English Wikipedia article here. A reproduction of the whole fresco is here.

The Last Supper. This charming fresco is reckoned as the best work by Cosimo Rosselli, a painter who has not otherwise been very highly regarded. The artist has included depictions of Christ's agony in Gethsemane, his arrest and his crucifixion as if they were window scenes. Note the little demon pulling Judas's halo off, and the cat arguing with a dog over a bone. The four flanking figures are obviously important court personages since they take no active part in the composition, but there are no good guesses as to their identity. There is an English Wikipedia article here.

The Resurrection. The original fresco by Ghirlandaio was destroyed in a wall collapse, so it was re-painted by Arrigo Paludano, whose real name was Hendrick van den Broeck. The fresco work has perished somewhat, and the work has suffered in comparison with the masterpieces but it's not bad. The Ascension is pictured in the top right hand corner. There is an image here.

Judgement Day[]

This painting has an English Wikipedia article here.

Michelangelo's enormous fresco occupies the entire far wall above the two little doorways flanking the altar. The theme is the Second Coming of Christ at the Last Judgment where he judges the living and the dead. He is accompanied by a crowd of saints, some of whom have so-called "attributes" or identifying symbols. The dead are being raised, and sorted out into those about to join Christ in Heaven and those doomed to Hell (the entrance of which is to the bottom right).

At the top in the lunettes are angels with some of the Instruments of the Passion of Christ (the Cross, the Crown of Thorns and the Pillar of Scourging), reminding us that the possibility of salvation comes through Christ's redemptive sacrifice.

In the centre, Christ is portrayed as a perfect man in true Renaissance style. Michelangelo's idea was that he should be portrayed as the New Adam, restored as a perfect example of humanity, just as the Christian faith accepts him also as God -the very definition of perfection. This ancient doctrine of Christ's restoration of the human race as it was before the Fall also influenced the artist's depiction of the saints as having healthy bodies lacking clothes.

Next to Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary is seated in a very withdrawn posture. The doctrinal message behind this is that the merciful intercession of Our Lady ceases at the point of the Last Judgment. Oddly, despite the chapel being dedicated to her she does not have a prominent place within it.

Only a few of the saints are positively identifiable through their attributes. Just below Our Lady, we find St Lawrence the Deacon with his gridiron. To the left of her is St Andrew with his X-shaped cross (although this is questioned), and next to the left is St John the Baptist dressed in a camel-skin cape (also disputed). To the left of this group of martyrs is a woman with exposed breasts, to whom another woman is clinging. The mainstream view is that she is a personification of Maternity, but an allegorical figure here does not resonate with the theme and another possibility is SS Agnes and Emerentiana. On the right side we find St Paul with a long dark beard and red mantle, St Peter with his keys, St Bartholomew with a flaying knife and his skin, St Simon the Apostle with a saw, The Penitent Thief with a cross (disputed, might be Simon of Cyrene), St Blaise with woolcarder's combs, St Catherine of Alexandria with a broken fragment of her executioner's wheel, St Sebastian with arrows and St Simon of Cyrene with a cross to the far right (disputed, might be the Penitent Thief). Horrible as it is, you should take a look at the skin of St Bartholomew - the face is a self-portrait of Michelangelo.

A good summary of the other tentative identifications (little better than guesses) is here.

SS Blaise and Catherine are not by Michelangelo, but by Daniele da Volterra who scraped and re-frescoed the two figures. Michelangelo had painted the naked St Catherine with ample breasts at which St Blaise was looking, and the criticism of this detail of the picture was especially violent.

In the centre below Christ are angels with trumpets, calling the dead to resurrection. They hold two books, the Book of Good Deeds on the left, and the Book of Evil Deeds on the right. The angel holding the latter is clearly distraught. The former book is much smaller than the latter.

On the left of these angels we see the Blessed Souls ascending to Heaven, and below that the Resurrection of the Dead.

On the other side we see the Damned Souls being dragged into Hell - the Gates of Hell are at the bottom right. In the boat is Charon, the mythical ferryman ferrying lost souls across the river Styx. Another mythical figure is Minos the Gatekeeper, in the bottom right corner. He has not only a serpentine tail and the ears of an ass, but also happens to have the features of Biagio da Cesena who criticized Michelangelo for obscenity while he was painting this work. The recent restoration has revealed a snake biting Minos on his cazzo, so the artist was even more vituperative than was previously believed.



The ceiling is basically a very shallow-curved barrel vault, with large pendentives occupying the four corners which shelter the side windows here and lunettes over the other four windows on each side. Over the wall lunettes proper are triangular vault panels, edged by ribs. That's it. The other architectural details up there are trompe l'oeil, illusionistically painted by Michelangelo.


The ceiling has its own English Wikipedia article here.

There is a long rectangular central section, bounded by an illusionistic cornice. This appears to post over ten short pilasters on each side, and two at each end. Each of these pilasters has a pair of naked putti in monochrome, and on the twenty side ones are seated the famous ignudi. The side pilasters rise from the ribs of the triangular lunette panels and the end ones from the inner ends of the pendentive ribs, and the side ones are continued across the vault by wide painted archivolts. These separate the central section into nine distinct panels of two different widths, the narrower ones being in between the lunette panels.

The narrower panels also include two so-called "Bronze Shields" each, depicting Biblical episodes of violence. The four pendentives depict the "Scenes of Salvation, and in between the lunette panels are the "Prophets" and the "Sibyls". The lunette panels contain the so-called "Families", and the lunettes themselves the "Ancestors".

In between the lunette ribs and the cornice bounding the central panels are pairs of right-angled triangular panels, each pair of which contains two naked figures in monochrome, in rather contorted poses so as to fit into the awkward shape.

Central panels[]

The central panels depict scenes from the Book of Genesis, featuring Creation and the Noah Cycle. These works have understandably been the object of an enormous amount of scholarly analysis and other writing.

The scenes are, from the altar:

  • The Separation of Light from Darkness (Gen 1:3-5). (See the English Wikipedia page here.)
  • The Creation of Sun, Moon and Planets (Gen 1:6-8). (See the English Wikipedia page here.)
  • The Separation of Land from Water (Gen 1:9-10). (Image on Artbible here.)
  • The Creation of Adam (Gen 1:26-27). (See the English Wikipedia page here.)
  • The Creation of Eve (Gen 1:26-27). (Image from Artbible here.)
  • The Fall (Gen 3). (Images from Artbible here and here.)
  • The Sacrifice of Noah (Gen 6:5ff.). (Image on Wikiart here.)
  • The Flood (Gen 6:5ff.). (Image from Artbible here.)
  • The Drunkenness of Noah (Gen 9: 20-27). (Image from Artbible here.)

Michelangelo painted the frescoes in reverse chronological order, that is, he started with The Drunkenness of Noah. It is unclear as to why The Sacrifice of Noah is outside the timeline -it took place after The Flood.

In the centre is one of the most famous works of art ever made, The Creation of Adam. In this scene, Michelangelo managed to to depict the power of God who needs only to extend his finger in order to give life and to create a new species of intelligent being, while at the same time illustrating the closeness between God and man before the Fall of Man.

There is a hole in The Flood, caused by a nearby explosion in 1797.


The Ignudi are a total of twenty naked men in different seated poses, although one was almost destroyed in the 1797 incident mentioned above. Their symbolic significance is a minor mystery, and the two obvious theories are either that they are angels (although lacking wings) or that Michelangelo simply wanted to show off his expertise in painting men's bodies. The word ignudi is his own invention, and remains peculiar to the chapel.

Some of them are holding bunches of enormous acorns, and this is an allusion to the oak tree in the heraldry of the Della Rovere family to which Pope Julius II belonged. The full heraldic shield is in relief on the vault springer over the main entrance to the chapel.

Bronze shields[]

The ten so-called "bronze shields" have to be examined through binoculars to be appreciated. They are in imitation of round parade-shields in wood with gilded figurative decorations. This is the only occurrence of gold leap appliqué in the ceiling's frescoes.

One of them, to the left of The Separation of Land from Water, has been obliterated by the loss of its gilded details. The others represent (anticlockwise from the right side of the main entrance):

  • The Killing of Abner by Joab (2 Samuel 3:22 ff.)
  • The Slaughter of the Prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:40)
  • The Condemnation of King David by Nathan (2 Samuel 12:9 ff.)
  • The Death of Absalom (2 Samuel 14:30)
  • The Sacrifice of Abraham (Genesis 22:2-8)
  • The Ascent of Elijah to Heaven (2 Kings 2)
  • (lost)
  • The Killing of Uriah (2 Samuel 11)
  • The Destruction of the Idol of Baal (2 Kings 10:27)
  • The Death of King Joram (2 Kings 9:24)

Scenes of Salvation[]

The "Scenes of Salvation" occupy the four corner pendentives. They are (anticlockwise from the right side of the main entrance):

  • The Killing of Holofernes by Judith (Judith 13).
  • Esther Witnesses the Punishment of Haman (Esther 7).
  • Moses and the Bronze Serpent (Numbers 21:9).
  • David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17).


The spaces between the triangular lunette panels are occupied by Prophets and Sibyls. There are five of each, and a further two Prophets at the ends of the vault between the pendentives. Prophets and Sibyls alternate, so there are two Prophets on the left and three on the right. They are formulaic figures without distinguishing attributes, except for Jonah, and so have identifying labels.

From over the main entrance and proceeding anticlockwise, we have:

  • Zechariah He has a place of honour over the entrance, because he was mistakenly thought to have been killed in the Temple and hence to have been a prefiguring of Christ. The namesake martyr referred to by Christ (Mt 23:35 and Lk 11:50-51) was Zechariah ben Jehoiada.
  • Isaiah.
  • Daniel.
  • Jonah. He has the major place of honour over the altar, because of Christ's reference to him as a prophet of his own Passion (Mt 12:40). He is shown with two attributes: the big fish in the stomach of which he spent three days (the Biblical text does not use the word "whale", so Michelangelo is correct here), and also the vine (kikayon) under which he sheltered while waiting for the destruction of the city of Nineveh (Jonah 4).
  • Jeremiah.
  • Ezekiel.
  • Joel.


The Sibyls (prophetic oracle-giving priestesses resident at certain pagan shrines in the Classical world) are here because in the Middle Ages it was thought that they had predicted the birth and life of Christ in the surviving Sibylline Oracles. In reality they would all have been old women, but Michelangelo decided to portray them as being of various ages from young to very old. Again from the right of the main entrance and proceeding anticlockwise, we have:

  • Delphic. This is the favourite depiction of a Sibyl in modern times, with her pretty young face and neat bare foot, and she is heavily reproduced. The actual sibyl was very famous in Classical times, being based at the panhellenic sanctuary at Delphi.
  • Cumaean. An ugly old lady. She was based at Cumae near Naples.
  • Libyan. She was not in what is now called Libya, but was at the sanctuary of Amun at the oasis of Siwa in Egypt, where Alexander the Great was assured that he was a god.
  • Persian. The artist shows her as a shadowy figure, with her face turned away. This is accurate, because she was not located anywhere but was a legendary figure allegedly responsible for the Jewish parts of the "Sibylline Oracles". The source for her is Alexander Polyhistor, a 1st century BC historian. "Persian" refers to Babylon, but the oracles are thought to originate from Alexandria in Egypt.
  • Erythrean. This was the favourite depiction in previous centuries. The sibyl was at Erythrae on what is now the Aegean coast of Turkey.


The triangular vault lunette panels each depict a young family with a toddler (the first two families on the left have two each). Traditionally these families have been linked with the "ancestors" below, but this does not follow.


The lunettes above the windows (including the blocked ones in the end walls) are of the so-called "Ancestors of Christ", who are apparently labelled as such by the artist. From above the main entrance to the right, they are:

The label is in the middle of each lunette, flanked by depictions of men and women often with small children or babies. Oddly, it is not possible easily to relate the subjects of the labels to the depictions -and there might be no relationship intended by the artist at all. If Michelangelo painted real people, known to him, in a set of in-jokes, then no amount of art-historical analysis is going to help to understand the depictions.

The exception is the last listed, Jacob and Joseph, where it may be that the Holy Family is on the right and Jacob (St Joseph's father) is on the left, showing suspicion as to how Our Lady became pregnant before being married (this suspicion is an ancient iconographic theme, although in Byzantine icons it is St Joseph himself being tempted to doubt). If this is correct, then the two toddlers playing with the mirror are Christ and St John the Baptist.


Getting in[]

The chapel is visited through the Vatican Museums, for which there is an entrance charge of sixteen euros per person (2017).

Opening times of the Museums are Monday to Saturday, 9:00 to 18:00. The latter is when everybody is chucked out and the doors are closed, so in practice you have to stop looking at things half an hour beforehand. A list of other days when the Museums are closed is here.

Tickets are sold from 9:00 to 16:00, and the entrance is in the Viale Vaticano. The queue can be very impressive, so buy your tickets online here. You are charged an extra four euros, but this is really worth it.

Those who don't know the local topography might need to be reminded that the museum entrance is a long walk from St Peter's, and the chapel a long walk from the entrance.

The ticket is for the day of issue only (or day specified if bought online)! Don't buy one and then decide to come back on another day -you will not get a refund.

Tips on visiting[]

You will invariably find the chapel crowded by tourists, especially of the "been there, done that, got the T-shirt" variety. Be warned. Just how bad it is can be is discernible here.

The best way to see it is to go to the entrance to the Museums early in the morning, well before 9:00, so that you're among the first in line when they open. Once inside there are several recommended routes, one of which will take you directly to the chapel. If you really want to see the chapel with as few people around as possible, walk briskly along this route and save the rest of the Museums for another day - you should then be able to get there ahead of the worst crowds. This is about the only way in which you can enjoy the beautiful Cosmatesque floor on a sixteen euro ticket.

The best time of year is probably late November -pick a day on which it is raining.

However, there is an expensive alternative. For sixty-five euros, you can buy a ticket online which will let you into the Museums at 7:00 for a breakfast, then allow you an hour in the Sistine Chapel before the standard opening time. See here.


Remember that the chapel is consecrated, and silence should be observed. You will be reminded of this from loudspeakers on your way there and in the chapel (it's a common feature of Italian churches that the word silenzio is shouted out loudly quite often, one of those little inconsistencies that makes life more interesting), but sadly many choose to ignore this. Please set an example and be silent in the chapel.

Photography is not permitted in the chapel. As part of the sponsoring deal for the restoration, this prohibition covers all use of photographic equipment, including non-flash photos and video cameras. A lot of people break this rule, but note that you may be led out by a guard before you have had a chance to see the whole chapel if you do so.

Too much trouble?[]

The Sistine Chapel is included in the virtual tours on the Vatican Museums website here.


This is a private chapel not a public church, so attendance at the liturgical events here is by invitation only. The Holy Father may celebrate Mass or Vespers here on Sundays and Solemnities -see the Vatican news service.

The Sistine Chapel Choir has been glorious in the past, and has an important history. It still exists, is still better than an amateur outfit in Puglia.

Replica of the ceiling[]

Only one replica ceiling has ever been painted. Unbelievably, it is in a church in an ugly seaside suburb in England called Goring-by-Sea. See its website here.

External links[]

(The chapel has a massive amount of coverage both on the Internet and in traditional paper publications, but most of it is either rubbishy speculation or formulaic repetition.)