The Sistine Chapel

On 15 August 1483 one of the most famous monuments of Christianity was inaugurated, a magnificent cultural and artistic treasure that today is an integral part of the Vatican Museums. Built between 1475 and 1481, the Sistine Chapel, dedicated to the Assumption of Virgin Mary, is a “painted box” – as defined by Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums until 2016 – of 2500 square meters of wall painting, a long space 40 meters and up to a maximum of 21 meters, with dimensions equal to those of the Temple of Jerusalem. The entire building was also used as a fortress of the Vatican. Today this wonderful site is universally known above all for its decorations that make it a Biblia Pauperum, that is to say that iconographic apparatus originally created to allow anyone to “read” and learn about the history of salvation, therefore a sort of visual and visible theology. Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Luca Signorelli, Piero di Cosimo are the main artists who have worked with it, and whose details can be appreciated today thanks to the new lighting system that enhances the touch of these great masters of the ‘400. However, it is Michelangelo’s name that is most associated with the decorative aspect of the Chapel. And it is Pope Julius II who decided to have the episodes of the Old Testament painted on the vault, calling for this delicate and gigantic commission Michelangelo, who accepts against his will. The Tuscan artist elaborates his own thematic and figurative program that replaces what had been given to him, ensuring that the work merges and integrates into the architecture: the latter is no longer just the “frame” but essence itself of the painted space. The very famous “Creation of Adam”, painted between 1508 and 1512, expresses the creative power that God communicates to man. In 1534, back in Rome after the fall of the Florentine republic, Michelangelo completed with the “Last Judgment” the decoration of the Sistine Chapel on behalf of Pope Paul III: the large fresco on the back wall above the altar, finished in 1541, breaks traditional schemes as it places Christ in an empty space, while groups of figures that express the tension between man and God are agitated all around, according to the artist’s vision. The Sistine Chapel, beyond the purely artistic aspect, is the place where the official ceremonies of the Pope are held as well as the conclave, when a new Pope must be elected. Today, with its six million visitors a year, it is be among the most sought-after sites in the world, but there is no intention to exceed this threshold since it is considered the limit for safeguarding and maintaining the right environmental conditions.

 

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