Thanks to the extraordinary talents of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), the Sistine Chapel (Cappella Sistina) in the Vatican has become one of the most famous art galleries in the western world.
The famous Sistine ceiling depicts scenes from Genesis in dramatic and moving detail, and The Last Judgment on the chapel's end wall is striking and powerful. In addition to these famous artworks, the side walls are covered with important Renaissance frescoes of Moses, Christ and contemporary popes.
But the Sistine Chapel is more than the sum of its artistic wonders: it is a symbolic statement of papal authority and the place in which papal elections in conclave are held to this day.
The Sistine Chapel was commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV, from whom it derives its name, in 1475. It was designed to be, and still is, the pope's chapel and the site of papal elections. The Sistine Chapel was consecrated and dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin on August 15, 1483.
In 1481 Sixtus IV called to Rome the Florentine painters Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli and the Perugian Pietro Perugino to decorate the walls with frescoes. Luca Signorelli may have also been involved in the decoration. The fresco project took only 11 months, from July 1481 to May 1482.
The Sistine ceiling was originally painted by Piero Matteo d'Amelia, who included a star-spangled sky. But in 1508 Pope Julius II della Rovere commissioned Michelangelo to repaint the ceiling.
Michelangelo was called away from his work on the pope's own tomb and was he not happy about the change. He had always insisted he was a sculptor and was contemptuous of fresco painting. The result are glorious depictions of human bodies that could only be created by a sculptor, and the project Michelangelo hated so much (at least at first) ironically became his most well-known work.
Michelangelo was asked to paint the Twelve Apostles and a few ornaments on the ceiling of the chapel. But as he began work on the project, Michelangelo conceived grander designs and ended up painting more than 300 figures.
He worked on the project between 1508 and October 31, 1512, in cramped conditions high on a scaffolding and under continous pressure from the pope to hurry up. The project would permanently damage the artist's eyesight.
Michelangelo was in his 60s when he was called back to the chapel, again against his wishes, to paint The Last Judgment (1535-1541) on the altar wall. The work was commissioned by Pope Clement VII (1523-1534) shortly before his death, and Clement's successor, Pope Paul III Farnese (1534-1549), forced Michelangelo to complete it quickly. It was the largest fresco of the century and is still an unquestioned masterpiece.
For important ceremonies, the lowest portions of the Sistine Chapel's side walls were covered with a series of tapestries depicting events from the Gospels and Acts. These were designed by Raphael and woven in 1515-19 at Brussels.
In recent decades, the Sistine Chapel has been carefully cleaned and restored, beginning with the 15th-century wall frescoes in 1965. The cleaning and restoration of the lunettes, the ceiling and the Last Judgment, a painstaking process using computer analysis, lasted from 1980 to 1994. The restoration included removing several of the "modesty" drapes that had been added over some of the nude figures.
The end result of the restoration has been controversial: Critics say a vital second layer of paint was removed, and argue that many of the restored figures seem flat compared with the originals, which had more shadow and detail. Others have hailed the project for saving Michelangelo's masterpiece for future generations to appreciate and for revealing the vibrancy of his color palette.