roof of the sistine chapel


The Sistine Chapel


There is an unreality to visiting one of the world’s great sights for the first time.

You have heard the name – Taj Mahal, Sagrada Familia, Angkor Wat, Great Wall – so many times that it stops being an actual, physical place. It has either become an oversaturated idea or been reduced to a two-dimensional photograph.

The other element, of course, is the fear.

When too many people have talked up a place for too long – when every guidebook and blog post and TV show has trumpeted it as being The Greatest X, The Most Spectacular Y – the only way is down. Disappointment becomes not only a worrying possibility but the most probable outcome.


Inauspicious Beginnings

One does not simply walk into Mordor, and one does not simply enter the Sistine Chapel. Instead it serves as the final stop on an extremely long and unenjoyable tour through the Musei Vaticani.

There are two dozen of those musei in all, each as overcrowded as the last. Above everything the experience is an exercise in sheer frustration, since – from a logical perspective – you’re well aware that you’re walking through one of the most spectacular buildings in the world. 

Quite possibly, in fact, it takes top spot: there are rooms upon rooms of sculptures, artefacts, artworks, with the museum buildings themselves magnificently, spectacularly ornate. Here an incredibly dramatic first-century sculpture which directly inspired Michelangelo. There an enormous statue of Athena. Over there a granite lion pilfered from Ancient Egypt some two millennia before.

statue in the vatican museums

But the crowds, oh the crowds. There are hundreds of people in every direction. At many points you quite literally cannot move. That first-century sculpture certainly looks dramatic from a distance, but good luck getting close enough to appreciate the detail.

Does it ruin the experience? It is the experience, unfortunately. Unless you’re a cardinal, which I’m assuming you’re not, or you’re willing to shell out for a 6am early bird ticket, this is just the way it is.

interior of the vatican museums

The place is also vast. You’ll likely be forced onto a guided tour, since getting hold of a regular entry ticket is nigh-impossible unless you book several weeks in advance, or queue for five hours (no exaggeration) the day of. The pace of this tour will feel extremely rapid, with most stops being a minute at most, and these pauses only taken at the most renowned highlights of the enormous collection. The tour still takes two hours.

Along with increasingly sore feet, and a growing sense of claustrophobia at being ceaselesly hemmed-in, the anticipation also builds as the tour reaches its final stages.

You see the guiding silver signs everywhere, their arrows pointing towards the upcoming rooms and the number of those rooms on each sign diminishing one by one, and always terminating in – a rather exciting final destination – the Sistine Chapel.

At last, the tour finishes.

You hand back your earpiece, walk through the collection of contemporary art – doomed for eternity to be overlooked as visitors hurry instead to the main event – go up a couple of staircases, go down a couple of corridors (the Sistine Chapel is a separate building, but can only be accessed via its internal connections to the rest of the complex), see the final doorway in front and the walls beyond, and then – finally – you are inside.


Moving Inside

(Note: If you’d like to follow along at home, you can find an excellent, high-res virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel here).

Perhaps because it all came after two hours of jostled touring, following on from a fair amount of walking in the hot weather outside beforehand. Perhaps because I’d seen a few photos in the month or two beforehand (having seen none of it that I can recall – as a whole – before, ignoramus that I am). I’d even accidentally watched The Two Popes a month earlier, prior to even planning the Rome trip, in which the titular pair have a long chat right there. Whatever the cause, the Chapel didn’t have an instant impact.

Most likely I’d built it up and up in my mind over the preceding couple of days, and – upon actually arriving – felt strangely deflated. Certainly it’s very big. Certainly there’s a lot going on. But if you have seen it in pictures or movies, then that’s simply… how it looks.

To begin with, that is.

Long benches line three of the walls in the first half of the Chapel (the altar side; that through which you enter). Getting a place isn’t easy, but you can do so after a short wait, take the weight off your poor feet, and start to look around slowly, properly. And only then does the divine magnitude of the genius begin gradually to be revealed, and to be understood.

You realise first that your eyes were duped. What your brain simply accepted as regularly-spaced stone columns along the ceiling… aren’t. They’re painted on, and in such ingenious perspective as to look three dimensional from wherever you sit or stand.

You look at the giant figures of the prophets up and to the sides and see how they seem impossibly close despite being so very high above. You glance, perhaps, at the Last Judgement – which takes up the entire front wall of the Chapel – but it is still far too early to process that. You return instead to the ceiling and the upper sections of the side walls.

The more you look, the more you truly see. The detail is not only there, but on a scale unlike anything else you’ve ever witnessed. Everywhere you look, and even when you return to look at something you already think you’ve seen, there is always something new.

You feel the need to stand, so you start to wander, getting closer to this part and that as your neck already begins to protest – not that you care enough to stop – with the strain of your heavenward stare. You see more detail and quickly realise now that you will certainly not be able to take it all in, that multiple visits might still not be enough.

I had downloaded an audio guide in advance, and – after a good half hour of straightforward gawping – stuck it on. I’d recommend you do something similar, since – while of course you can simply marvel at the artwork – having at least some grasping understanding of what you’re actually seeing can only deepen your appreciation.

The actual ceiling of the Sistine Chapel depicts nine scenes from Genesis, from God separating light and dark through to Adam’s creation and eventually to three stories of Noah.

Michelangelo started with the ‘latest’ of these and worked backwards. One theory – which is reasonably convincing, since the last scene is of Noah’s drunkenness in front of his sons – is that he did so to first highlight our own weaknesses, then drive back towards the original, sin-free world which we were gifted, and might (an optimistic, Renaissance ideal – more on that shortly) return.

True or not, we’re given a fascinating opportunity to see how his technique evolved throughout the process. Painting was not Michelangelo’s strength (oh, that we should all have such weaknesses), and these were his first frescos. While the onlookers (including a young Raphael) marvelled when the first few scenes were finally revealed, Michelangelo himself was deeply unsatisfied. They were too small, too crowded, and so he adapted, increasing the size of his subsequent scenes while also simplifying their arrangements from hosting dozens of figures to a mere handful.

To a lesser extent, this change in technique can also be seen in the prophets which line the upper side parts (I’m sure there’s a fancy architectural term for this, but I certainly don’t know it) of the Chapel. Those closer to the earlier end are smaller, almost withdrawn. Jonah, right at the far end, is massive, both he and his giant fish seeming to loom down over you even from the length of the Chapel away.

This touches on just one of the many remarkable things about Michelangelo’s work – its own creation story.

Michelangelo took the job reluctantly in the first place, having never, ever, not once, done frescos. Per Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (Vasari was a close friend, so he should know), he initially brought in celebrated fresco specialists from across Italy to help out. Almost immediately he grew frustrated with their work, gave them the boot, and resolved to do the whole thing himself. The fact that he (in his mind) messed up the first part – which to any of us, and to experts at the time, still looks incredible – and then only got better and better as he went along, is both a reassuringly ‘human’ (more on that later) anecdote, and a fascinating, visually straightforward glimpse into the artistic process.

Along with the Genesis scenes up the middle, and all the prophets flanking them, Michelangelo also inserted various snapshots of Biblical stories into the small, triangular sections (again, I’m not an architectural expert, in case you hadn’t noticed) which help to support the main roof. Between the Genesis scenes there are also various large, buff, classically beautiful young men situated in a wide variety of poses around what appear to be large coins.

Oh, and then there’s The Last Judgement too.

Michelangelo didn’t particularly want to do the ceiling in the first place. His longstanding obsession at the time was the completion of a massive, extremely ambitious tomb in the nearby Basilica di San Pietro (the place where the Pope stands on the balcony and wishes everyone Merry Christmas). He really didn’t want to come back 25 years later and do the entire altar wall, but Paul III – the pope at the time – literally wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Well, if The Last Judgement is Michelangelo’s “Fine, I’ll do it… But I’m not happy about it!”, then we can all learn a valuable lesson.

The Last Judgement is overpowering. It is forceful. It is majestic and terrible and daunting and the strength of its impact, when seen in-person, cannot be overstated.

It is also that type of painting which you want to see close-up and from a distance concurrently. You can only comprehend not just the scale of the thing, but the genius of its structural composition, from afar. From there, however, you cannot appreciate the work which has gone into each of those three hundred figures, every one of whom is not only uniquely arranged but expresses a different emotion too.

At the centre of it all is a representation of Christ striking in its potency. This is not the mild, skinny, suffering saviour common to artworks in Catholic churches; nor even is he simply determined, dynamic, like the God of Michelangelo’s Genesis scenes on the ceiling.

This Christ is muscular and strong. His attitude is fascinating, his right arm raised half in command, half in dismissal. His face is perfect, angelic, but is turned away from us and from the crowds of saints and angels around him, the right side brightly lit and the left shrouded in darkness. The nearby figures shrink back from him, and even Mary – near to his right side, also arranged here in a highly unusual way – turns away in some intriguing mixture of fear and sorrow.

Vasari believed that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was already the greatest piece of art that had been created, but that Michelangelo surpassed it himself with The Last Judgement. The two certainly create an incredible contrast, in terms of not only their respective scales and colours but also the attitudes they express.

The ceiling is light and colourful. The Last Judgement – painted a quarter century later, after years of turmoil in Europe and in Rome especially – is dark, violent, hopeless. Combined with the evolution in the Genesis scenes, this helps to make the Sistine Chapel a visual testament to not only the progression of Michelangelo’s techniques, but his views on life and the world too.



Above all else, it is the scale of the Sistine Chapel which defies belief and understanding.

This is not a large building, like St. Peter’s Basilica, whose size daunts you. Instead it is the sheer density of the artwork which throws you off initially, and for which your poor brain demands an adjustment period.

The most famous individual part of the Chapel is surely the Creation of Adam. And regardless of how many times you’ve seen the original in print or on screen, to see it in-person is something else entirely.

If the Creation of Adam had been made as one, single painting on canvas, stuck up on a wall in some elaborate bronze frame, it would be in the Louvre or the Uffizi and would draw thousands upon thousands of visitors each day. It, alone, would already be one of the greatest masterpieces ever created.

But here, in the Sistine Chapel, the Creation of Adam is just one relatively small constituent part. Certainly it is in the centre of the ceiling, but it is almost encroached upon by angels and nudes on all sides, and simply forms part of a progression of stories, and is flanked by those great prophets on either side, and – if you were to stand at the far end of the Chapel and look down – your eyes would pass over it to land instead on the more spectacular Last Judgement.

The painting of Jeremiah (a portion of which is shown above, to jog your memory)  – just one of 12 prophets depicted here, by the way – located near to the Last Judgement, would likely be unknown to someone unstudied in the arts (I only knew of it accidentally, it forming the cover of the Bible we were instructed to buy in first year). It is another complete and utter masterpiece, and – again – your eyes could easily pass over it as your mind sought to process everything else you were seeing.

Michelangelo’s obsession was with the human body, and depicting it with complete and utter perfection. The Sistine Chapel isn’t merely evidence that he was able to do so. It is an enormous series of challenges – to himself – to make those depictions in every possible attitude, and with every possible expression, and to do so with perfect execution. It is so far beyond the typical human capability as to be almost laughable.

Not only that, but it is testament to a remarkable imagination.

This was not an artist living in the more forgiving late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, like so many that we celebrate today. This was an artist working directly for the Pope, and in the Vatican itself no less.

That will already put a hell of a dampener on your creative options, and for The Last Judgement in particular he was instructed specifically to depict the apocalypse. To tell ‘the gospel according to Michelangelo’ on the ceiling (including, for example, the fascinating decision to end with the drunkenness of Noah, over so many other possible stories, perhaps reminding observers that even the greatest of us come up short from time to time), and to render the prophets, all in such inspired and original ways, is already testament to this incredible capacity for innovation.

But the Last Judgement is on a whole other level again in this regard. As only Picasso could have imagined Guernica, as his specific expression of the horror and tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, so only Michelangelo could have imagined this as a depiction of the end of times.



Whether you’re planning to visit Florence or Rome or not, Vasari’s biography of Michelangelo verges on being a must-read (here’s a free PDF, which I believe is legal). Read the introduction, at the very least (take a couple of minutes to do so now – it’s worth it), and you would think you were reading a Biblical passage narrating the arrival of a prophet, if not a divinity.

This is indeed how the artist was seen: as ‘the divine Michelangelo’. And that likely sounds – to the modern, cynical, secular ear – like religiously-infused hyperbole.

But then, when you visit the Sistine Chapel…

It is almost impossible to believe that this was the work of one man. It can’t be. There’s too much of it. And yet – despite the enormous scale and density of the artwork – the execution itself is utter perfection.

(Let’s not forget, by the way, that Michelangelo’s greatest strength and true passion was sculpting, not painting).

To quote Vasari one last time, he declared The Sistine Chapel to be the greatest artwork ever created.

Coming from a noted artist himself, and from the first true art historian no less, this is already quite a claim. Since it was made during the Renaissance, when artists were supposed to be striving towards both the artistic ideals and physical accomplishments of the masters working some millennium-and-a-half previously, it was also a claim which was not made lightly. It would be akin now, perhaps, to an extremely prominent literary critic declaring a newly-released play to be superior to Shakespeare, or an epic poem to be better than the work of Homer.

Vasari also said that Michelangelo’s art was the best which ever would be created, since he had quite literally perfected his craft and nobody, logically, would be able to exceed him. These words were written around 475 years ago, and yet – so far – Vasari has been proved right.

This is the greatest artwork ever made. Between the scale, creativity, execution, and divine spark only apparent when you’ve witnessed the thing in person, yet the precise nature of which is still impossible to quite put your finger on, it is hard to imagine how it could ever be topped.

The first time that I checked my watch, after entering the Sistine Chapel, an hour and a half had passed. Dragging yourself away is almost impossible. There is simply too much to look at. Too much to comprehend. A lifetime might not be enough to appreciate every detail.

And as the two hour mark approached, I realised suddenly that this was not only the greatest artwork ever made. It might be the single greatest thing which one human being has ever created.

The Sagrada Familia, for example, also has the divine spark. But buildings are collaborative efforts. Gaudi can design his cathedral, but he can’t make it himself. Only other works in the arts, and specifically those created by a single man or woman, can be judged alongside something like this.

And, of those, it would have to be something of a similar scale. I’m certainly all for perfect craftsmanship of a creation whatever the size, but the simple fact – redundant and simplistic as it may seem – is that creating something larger takes more work, more effort, more stamina and energy. It just does.

In this case there was not only the inventiveness of the design, and the perfection of the execution, and the length of time put in (four years for the ceiling), but a physical element too, since Michelangelo painted the whole ceiling, by hand, while standing up, and looking up, hour after hour, day after day, all alone, for months and months on end.

Imagine that. For four years straight. And then imagine returning, in your mid-sixties, to start all over again and paint an entire, towering wall. For another four years.

Certainly my earlier claim sounds hyperbolic. But, like Vasari, I don’t make it lightly.

When the effort put in here is so enormous, and the results still so flawless, it does speak to a figure of such extraordinary genius and resolve as to seem almost superhuman. To seem truly divine.

And this – Michelangelo’s crowning achievement, and that of all art, perhaps of human expression as a whole – truly can be seen as the greatest creation ever wrought by human hand.

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