In this second half of my Vatican post I have included links to the paintings that I mention, so if you click on the links you will have a better idea of what paintings I’m referring to.
I was only able to see a fraction of what these magnificent and stately museums have to offer. We would be walking through the corridor of one museum and our tour guide would point out the entrances to multiple other museums. Because there is so much that I missed and only got a light taste of what this complex of museums has to offer I’m glad that I’ll be returning at least once more before I leave Rome.
Some of the things I saw in the museums include the Gallery of Maps, ancient tapestries, and countless ancient statues from the days of the Roman Empire complete with coverings for their genitals after a pope in the 19th century grew tired of having to look at the innocence of these figures of the past. The Raphael Rooms were impressive and his paintings completely surround you as you can’t help but stare up at the ceiling, hoping you don’t bump into someone, as you are told to hurry along to the next room. I was able to see one of Raphael’s most famous paintings The School of Athens. The papal apartments of Pope Julius II, a.k.a. “The Warrior Pope” and one of the most famous popes were also included on this tour along with icing on the cake and perhaps the main reason why so many thousands pay to explore the museums each day: The Sistine Chapel
Located at the very end of the tour of the Vatican Museums, La Cappella Sistina is like something that, after having seen it, you know your eyes will never again see something as beautiful as the masterpieces that layer its walls. There are virtually no works inside the chapel that are not well-known or immediately recognizable. Throughout the entire tour there were signs pointing the way to the chapel and I almost felt as if I was on a yellow brick road of sorts; I was appreciating everything else in the Museums but simultaneously I was anxious to finally see one of the most visited places in the world.
Consecrated in 1483, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the legendary ceiling that still leaves visitors awe-struck over five centuries later. It should be noted that Michelangelo was not at all a painter by trade; he was a sculptor and an architect. For him to even agree to take on the project of the Sistine Chapel is incredible, though the Pope made it difficult for him to reject it. For someone who considered himself to be a sculptor and now for a future world who largely remembers him as a painter is amazing. It is for this reason that the works inside the Sistine Chapel seem even more special and you are able to appreciate them that much more because in many ways they are miracles.
The entrance to the Sistine Chapel is not particularly grandiose, a simple, small door and a security officer or two quietly yet forcefully telling visitors “no foto.” It is upsetting that you cannot take pictures inside the chapel but at the same time prohibiting flash photography will help the masterpieces to survive for much longer (they have all been restored about 30 years ago and there is an exhibit that shows what the ceiling would look like if no restoration had ever been done, basically showing that the colors of the paintings would have been severely faded by now).
The mood once inside took me by surprise at first. There were easily well over 1000 visitors inside yet people were only whispering if not talking at all. This is mostly done out of respect but also somewhat enforced by security. My head automatically tilted up to the beautiful ceiling that has become Michelangelo’s most famous set of works. The first image I focused on was The Creation of Adam, which has come to be one of the most eminent paintings in the world and one of Michelangelo’s most famed works. This is the painting that depicts God giving life to Adam and the famous fingers nearly touching. Next, I turned around and attempted to take in the entirely of The Last Judgment, which covers the entire wall and depicts the coming of Jesus to judge the living and the dead. Another painting I admired on the ceiling was that of Adam and Eve. Lastly, a more comical yet controversial depiction of God can be seen on the ceiling when Michelangelo chose to paint God Creating Sun and Moon.
The thought of Michelangelo lying on his back for years painstakingly creating these biblical images that have left millions stunned at their beauty is unimaginable. He created the scaffolding that he rested on, and with each stroke of his brush carried out the Pope’s wishes to make this bedrock of Christianity more appealing to the eye. I feel so fortunate to have seen it and I definitely appreciate it a lot more after having seen these classic paintings with my own eyes rather than staring at them on the pages of a history book. It was also especially meaningful to me because the Sistine Chapel is the site of the Papal Conclave that will elect the new Pope in just a few weeks, and I stood in a room where a momentous decision for the future of the Church will soon be made.
My next post will fill you in on the last leg of the Vatican tour: St. Peter’s Basilica and it will also tell you about my day trip to Pisa this past weekend, arrivederci!