Image by Rajesh Gathwala 500px Images
Home to two of the world’s most famous works of art – Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes (1508–12) and his Giudizio Universale (Last Judgment; 1536–41) – the Sistine Chapel is the one part of the Vatican Museums that everyone wants to see, and on a busy day you could find yourself sharing it with up to 2000 people. Michelangelo's ceiling design, which is best viewed from the chapel’s main entrance in the far east wall, covers the entire 800-sq-m surface.
With painted architectural features and a cast of colourful biblical characters, it's centred on nine panels depicting stories from the book of Genesis. These panels can further be divided into three groups, illustrating the origin of man, the universe and evil.
As you look up from the east wall, the first panel is the Drunkenness of Noah, followed by The Flood, and the Sacrifice of Noah. Next, Original Sin and Banishment from the Garden of Eden famously depicts Adam and Eve being sent packing after accepting the forbidden fruit from Satan, represented by a snake with the body of a woman coiled around a tree. The Creation of Eve is then followed by the Creation of Adam. This, one of the most famous images in Western art, shows a bearded God pointing his finger at Adam, thus bringing him to life. Completing the sequence are the Separation of Land from Sea; the Creation of the Sun, Moon and Plants; and the Separation of Light from Darkness, featuring a fearsome God reaching out to touch the sun. Set around the central panels are 20 athletic male nudes, known as ignudi.
Opposite, on the west wall is Michelangelo’s mesmeric Giudizio Universale, showing Christ – in the centre near the top – passing sentence over the souls of the dead as they are torn from their graves to face him. The saved get to stay up in heaven (in the upper right), the damned are sent down to face the demons in hell (in the bottom right).
Near the bottom, on the right, you’ll see a man with donkey ears and a snake wrapped around him. This is Biagio de Cesena, the papal master of ceremonies, who was a fierce critic of Michelangelo’s composition. Another famous figure is St Bartholomew, just beneath Christ, holding his own flayed skin. The face in the skin is said to be a self-portrait of Michelangelo, its anguished look reflecting the artist’s tormented faith.
The chapel’s walls also boast superb frescoes. Painted in 1481–82 by a crack team of Renaissance artists, including Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Pinturicchio, Perugino and Luca Signorelli, they represent events in the lives of Moses (to the left looking at the Giudizio Universale) and Christ (to the right). Highlights include Botticelli’s Temptations of Christ and Perugino’s Handing over of the Keys.
As well as providing a showcase for priceless art, the Sistine Chapel also serves an important religious function as the place where the conclave meets to elect a new pope.