Review Date: August 14, 2014
The Good / The Sistine Chapel comes fully loaded: Elegant Renaissance-era architecture, a wealth of stunning interior frescoes, the blessings of countless popes, and a UNESCO World Heritage site designation.
The Bad / Functionally, the Sistine Chapel is a minor upgrade over the Cappella Maggiore it replaced. As a result, the chapel is long on art but short on cutting-edge technology.
The Bottom Line / Although the Sistine Chapel is worth a look if you happen to be visiting Vatican City, your experience won’t be as fulfilling as a trip to your local Apple Store.
Commissioned in 1477 by Pope Sixtus IV, the Sistine Chapel was designed by Italian architect Baccio Pontelli. First time visitors may be surprised by the plainness of the chapel’s exterior. No fancy bells or whistles here. Pontelli eschewed ornamentation and, according to the visitor’s guide, based the chapel’s simple rectangular layout on the Temple of Solomon as depicted in the Old Testament. Yet one suspects Sixtus may have skimped on the architectural budget in order to plow money into the artwork. I like art as much as the next person, but I would have preferred a flashier design.
The main draw of the Sistine Chapel are its beautiful frescoes–and boy do they pack a punch! Some of the Italian Renaissance’s most famous artists were called on to contribute their prodigious talents—Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, and, of course, Michelangelo. It’s because of these frescoes that 5 million visitors a year from around the world come to see the Chapel. The entrance fees alone, which are hardly bargain basement, would buy a bevy of new pope mobiles!
The sidewall frescoes are divided into three tiers. The main tier is made up of two cycles of paintings facing one another, one depicting the Life of Moses and the opposite the Life of Christ. Above these are the gallery of popes and ancestors of Christ, topped by biblical narratives from Genesis.
You get the idea. Lots of religious paintings. Lots! They’re lovely, really, but I could have gone for a nice sunset or landscape here and there. Or perhaps Raphael’s School of Athens–which, it just so happens, can be found in the adjoining Apostolic Palace, the Pope’s residence. If the Pope can get a break from bible study, why can’t we?
The showpiece of the Sistine Chapel is its remarkable ceiling. Beginning in 1508, Michelangelo replaced the original blue ceiling with a rocking series of frescoes depicting God’s Creation of the World, God’s Relationship with Mankind, and Mankind’s Fall from God’s Grace.
But good heavens, why put them on the ceiling? Couldn’t they have been placed somewhere a little more user-friendly? After staring up at these frescoes for a few minutes, I got a terrible crick in my neck. I’ll bet Michelangelo experienced the same problem when he painted them. I know artists are meant to suffer for their art, but why make the viewing public suffer?
Later, in 1537, Michelangelo would begin work on the Last Judgment, perhaps the most arresting of all of the interior frescoes. It’s a sturdy piece that extends from the chapel’s alter all the way up to the ceiling. I was especially drawn to this painting. The deep blues remind me of the Facebook and Instagram banners.
Lack of Technology
One big drawback of the Sistine Chapel is its lack of accessible technology. Would it kill them to add WiFi? How many people show up with their smartphones or tablets and are disappointed when they can’t look up information about a particular fresco, pope, biblical narrative, or architectural feature? The Episcopal church down the street from my house has WiFi. Why doesn’t the Sistine Chapel? Heck, they’ve got UNESCO money!
Is the Sistine Chapel a game changer? Perhaps–if you’re a Catholic living in 16th century Europe. Today, not so much. Goethe famously wrote: “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.” Sure. One man. But look at what teams of men and women can do today. Ours is a social, interconnected world where any piece of information you could possibly want is accessible with a tap of a screen or click of a button. Today, our most creative minds come together to give us what we want in this life, not fanciful notions of what awaits us in the next.
Interior dimensions: 44 ft. x 134 ft.
Vaulted ceiling height: 68 ft.
Number of frescoes: 90
Number of visitors per year: ~5 million