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Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

Hidden within the artist’s brushstrokes is a story of contempt, anguish and turmoil


It took Michelangelo over four years to paint the Sistine Chapel, a project he had initially refused after informing the Pope that “painting is not my art”

When Johann von Goethe visited the Vatican in 1787, he wrote: “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.” His sentiments are echoed in the minds of the 5 million visitors who today file into the chapel every year, heads tipped back to take in as much of the ceiling’s artwork as possible. The jewel in the crown of any visit to Vatican City, the Sistine Chapel ceiling remains one of the most phenomenal works of western art, a feat made even more remarkable by the fact that its creator never wanted the commission in the first place, claiming “painting is not my art”.

The chapel’s exterior belies the magnificence within. Built between 1473 and 1481 on the orders of Pope Sixtus IV, after whom it is named, the four-storey rectangular building was designed to be accessed from within the papal palace, as it is today. Commissioned as a private chapel for the popes of Rome, as well as acting as the official meeting place for the papal court, the Sistine Chapel was built to the exact dimensions of the Temple of Solomon as it is described in the Old Testament. When the chapel was completed, artist Piero Matteo d’Amelia frescoed the ceiling with a star-spangled sky, while the long interior walls were decorated with religious works by renowned artists of the day, including Pietro Perugino, Cosimo Rosselli and Sandro Botticelli.

TALL ORDER The new basilica was designed to hold the Pope’s monumental tomb


In 1503, a new pope, Julius II, was elected – one of the most powerful rulers of his age and the greatest patron of the arts of any pope before or since – a man whose mission was to transform Rome into the cultural capital of the world. Living and working in Florence, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni first came to the new pope’s attention after completing his sculpture, Pietà, in 1499. Carved to adorn the tomb of French cardinal Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas, the beautiful marble depiction of the Virgin Mary cradling the body of the crucified Jesus was unveiled to rave reviews. Pietà was followed in 1505 with the colossal 5m-tall 16ft) David, which towered over Florence on a pedestal in the Piazza della Signoria. Michelangelo’s status as one of Italy’s most sought-after artists was sealed.

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About History Revealed

September 2016 issue of History Revealed.