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The Sistine Chapel: History & Frescoes

Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

The Sistine Chapel holds incredible significance both for the people of the Catholic faith and also for art-lovers. Read this lesson to discover the history and the frescoes of this renowned chapel.

Introduction

The Sistine Chapel in Vatican City (Rome) is a Vatican chapel that showcases some of the best Renaissance art. The Chapel serves an important function for the Catholic Church because it is where new popes are selected. In addition, the Chapel is also renowned for the breathtaking frescoes that adorn the inside walls and ceiling. Renaissance artists, including Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Cosimo Rosselli, Luca Signorelli, Pinturicchio, and Michelangelo Buonarroti, were commissioned to paint religiously themed frescoes on the Chapel's interior. Perhaps it is because of the special historical, religious, and artistic significance of the Sistine Chapel that five million people visit the Chapel every year!

Exterior of the Sistine Chapel
Exterior of the Sistine Chapel

History

The Sistine Chapel was first constructed in the 1470s for Pope Sixtus IV at the site of a medieval chapel. Though the external features of the Chapel are rather unassuming, the interior of the Chapel underwent several stages of adornment and restoration by several significant artists. In 1481, the first series of frescoes were painted. Scenes from the Old and New Testament were painted on the Chapel walls by prominent painters of the time: Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Perugino, Rosselli, Signorelli, Pinturicchio, and their assistants. The ceiling was also painted as a blue night sky full of stars.

The star-filled ceiling didn't last long, though, because in 1508, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint over the ceiling with other biblical scenes. Raphael contributed by hanging tapestries in the Chapel in 1515, but those were looted and destroyed a few years later. At the request of Pope Clement VII and Pope Paul III, Michelangelo returned in 1535 to paint a scene of Christ's second coming in The Last Judgment on the back altar wall of the Chapel. A couple frescoes were repainted later in the 16th century in order to repair some damages.

Interior of Sistine Chapel
Interior of Sistine Chapel

There were a couple rather controversial changes to the frescoes since their creation. In 1564, some of the nude figures in The Last Judgment were considered indecent, so the genitalia were painted over. This action met a lot of ridicule, so the coverings were eventually removed. In the 1980s and 1990s, the frescoes were extensively cleaned to remove the grime and dirt from the past several centuries. Though some scholars believe that the cleaning was too vigorous, the cleaning revealed colors that are even more stunning and intricate detail.

Walls of the Sistine Chapel

Let's look specifically at each of the walls of the Sistine Chapel. The interior walls were painted in 1481 by the Renaissance artists who were initially commissioned to work on the Chapel (Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Perugino, Rosselli, Signorelli, and Pinturicchio). They worked together to paint two major biblical stories: the story of Moses (from the Old Testament) and the story of Christ (from the New Testament). The goal here was to show how the Old and New Testaments fit together to tell one cohesive story of God's relationship to humanity. There were also paintings of the popes who had served up to that point to symbolize how the Catholic Church was carrying on the work of Christ and the prophets.

On one wall, we see frescoes depicting The Life of Moses. These scenes include Moses leaving to Egypt, the trials of Moses, crossing the Red Sea, descending from Mount Sinai, punishing the rebels, and the legacy and death of Moses.

Close up of 2 scenes from Life of Moses
Close up of 2 scenes from Life of Moses

On another wall, we see frescoes depicting The Life of Christ that in fact mirror the scenes from Moses' life. These scenes depict Christ's baptism, the temptation of Christ, calling the Apostles, the Sermon on the Mount, the delivery of the keys, and the Last Supper.

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