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The Sistine Chapel

Among the most famous rooms in the world, the Sistine Chapel stands alone. Neither one of the largest nor grandest properties in the Vatican, its fame is predominantly based on its immense ceiling frescoes created by none other than Michelangelo Buonarroti. This series of scenes from the Old Testament form a staggering tableau that the art critic Robert Hughes once described as “…the most powerful – if not in all ways the most likeable or even comprehensible – series of images of the human figure in the whole history of European art.”

Underneath are wall frescoes by an all-star lineup of quattrocento artists likes Sandro Botticelli and Luca Signorelli. But they recede into the background next to the enormous altar-wall fresco, The Last Judgement, which Michelangelo painted some 20 years after the ceiling. Taken together you have probably the most awe-inspiring collection of western art that exists within four walls. It’s no exaggeration to say that visiting the Sistine Chapel is one of the must-do experiences in Rome. Although crowds ranging from “thick” to “suffocating” have become the norm in this Vatican attraction, there are still ways to visit without the tourist hordes blocking your view.

The ceiling and altar fresco of the Sistine Chapel.
The ceiling and altar fresco of the Sistine Chapel.
The ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo depict scenes from the Old Testament.
The ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo depict scenes from the Old Testament.
Early-access tours are the only way to see the Chapel without crowds.
Early-access tours are the only way to see the Chapel without crowds.
The Gallery of the Tapestries leads to the Sistine Chapel.
The Gallery of the Tapestries leads to the Sistine Chapel.
Michelangelo's other Vatican Masterpiece, the Pietá in St. Peter's Basilica.
Michelangelo's other Vatican Masterpiece, the Pietá in St. Peter's Basilica.
The ceiling and altar fresco of the Sistine Chapel.
The ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo depict scenes from the Old Testament.
Early-access tours are the only way to see the Chapel without crowds.
The Gallery of the Tapestries leads to the Sistine Chapel.
Michelangelo's other Vatican Masterpiece, the Pietá in St. Peter's Basilica.

Visiting the Sistine Chapel: What to See

The Ceiling Frescoes

When Michelangelo received the commission to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in 1508 he was not stepping into an unmarked space. The chapel had been built some 30 years before by the now mostly-forgotten architect Giovannino de’ Dolci during the reign of Pope Sixtus IV – for whom it’s named (It is not called the Sixteenth Chapel, as the common misnomer states). Sixtus had the chapel’s walls frescoed by some of the greatest artists of the day, including Sandro Botticelli, who is now more famous for his paintings, the Birth of Venus and Primavera, and Pinturicchio whose work is on display in other parts of the Vatican.

The ceiling, however, was blank except for a coat of ultramarine blue with golden stars. And what a ceiling: 10,000 square feet of it needed to be frescoed. That was 10,000 square feet that Michelangelo, who did not employ assistants, like his contemporary, Raphael, would have to paint by himself. It took him between three and four years (and a lot of complaining) to create his masterpiece. 

This is even more astonishing when you consider that the work isn’t actually painting, it’s a fresco. In paintings oil paints are applied to dry plaster; in frescoes pigments must be applied to fresh, (read: damp) plaster. This means that once a section was started it had to be completed that day. Thus, the entire wall was painted as a jigsaw puzzle – piece by agonizing piece. Michelangelo reportedly hated it and complained to anyone who would listen, including a humorous sonnet that he wrote to a friend in which he claims that the work has given him a goiter: “the kind wet cats get in the Lombard swamps.”

Regardless of what the work may have done to Michelangelo, the nine scenes he created were nothing short of sublime. From the Separation of Light from Darkness all way through the Drunkenness of Noah, he casts the spectator into the midst of the creation of life according to the Bible. The work’s scale and mastery dwarf the humans staring up at it, filling the entire chapel with a hushed sense of awe and a palpable impression of the divine. Whether it is artistic divinity or religious divinity is up to the spectator to decide.

The Last Judgement

Michelangelo’s other great addition to the Sistine Chapel is the colossal Last Judgement, painted on the altar wall that rises up behind you as you enter the chapel. If the ceiling is concerned with the origins of life, the Last Judgement paints a none-too-rosy picture about where it’s going.

It shows the second coming of Christ as he lays divine judgement on a who’s who of biblical characters. Painted some 20 years after the ceiling, when Michelangelo was 66 it is a dark and troubling work. Although its depictions of the human body are considered second to none its tone of damnation and divine retribution often feels more oppressive than uplifting. Why this happened remains a matter of debate among art historians. Although many blame the sack of Rome in 1527 that effectively ended the High Renaissance, details like the flayed skin in the hand of St. Bartholomew appearing to be a depiction of Michelangelo himself point to perhaps a more personal reason as well. Whatever the case, The Last Judgement is as unsettling as the ceiling is awe-inspiring and a work that needs to be seen in person to experience its full force.

The “Other” Frescoes

Although few take Sistine Chapel tours to see anything but the works of Michelangelo we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the frescoes that adorn the other three walls and would hold pride of place if they happened to be located almost anywhere else in the world. Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Cosimo Rosselli, Luca Signorelli, and Pinturicchio all have masterworks here. When you visit the Sistine Chapel do yourself a favor and take your eyes away from Michelangelo’s work for a few moments and admire the other walls. You won’t be disappointed.

Tips for Visiting the Sistine Chapel

Opening Times

The Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel are open Monday to Saturday from 9:00am to 6:00pm with the last tickets sold at 4:00pm The museums are also open on the last Sunday of each month from 9:00am to 12:30pm although free entrance means that the sheer number of people who show up make any visit a bit of a chore. A small number of tour groups, like our Pristine Sistine tour, are allowed to run Sistine Chapel tours before the Vatican opens to the public each day. Check the Vatican website for more information on holiday closings and special openings.

Closed: Sundays, (except the last Sunday of every month), 25th and 26th of December (Christmas and St. Stephen’s Day) ; January 1, 6; February 11, 22; March 19, 28; June 29 (the Feasts of St. Peter and Paul); August 15; November 1; December 8

Rules

The Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel are considered a holy place – as such both men and women should be sure to wear clothes that cover their shoulders and knees. Occasionally visitors get away with wearing a bit less but it’s best not to risk it. Hats are also not allowed.

Although most of the Vatican has no rules about noise, It is prohibited to speak in anything above a whisper in the Sistine Chapel. This is in part due to such a large number of people that visit the chapel every day, it would make it almost impossible to enjoy if everyone spoke at once. Selfie sticks are forbidden for much the same reason – enough of them in a small space will ruin anyone’s day.

All photography is strictly prohibited in the Sistine Chapel. Although the guards won’t confiscate your camera, they will make you delete your pictures or even take your film if you are shooting on analogue.

You cannot bring any bag, backpack suitcase or container larger than 40cm x 35cm x 15cm into the Vatican Museums. Similarly, you can’t enter with medium to large umbrellas, any umbrellas with spiked tips, camera tripods, signage (apart from signs used by certified guides) or walking sticks – except those required by disabled visitors. All of these items can be left in the cloakroom.

Firearms are strictly prohibited for visitors within the Vatican and cannot be checked in the Cloakroom. Knives, scissors, and other cutting tools are permitted but must be deposited in the cloakroom as a precaution against harming the artwork inside.

The Vatican Museums are under constant video surveillance and any touching or tampering with artwork is strictly prohibited. Also, no laser pointers.

You aren’t allowed to bring food or drink when visiting the Vatican Museums. You can, however, leave them in the cloakroom and collect them at the end of your visit. Any food or drink that goes uncollected will be disposed of at the end of each day.

Tickets

Adults €16, Senior/Child €8, Student €4. In order to get a reduced ticket fare, you must have valid ID upon ticket purchase or collection (in the cast of pre-purchased tickets or tours)

The Best Time to Visit the Sistine Chapel

May through October are considered the high season in Rome, with a mini high season occurring around Easter which is probably the busiest time of the year. If you want to visit the Sistine Chapel during these months expect to wait in long lines to get tickets to the Vatican Museums and then more long lines to get into the Sistine Chapel itself. The lines taper off during the offseason but you can still expect a crowd inside the Vatican nearly any day of the week. The best way to work around this, regardless of the time of year, is to visit the Sistine Chapel before it opens to the general public. The only way to do this is through select tour groups. If you want to go it alone, you can still avoid some of the hordes by arriving early (think 8:00am.) because it will at least get you near the front of the line, which can stretch for 2 to 3 hours. You can also try going later – If you aren’t concerned with spending a lot of time in the Museums you can buy your tickets a half hour before the ticket office closes (3:30pm) but remember that the museum closes promptly at 6:00 and the guards start clearing key rooms earlier.

Getting There

The best way to reach the Vatican Museums is by taxi or Metro

If traveling by taxi, make sure to specify to the driver that you are going to the entrance of the Musei Vaticani (Vatican Museums) NOT the entrance to St. Peter’s, which is a 15-minute walk away.

If traveling by metro, take the Metro A line to the Ottaviano stop. As you leave the exit hang a left down Via Candia and turn left at Via Tunisi. At the end of the street there is a set of steps; climb them and cross the road and you’ll be at the entrance to the Vatican Museums.

Remember: Unless you are traveling with a guided tour that includes St. Peter’s Basilica, the church isn’t accessible from the Museums. If you want to visit it you will have to exit the Museums, turn right, and follow the wall around to the entrance of St. Peter’s. It’s about a 15-minute walk, but bear in mind there is a separate security line to enter the church, which can be upwards of an hour wait or more.

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