Sistine Chapel

Sistine Chapel (Latin: Sacellum Sixtinum; Italian: Cappella Sistina) is the best-known chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope in Vatican City. It is famous for its architecture and its decoration that was frescoed throughout by Renaissance artists including Michelangelo, Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio and others. Under the patronage of Pope Julius II, Michelangelo painted 1,100 m2 (12,000 sq ft) of the chapel ceiling between 1508 and 1512. He resented the commission, and believed his work only served the Pope's need for grandeur. However, today the ceiling, and especially The Last Judgement (1535–1541), is widely believed to be Michelangelo's crowning achievement in painting.


The chapel takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV, who restored the old Cappella Magna between 1477 and 1480. During this period a team of painters that included Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio created a series of frescoed panels depicting the life of Moses and the life of Christ, offset by papal portraits above and trompe l’oeil drapery below. These paintings were completed in 1482, and on the 15 August 1483, Sixtus IV celebrated the first mass in the Sistine Chapel for the Feast of the Assumption, at which ceremony the chapel was consecrated and dedicated to the Virgin Mary.


Since the time of Sixtus IV, the chapel has served as a place of both religious and functionary papal activity. Today it is the site of the Papal conclave, the process by which a new Pope is selected.


History

The Sistine Chapel is best known for being the location of Papal conclaves; it is, however, the chapel of the Papal Chapel (Cappella Pontificia), one of the two bodies of the Papal household, called until 1968 the Papal Court (Pontificalis Aula). At the time of Pope Sixtus IV in the late 15th century, the Papal Chapel comprised about 200 people, including clerics, officials of the Vatican and distinguished laity. There were 50 occasions during the year on which it was prescribed by the Papal Calendar that the whole Papal Chapel should meet. Of these 50 occasions, 35 were masses, of which 8 were held in Basilicas, in general St. Peter's, and were attended by large congregations. These included the Christmas Day and Easter masses, at which the Pope himself was the celebrant. The other 27 masses could be held in a smaller, less public space, for which the Cappella Maggiore was used before it was rebuilt on the same site as the Sistine Chapel.


The Cappella Maggiore derived its name, the Greater Chapel, from the fact that there was another chapel also in use by the Pope and his retinue for daily worship. At the time of Pope Sixtus IV, this was the Chapel of Pope Nicholas V, which had been decorated by Fra Angelico. The Cappella Maggiore is recorded as existing in 1368. According to a communication from Andreas of Trebizond to Pope Sixtus IV, by the time of its demolition to make way for the present chapel, the Cappella Maggiore was in a ruinous state with its walls leaning.


The present chapel, on the site of the Cappella Maggiore, was designed by Baccio Pontelli for Pope Sixtus IV, for whom it is named, and built under the supervision of Giovannino de Dolci between 1473 and 1481. The proportions of the present chapel appear to closely follow those of the original. After its completion, the chapel was decorated with frescoes by a number of the most famous artists of the High Renaissance, including Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Perugino, and Michelangelo.


The first mass in the Sistine Chapel was celebrated on August 9, 1483, the Feast of the Assumption, at which ceremony the chapel was consecrated and dedicated to the Virgin Mary.


The Sistine Chapel has maintained its function to the present day, and continues to host the important services of the Papal Calendar, unless the Pope is travelling. There is a permanent choir, the Sistine Chapel Choir, for whom much original music has been written, the most famous piece being Gregorio Allegri's Miserere.


Papal Conclave

One of the primary functions of the Sistine Chapel is as a venue for the election of each successive pope in a conclave of the College of Cardinals. On the occasion of a conclave, a chimney is installed in the roof of the chapel, from which smoke arises as a signal. If white smoke appears, created by burning the ballots of the election, a new Pope has been elected. If a candidate receives less than a two-thirds majority, the cardinals send up black smoke—created by burning the ballots along with wet straw and chemical additives—it means that no successful election has yet occurred.


The conclave also provided for the cardinals a space in which they can hear mass, and in which they can eat, sleep, and pass time abetted by servants. From 1455, conclaves have been held in the Vatican; until the Great Schism, they were held in the Dominican convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Since 1996, John Paul II's Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis requires the cardinals to be lodged in the Domus Sanctae Marthae during a papal conclave, but to continue to vote in the Sistine Chapel.


Canopies for each cardinal-elector were once used during conclaves—a sign of equal dignity. After the new Pope accepts his election, he would give his new name; at this time, the other Cardinals would tug on a rope attached to their seats to lower their canopies. Until reforms instituted by Saint Pius X, the canopies were of different colours to designate which Cardinals had been appointed by which Pope. Paul VI abolished the canopies altogether, since, under his papacy, the population of the College of Cardinals had increased so much to the point that they would need to be seated in rows of two against the walls, making the canopies obstruct the view of the cardinals in the back row.


Architecture

Exterior

The Chapel is a high rectangular brick building, its exterior unadorned by architectural or decorative details, as common in many Medieval and Renaissance churches in Italy. It has no exterior facade or exterior processional doorways, as the ingress has always been from internal rooms within the Apostolic Palace (Papal Palace), and the exterior can be seen only from nearby windows and light-wells in the palace. The internal spaces are divided into three stories of which the lowest is huge, with a robustly vaulted basement with several utilitarian windows and a doorway giving onto the exterior court.


Above is the main space, the Chapel, the internal measurements of which are 40.9 metres (134 ft) long by 13.4 metres (44 ft) wide—the dimensions of the Temple of Solomon, as given in the Old Testament. The vaulted ceiling rises to 20.7 metres (68 ft). The building had six tall arched windows down each side and two at either end. Several of these have been blocked, but the chapel is still accessible. Above the vault rises a third story with wardrooms for guards. At this level, an open projecting gangway was constructed, which encircled the building supported on an arcade springing from the walls. The gangway has been roofed as it was a continual source of water leaking in to the vault of the Chapel.


Subsidence and cracking of masonry such as must also have affected the Cappella Maggiore has necessitated the building of very large buttresses to brace the exterior walls. The accretion of other buildings has further altered the exterior appearance of the Chapel.


Interior

As with most buildings measured internally, absolute measurement is hard to ascertain. However, the general proportions of the chapel are clear to within a few centimeters. The length is the measurement and has been divided by three to get the width and by two to get the height. Maintaining the ratio, there were six windows down each side and two at either end. The screen that divides the chapel was originally placed halfway from the altar wall, but this has changed. Clearly defined proportions were a feature of Renaissance architecture and reflected the growing interest in the Classical heritage of Rome.


The ceiling of the chapel is a flattened barrel vault springing from a course that encircles the walls at the level of the springing of the window arches. This barrel vault is cut transversely by smaller vaults over each window, which divide the barrel vault at its lowest level into a series of large pendentives rising from shallow pilasters between each window. The barrel vault was originally painted brilliant-blue and dotted with gold stars, to the design of Piermatteo Lauro de' Manfredi da Amelia. The pavement is in opus alexandrinum, a decorative style using marble and coloured stone in a pattern that reflects the earlier proportion in the division of the interior and also marks the processional way from the main door, used by the Pope on important occasions such as Palm Sunday.


The screen or transenna in marble by Mino da Fiesole, Andrea Bregno, and Giovanni Dalmata divides the chapel into two parts. Originally these made equal space for the members of the Papal Chapel within the sanctuary near the altar and the pilgrims and townsfolk without. However, with growth in the number of those attending the Pope, the screen was moved giving a reduced area for the faithful laity. The transenna is surmounted by a row of ornate candlesticks, once gilt, and has a wooden door, where once there was an ornate door of gilded wrought iron. The sculptors of the transenna also provided the cantoria or projecting choir gallery.


Raphael's tapestries

During occasional ceremonies of particular importance, the side walls are covered with a series of tapestries, the originals of which were designed for the chapel by Raphael and depict events from the Life of St. Peter and the Life of St. Paul as described in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles: the full-size preparatory cartoons for seven of the ten tapestries are known as the Raphael Cartoons and are in London. Raphael's tapestries were looted during in the Sack of Rome in 1527 and were either burnt for their precious metal content or were scattered around Europe. In the late 20th century, a set was reassembled (several further sets had been made) and displayed again in the Sistine Chapel in 1983.


Decoration

The walls are divided into three main tiers. The lower is decorated with frescoed wall hangings in silver and gold. The central tier of the walls has two cycles of paintings, which complement each other, The Life of Moses and The Life of Christ. They were commissioned in 1480 by Pope Sixtus IV and executed by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Cosimo Roselli and their workshops. The Florentine painters, who were to join Perugino, who was already there and was perhaps the superintendent of the whole decoration, left Florence on 27 October 1480: their call was part of a reconciliation project between Lorenzo de' Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence, and Pope Sixtus IV. The Florentines started to work in the Sistine Chapel as early as the Spring of 1481.


The upper tier is divided into two zones. At the lower level of the windows is a Gallery of Popes painted at the same time as the Lives. Around the arched tops of the windows are areas known as the lunettes which contain the Ancestors of Christ, painted by Michelangelo as part of the scheme for the ceiling.


The ceiling, commissioned by Pope Julius II and painted by Michelangelo between 1508 to 1512, has a series of nine paintings showing God's Creation of the World, God's Relationship with Mankind, and Mankind's Fall from God's Grace. On the large pendentives that support the vault are painted twelve Biblical and Classical men and women who prophesied that God would send Jesus Christ for the salvation of mankind.


In 1515, Raphael was commissioned by Pope Leo X to design a series of ten tapestries to hang around the lower tier of the walls. Raphael was at the time twenty-five and an established artist in Florence, with a number of wealthy patrons, yet he was ambitious, and keen to make an entry into the patronage of the papacy. Raphael was attracted by the ambition and energy of Rome.


Raphael saw the commission as an opportunity to be compared with Michelangelo, while Leo saw hangings as his answer to the ceiling of Julius. The subjects he chose were based on the text of the Acts of the Apostles. Work began in mid-1515. Due to their large size, manufacture of the hangings was carried out in Brussels, and took four years under the hands of the weavers in the shop of Pieter van Aelst.


Although Michelangelo's complex design for the ceiling was not quite what his patron, Pope Julius II, had in mind when he commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Twelve Apostles, the scheme displayed a consistent iconographical pattern. However, this was disrupted by a further commission to Michelangelo to decorate the wall above the altar with The Last Judgement, 1537-1541. The painting of this scene necessitated the obliteration of two episodes from the Lives, several of the Popes and two sets of Ancestors. Two of the windows were blocked and two of Raphael's tapestries became redundant.


Frescoes

Southern wall

The southern wall is decorated with the Stories of Moses, painted in 1481-1482. Starting from the altar, they include:


  • Moses Leaving to Egypt by Pietro Perugino and assistants
  • The Trials of Moses by Sandro Botticelli and his workshop
  • The Crossing of the Red Sea by Cosimo Rosselli, Domenico Ghirlandaio or Biagio di Antonio Tucci
  • Descent from Mount Sinai by Cosimo Rosselli or Piero di Cosimo
  • Punishment of the Rebels by Sandro Botticelli
  • Testament and Death of Moses by Luca Signorelli or Bartolomeo della Gatta

Northern wall

The northern wall houses the Stories of Jesus, dating to 1481-1482. They include:


  • Baptism of Christ by Pietro Perugino and assistants
  • Temptation of Christ by Sandro Botticelli
  • Vocation of the Apostles by Domenico Ghirlandaio
  • The Sermon of the Mount, attributed to Cosimo Rosselli
  • The Delivery of the Keys by Pietro Perugino
  • The Last Supper by Cosimo Rosselli

Eastern wall

  • Resurrection of Christ by Hendrik Van den Broeck (1572) over Domenico Ghirlandaio's original
  • Disputation over Moses' Body by Matteo da Lecce (1574) over Luca Signorelli's original

Michelangelo's frescoes

Michelangelo Buonarroti was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508 to repaint the vault, or ceiling, of the Chapel. It was originally painted as golden stars on a blue sky. The work was completed between 1508 and 2 November 1512. He painted the Last Judgment over the altar, between 1535 and 1541, on commission from Pope Paul III Farnese.


Michelangelo was intimidated by the scale of the commission, and made it known from the outset of Julius II's approach that he would prefer to decline. He felt he was more of a sculptor than a painter, and was suspicious that such a large-scale project was being offered to him by enemies as a set-up for an inevitable fall. For Michelangelo, the project was a distraction from the major marble sculpture that had preoccupied him for the previous few years.


The sources of Michelangelo's inspiration are not easily determined; both Joachite and Augustinian theologians were within the sphere of Julius influence. Nor is known the extent to which his own hand physically contributed to the actual physical painting of any of the particular images attributed to him.


To be able to reach the ceiling, Michelangelo needed a support; the first idea was by Julius' favoured architect Donato Bramante, who wanted to build for him a scaffold to be suspended in the air with ropes. However, Bramante did not successfully complete the task, and the structure he built was flawed. He had perforated the vault in order to lower strings to secure the scaffold. Michelangelo laughed when he saw the structure, and believed it would leave holes in the ceiling once the work was ended. He asked Bramante what was to happen when the painter reached the perforations, but the architect had no answer.


The matter was taken before the Pope, who ordered Michelangelo to build a scaffold of his own. Michelangelo created a flat wooden platform on brackets built out from holes in the wall, high up near the top of the windows. He lay on this scaffolding while he painted.


Michelangelo used bright colours, easily visible from the floor. On the lowest part of the ceiling he painted the ancestors of Christ. Above this he alternated male and female prophets, with Jonah over the altar. On the highest section, Michelangelo painted nine stories from the Book of Genesis. He was originally commissioned to paint only 12 figures, the Apostles. He turned down the commission because he saw himself as a sculptor, not a painter. The Pope offered to allow Michelangelo to paint biblical scenes of his own choice as a compromise. After the work was finished, there were more than 300. His figures showed the creation, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the Great Flood.


The painted area is about 40 m (131 ft) long by 13 m (43 ft) wide. This means that Michelangelo painted well over 5,000 square feet (460 m2) of frescoes.


The Last Judgment was painted by Michelangelo between 1535–1541, after the Sack of Rome of 1527 by mercenary forces from the Holy Roman Empire, which effectively ended the Roman Renaissance, just before the Council of Trent. The work was constructed on a grand scale, and spans the entire wall behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel. The Last Judgment is a depiction of the second coming of Christ and the Apocalypse. The souls of humanity rise and descend to their fates as judged by Christ and his saintly entourage. The wall on which The Last Judgment is painted looms out slightly over the viewer as it rises, and is meant to be somewhat fearful and to instill piety and respect for God's power. In contrast to the other frescoes in the Chapel, the figures are heavily muscled and appear somewhat tortured—even the Virgin Mary at the center seems to be cowering before God.


The Last Judgment was an object of a bitter dispute between Cardinal Carafa and Michelangelo. Because he depicted naked figures, the artist was accused of immorality and obscenity. A censorship campaign (known as the "Fig-Leaf Campaign") was organized by Carafa and Monsignor Sernini (Mantua's ambassador) to remove the frescoes. When the Pope's own Master of Ceremonies Biagio da Cesena said "it was mostly disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully, and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and taverns," Michelangelo worked da Cesena's semblance into the scene as Minos, judge of the underworld. It is said that when he complained to the Pope, the pontiff responded that his jurisdiction did not extend to hell, so the portrait would have to remain.


The genitalia in the fresco were later covered by the artist Daniele da Volterra, whom history remembers by the derogatory nickname "Il Braghettone" ("the breeches-painter").


Restoration and controversy

The Sistine Chapel's ceiling restoration began on November 7, 1984. The restoration complete, the chapel was re-opened to the public on April 8, 1994. The part of the restoration in the Sistine Chapel that has caused the most concern is the ceiling, painted by Michelangelo. The emergence of the brightly coloured Ancestors of Christ from the gloom sparked a reaction of fear that the processes being employed in the cleaning were too severe and removed the original intent of the artist.


The problem lies in the analysis and understanding of the techniques utilised by Michelangelo, and the technical response of the restorers to that understanding. A close examination of the frescoes of the lunettes convinced the restorers that Michelangelo worked exclusively in "buon fresco"; that is, the artist worked only on freshly laid plaster and each section of work was completed while the plaster was still in its fresh state. In other words, Michelangelo did not work "a secco"; he did not come back later and add details onto the dry plaster.


The restorers, by assuming that the artist took a universal approach to the painting, took a universal approach to the restoration. A decision was made that all of the shadowy layer of animal glue and "lamp black", all of the wax, and all of the overpainted areas were contamination of one sort or another: smoke deposits, earlier restoration attempts, and painted definition by later restorers in an attempt to enliven the appearance of the work. Based on this decision, according to Arguimbau's critical reading of the restoration data that has been provided, the chemists of the restoration team decided upon a solvent that would effectively strip the ceiling down to its paint-impregnated plaster. After treatment, only that which was painted "buon fresco" would remain.


Quotes on Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel

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