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What is the Sistine Chapel?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Sistine Chapel is a chapel located in Vatican City. It is famous for the frescoes and tapestries which adorn its interior; some of the most famous names in Italian art are represented there, including Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Signorelli. Visitors to the Vatican can enter the chapel to admire the art, and it is also used for important religious ceremonies, including the papal conclave, where the cardinals meet to elect a new head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope Sixtus IV is responsible for the construction of the Sistine Chapel, also known as the Capella Sistina. He ordered the construction of the chapel on the site of the Capella Maggiore, which was in a state of extreme disrepair when construction began in 1473. Nine years later, the building was finished and named after its progenitor. It took several more decades for the art inside to be completed; the famous ceiling, for example, was not finished until 1512.

Architecturally, the chapel is not terribly remarkable. From the outside, it is actually a bit dull, being a simple rectangular brick building with large windows. The inside, however, is an incredible work of art, with frescoes all over the walls and ceilings. The paintings depict momentous events from the Christian Bible, ranging from the creation of Adam to the Last Judgment. The ceiling is particularly notable, as it features incredible work by Michelangelo.

In addition to being used for the Papal Conclave, the Sistine Chapel also hosts a number of masses and other religious events every year, typically with the pope presiding. Unfortunately, the structure suffered damage through 500 years of use, leading to widespread restoration in the middle of the 20th century. The restoration efforts started in the 1960s, and concluded in the 1990s; some controversy accompanied some of the techniques used, with members of the artistic and religious community being concerned about accidental damage to the original works of art.

Some people consider the Sistine Chapel a triumph of human achievement, as it encapsulates some of the most incredible art in the Western world. Visitor to the Vatican are strongly encouraged to make time to visit the chapel, as the lush frescoes and tapestries that adorn it are often considered to be simply incredible in person.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By nanny3 — On Jul 29, 2011

I must say that one of my most ardent wishes is to visit the Sistine Chapel at some point in my life.

There is just something about the way that it sounds that makes me dream of beautiful artwork, but also of a sense of the past hovering around me.

It’s more than just the art, although the art is enough; it is also about the history that would envelop me as soon as I entered the doors. I think it would be so potent a feeling that you could not only feel, but smell and taste it as well.

Imagine, being surrounded by such wonder and beauty! So much so as to be able to tangibly feel it!

By backdraft — On Jul 29, 2011

I saw the Sistine Chapel in person when I was 13. I thought it was amazing but it was not until much later in life that I was able to fully appreciate what a masterpiece it really is.

I grew up to become a painter and at one time in my career I was hired to paint a number of frescoes. People tend to think that frescoes are just paintings on walls or other architectural features, but it is actually its own distinct style of painting with a huge number of logistical headaches. When I first began painting them I ruined my first few attempts because I did not know how to work with the materials and perfect my results.

Even painters who work their whole lives with frescoes struggle in this medium. When you think about the unique challenges of frescoes combined with the size of the chapel and the challenge of working above your head the achievement of that particular painting seems incredible. Michelangelo was a true genius.

By jonrss — On Jul 28, 2011

One common misconception about the Sistine Chapel is that Michelangelo lay on his back on the top of a scaffolding as he painted the entire ceiling. According to historians and art experts Michelangelo and his team never worked in this way. In fact most of the time they were standing and lifting their brushes above their head. It is an intriguing image to think of them lying down, but unfortunately it is not true.

By fingered — On Jul 28, 2011

One thing I want to add is that many people who visit are wowed by the Sistine Chapel frescoes and art but it's important to remember its significance.

For example, towards the late 1400s, Savonarola, the infamous friar/political figure, spoke out blatantly against the extravagance of the Renaissance. Under his leadership, heaps of works of art (even those by famous painters, such as Botticelli) were burned publicly and lost forever.

The Sistine Chapel paintings came after his death and they are a testament to the immense support that Pope Julius II lent towards the arts even after a period of such turbulence.

By ALevine — On Jul 27, 2011

@manykitties2 - That's a very good tip for tourists heading to the Vatican. There is so much detail in the Sistine Chapel paintings that it's easy to miss the significance of it without some sort of guide materials. They also have many Sistine Chapel Tours, which are a great alternative for those who would prefer to ask questions of the guide along the way.

By letshearit — On Jul 26, 2011

Before heading in to look at the Sistine Chapel as a tourist you should be aware that you aren't allowed to take photographs inside. As with any great art work flash photography is known to damage the art.

In addition there are a lot of guidelines you must follow when entering the Sistine Chapel as it is still a place of worship. One example is that they have a dress code which requires you to dress modestly or you will be denied entry.

The Sistine Chapel is only open for public viewing at certain times, so make sure you get an up to date schedule online. If you want to save money the last Sunday of the month offers free admission.

By manykitties2 — On Jul 26, 2011

For those lucky enough to visit Italy heading to the Sistine Chapel is probably on the list of top sites for everyone to take it. The Sistine Chapel is famous for its gorgeous architecture and beautiful frescoes.

A good idea before you head into the Sistine Chapel is to buy a book guide that will help explain all of the works you are going to see. The sheer number of elements to take in can be a bit overwhelming for most people and you should really take your time and learn about what you are seeing.

One of the best things about the Sistine Chapel is that you can easily explore it virtually before you head in for real. This will give you an idea of what pieces you want to learn more about. There are a lot of websites that offer a photo tour so taking one can make your real visit even more enjoyable.

By anon165520 — On Apr 05, 2011

I enjoyed this article as it helped me develop a better understanding of caravaggio and his works.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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