The Sistine Chapel is one of the world’s most famous pieces of art. It’s also one of the most visited places on Earth. But do you know who painted it? And how long it took to finish? In this article, we will explore the history and style of the Sistine Chapel and some of Michelangelo’s other works. We’ll also examine why Michelangelo was chosen to paint the chapel and what his later years were like. Let’s get started!
What Is the Sistine Chapel?
If you’ve ever been to the Vatican, you’ll know the whole experience is filled with unparallel levels of detail. The art held within the walls of the Vatican is rivaled only by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and the Louvre Museum in Paris. It is the number one museum in Rome for a reason.
When you get to the Sistine Chapel, you’ll quickly realize that it’s something you never tire of looking at. There is so much to digest that, even after seeing it a handful of times, I still find new details to get lost in.
The Sistine Chapel is a large holy chapel located in the official residence of the Pope, the Apostolic Palace.
Originally known as the Cappella Magna, the chapel was renamed to honor Pope Sixtus IV, who commissioned its construction in 1477. It took six years to build and was consecrated in 1483.
While the Sistine Chapel serves as a private chapel to the Pope and a meeting place for cardinals during the papal conclave, it’s open to the public and tourists like us nearly every day of the year.
The Sistine Chapel is one of the most famous landmarks in the world, with approximately six million people visiting the holy chapel each year!
So who painted the Sistine Chapel? The answer isn’t clear-cut. Rather, the better question is how many artists helped paint the Sistine Chapel.
The Early Renaissance Painters
Although Michelangelo is credited with painting the Sistine Chapel, it’s not entirely accurate. Yes, Michelangelo painted large swaths of it and its most notable work, The Creation of Adam, but many of Italy’s most celebrated Renaissance artists contributed to the chapel.
Long before Michelangelo would go on to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Pope brought painters in to create the side walls of the chapel as we know them today.
You have two themes present:
- The right side of the chapel tells stories of Moses
- The left side tells stories about the life of Jesus
It’s important to remember that, at this time in history, painting was still very much a religious act. Artists weren’t yet creating art for art’s sake but rather to further religious narratives and teach lessons from the Bible.
The Sistine Chapel side walls are a prime example of this.
While most tourists focus on the chapel ceiling, and understandably so, the side walls were painted by some of the most famous Renaissance masters in the Western world. Many of whom you are likely familiar with:
- Pietro Perugino (The Delivery of the Keys, shown above)
- Sandro Botticelli (The Birth of Venus)
- Biagio D’Antonio (The Story of Joseph)
- Cosimo Rosselli (Portrait of a Man)
- Luca Signorelli (Madonna and Child with Saints)
- Domenico Ghirlandaio (Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni)
These early Renaissance painters were the most famous of their generation and influenced the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Da Vinci.
Did you know Perugino and Botticelli have multiple paintings in the Louvre? See if they made our list of the best paintings in the Louvre.
More directly, Pietro Perugino was Raphael’s teacher, and Ghirlandaio was Michelangelo’s teacher. You can see the influence the masters had on their pupils if you pay close attention to their works.
Michelangelo & The Sistine Chapel Ceiling
In 1508, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
The project would take four years to complete and would see Michelangelo working day and night in a scaffolding-filled chapel.
To say the project was ambitious would be an understatement.
The chapel ceiling is a whopping 5,700 square feet covered in nine panels.
Each panel tells a different story from the Book of Genesis. The most famous of which, and the one most tourists flock to see, is The Creation of Adam.
The project was so ambitious that Michelangelo had to hire a team of assistants to help him with the painting. In fact, many of the figures on the ceiling were painted by Michelangelo’s students and not by the master himself.
What is Special About the Sistine Chapel?
There are a few things that make the Sistine Chapel special.
First, it’s an architectural masterpiece. The chapel was designed by two of the most celebrated architects of the 15th century, Bernardo Rossellino and Giovanni de Dolci.
The chapel is designed in the traditional Latin Cross layout with a length of 132 feet and a width of 44 feet. The height of the ceiling is an impressive 64 feet!
Second, the chapel is home to some of the world’s most famous works of art: Michelangelo’s ceiling, his Last Judgement, and the Sistine Chapel tapestries.
And lastly, the chapel is a symbol of the Catholic Church. It’s where the newly elected popes are coronated and where many important Catholic ceremonies are held.
What Is the Most Famous Scene in the Sistine Chapel?
The most famous scene in the Sistine Chapel is undoubtedly The Creation of Adam (shown above).
The painting depicts the moment when God breathes life into Adam. It’s a powerful image and one that has been replicated and parodied countless times.
The painting is located on the chapel ceiling and is one of nine panels that tell the story of Creation from the Book of Genesis.
The other eight panels are:
- The Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Vegetation
- The Fall of Adam and Eve
- The Sacrifice of Noah
- The Great Flood
- The Drunkenness of Noah
- The Tower of Babel
- The Confusion of Tongues
- The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
While all of the panels are impressive, it’s The Creation of Adam that draws the most attention. In part because of its location (it’s nearly the center panel) and partly because of its iconic image.
The Creation of Adam Facts
- Michelangelo was reluctant to take the job
- It depicts God breathing life into Adam
- Completed in 1512 AD after four years of work
- The original fresco measures 11.7 meters wide and 8.8 meters high
- One of nine panels that tell the story from Genesis
- Also known as “The Creation” or “The Creation of Man”
- Eve is present under God’s left arm (the only feminine figure in the fresco)
- Considered one of the most famous works of art in the world (6 million visitors enter the Sistine Chapel to view the Creation of Adam)
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How Long Did It Take Michelangelo to Paint the Sistine Chapel?
It took Michelangelo four years to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He began working on the project in 1508 and completed it in 1512.
During that time, Michelangelo worked day and night in a scaffolding-filled chapel. He had to take breaks every few hours to rest his eyes and relieve the cramping in his hands.
Fun Fact: Most believe that Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel while laying on his back. In fact, him and his assistants built special wooden scaffolding that allowed him to paint the ceiling while standing.
Michelangelo was not the only one working on the project. He had a team of assistants who helped him paint. Many of the figures on the ceiling were painted by his students and not by the master himself.
Despite the help, it was a demanding and exhausting project. Comedically, Michelangelo thought the project was so unpleasant that he wrote a poem about his misery.
Michelangelo described the experience to his friend Giovanni da Pistoia as “torture” and that his “spine’s all knotted from folding myself over.”
Why Was Michelangelo Chosen to Paint the Sistine Chapel?
Michelangelo was chosen to paint the Sistine Chapel for a few reasons.
First, he was one of the most celebrated artists of his time. He’d already completed several important commissions, including the statue of David (shown above), and his work was in high demand.
Second, Pope Julius II was a member of the powerful Medici family. Michelangelo had already worked for the Medici family several times, and Julius was likely familiar with his work.
And lastly, Michelangelo was known for his ability to work quickly and efficiently. The pope wanted the project completed as soon as possible, and Michelangelo was up for the challenge.
How Much Was Michelangelo Paid for the Sistine Chapel?
Michelangelo was paid 3,000 ducats for painting the Sistine Chapel. That may sound like a lot, but it’s quite a low sum for such a massive and time-consuming project.
In today’s money, 3,000 ducats would be worth about $450,000. Although nearly half-a-million dollars is a hefty paycheck, it’s a far cry from the $4 billion that the chapel is estimated to be worth today.
Interestingly, Michelangelo was not originally paid for the project. He only received payment after threatening to leave Rome and return to Florence.
Did Michelangelo Paint Himself in the Sistine Chapel?
Depending on what art historian you believe, Michelangelo may have painted himself into the Last Judgment.
The painting is a fresco on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel and depicts the Second Coming of Christ. Michelangelo included a small figure in the lower left-hand corner that many believe to be a self-portrait.
The figure is wearing black and hiding his face. He also appears to be gesturing towards one of the damned souls being dragged off to Hell.
Whether or not the figure is Michelangelo is up for debate. Some believe that it is simply a generic portrait of an ordinary man. Others, however, see it as a clever way for the artist to insert himself into one of his most famous works.
Can You Take Pictures in the Sistine Chapel?
No, you cannot take pictures in the Sistine Chapel. It is the only part of the Vatican that completely bans photography.
Several security guards around the church will ask you to leave if you do not comply with the rules of the chapel.
The only exception to this rule is if you are a professional photographer with permission from the Vatican. But even then, you can only take pictures during specific times and with special permission.
The reason for the no-photography rule is to protect the art inside the chapel. The flash from cameras can damage the paint and frescoes on the ceiling and walls.
Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is impressive not only for its artistic beauty, but also for its history. Learning about who painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling, who else worked on it, and how long it took to complete can help us appreciate this incredible piece of art even more.
If you’ve been to the Sistine Chapel, or if you’re planning a trip there soon, be sure to take some time to learn about its fascinating history before you go. And let us know in the comments below what you thought of Michelangelo’s masterpiece!