It’s an exercise in patience getting to the Sistine Chapel, but once you get there, try to find a seat and take it all in at your own pace. Don’t hurry. Try to tune out the noise and the crowds (it IS a chapel after all–the pope’s personal chapel, in fact–and they try to keep it quiet in there, but not very successfully). The artwork on the ceiling is amazing in and of itself, but when you take in the fact that Michaelangelo painted virtually the whole 5,900 square feet himself–standing up, no less–it’s just an awesome (in the true sense of the word) accomplishment! He didn’t want the job–said he was a sculptor, not a painter–but when Pope Julius II pestered, cajoled and threatened him, Michaelangelo agreed on the condition that he have complete freedom to do it his own way. The 4-year physical, mental and creative effort almost killed him. But what a spectacular result he achieved!
We’ve all seen the famous central panel, The Creation of Adam, but there are 8 other panels depicting scenes from Genesis, from God creating the earth, to Adam and Eve being expelled from the garden of Eden, to Noah and the flood. There are also 12 panels along the sides, each one portraying a prophet. In between those are some triangular panels portraying important ancestors of Christ. For good commentary (and humor, too) on the masterpieces here, we downloaded Rick Steves’ free audioguide to the Sistine Chapel from his website. www.ricksteves.com
There is no photography allowed in the Sistine Chapel, so these pictures I got off the internet.
When you get done contemplating the frescoes on the ceiling, you’ve only seen half of Michaelangelo’s work in the Sistine. Now turn your attention to the far wall, which contains a gigantic illustration of The Last Judgement. Michaelangelo returned to paint this in 1535, 23 years after completing the ceiling (it took that long to recover). While this painting is magnificent in its scope, size, and emotion, it’s not how I imagine the last judgement. It’s very dark and dismal. We do not see a merciful Christ in this portrayal. He is definitely meting out justice here. Even the righteous, who are headed for Heaven, do not look happy. You have to wonder what Michaelangelo was thinking about his own fate when he painted this. He included his own face in the flayed skin held by St. Bartholomew–on the left-hand of Christ. Yes, that’s the Hell side.
I never knew until I got to Rome that the famous chapel is at the far end of the monstrous Vatican Museum–not a freestanding chapel that you can just waltz into. I suppose you could make a beeline for the chapel upon entering the Museum and then look at everything else on your way out (and if I ever go back, I might try that strategy). But, once you’re in there, you can stay as long as you want (until they close, that is.) It’s shoulder-to-shoulder people most of the time, but if you find a little spot where you can gaze up and get a good view, you can tune out the crowds. If you can’t tune out crowds, a private tour may be the way to go. There are many good tour companies out there. Check Rick Steves’ guide to Rome for a list. www.ricksteves.com
Some friends of ours did this, and were able to see the Sistine Chapel early in the morning with only a few other tour groups there. That would be nice. Expensive, but nice.