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Issue 11: The Sistine Chapel
Vatican City is the world’s smallest country, with an area of one-fifth of a square mile and less than a thousand residents. But this dot on the map of Italy has one big museum, with exhibits that stretch on for four miles, and connected to it is a room with some of the most famous artworks in the world.
The Sistine Chapel’s paintings have been described as one of the greatest works of art in history, with its classic “Creation of Adam,” but the Sistine Chapel is a lot more than that one painting.
Built in the 15th century on the orders of the confusingly named Pope Sixtus IV, it was first decorated by Botticelli and several others who painted Biblical scenes on its walls, but it was Michelangelo that filled it with the paintings known around the world. Over the course of four neck-craning years, Michelangelo covered 5,900 square feet of ceiling with scenes from the Old Testament and portraits of prophets.
At the center of it all is the iconic image of God giving Adam the spark of life, with a masterful use of negative space between their fingers. God is shown as floating in the air, yet is only slightly higher than Adam perhaps as an optimistic suggestion of closeness that the Renaissance embraced.
While some artists (i.e. Van Gogh) are only appreciated after their death, the Sistine Chapel ceiling was immediately seen as a masterpiece. Rival Renaissance man Raphael snuck in to see the painting in progress and was so impressed that he included what is likely a portrait of Michelangelo in his own masterpiece, “The School of Athens,” which is in the Vatican Museums near the Sistine Chapel.
A couple decades later, Michelangelo painted “The Last Judgement,” a colossal fresco with a much different vibe than the ceiling’s paintings. While God is shown on the ceiling creating the world, in “The Last Judgement” it’s the end of the world, and Jesus is in the process of elevating the saved to Heaven and sending the sinners to Hell. Even Jesus’s mother Mary is avoiding eye contact with him in this painting.
Michelangelo snuck a few Easter eggs into this painting. Michelangelo was frustrated by Biagio da Cesena, a papal official who objected to the nudity in the painting, so Michelangelo depicted da Cesena as a denizen of Hell with a snake - well, just take a look.
Ouch. When da Cesena complained to the Pope, the Pope replied that he didn’t know anyone in Hell, so da Cesena was out of luck.
Michelangelo also included a self portrait of himself, but not how you’d expect. Tradition holds that St. Bartholomew was flayed alive, so he is often shown holding his flayed skin, but in the painting the face on the skin isn’t that of St. Bartholomew but that of Michelangelo.
In case you’re wondering, all of the photos here are public domain, as in the Sistine Chapel photography and talking are not allowed. The photography rule is well enforced, but the silence rule doesn’t really work when several hundred people are entering and leaving a room filled with some of the most iconic artwork in the world.
Officially, the Sistine Chapel is the Pope’s private chapel, and it is also where the College of Cardinals meet to elect popes to lead the world’s only elective absolute monarchy. After a pope dies or resigns, cardinals are locked in the Sistine Chapel and are let out once they have elected a new pope.
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