A CNET Product Review of the Sistine Chapel

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

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 Frescoes

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.

Michelangelo's Last Judgment

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!

Conclusion

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.


Quick Specifications

Shape: Rectangular

Stories: 3

Interior dimensions:  44 ft. x 134 ft.

Vaulted ceiling height: 68 ft.

Number of frescoes: 90

Number of visitors per year: ~5 million


 

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I’ll Help You Deliver Your Baby, but First I Have to Land This Plane

747

 

Try and relax. I know you’re in pain. I understand the contractions are getting closer together. Breathe deeply, in and out. This is your first baby, right? One of the flight attendants told me. The first is always the scariest. That’s what my wife once said.

Sorry, I drifted away for a moment. Don’t worry. I’m here. I’m here for you. Take my hand. Everything is going to be alright.

Here’s the problem, and I don’t mean to alarm you. But you deserve to know the truth: There’s a nuclear device on this airplane, and I’ve got to get us on the ground safely. Don’t be frightened. We’ll be fine. Really. Everyone on this plane, including you and your baby, will be fine. Okay, the pilots won’t be fine. The pilots are dead. I’m sorry, didn’t you know that? Didn’t one of the flight attendants mention it? No, I don’t have time to go into what happened. It’s a long story. Suffice it to say, they’re dead, there’s a nuclear device on this plane, and apparently I’m the only one of the passengers with a medical degree and a pilot’s license. So first, I have to get this plane safely on the ground so the authorities can bring in a bomb squad to defuse the device. I promise you that once I bring the plane to a stop, I’m coming right back here to help you deliver your baby.

What’s that? No, I’m not drunk. Who told you that? Who has been spreading lies about me? It’s that lady in seat 23F, isn’t it? Listen, she’s had it in for me this entire flight. She was harassing one of the flight attendants and I politely told her to shut up. The safety of this flight depends on the flight attendants being able to do their jobs in a conflict-free environment. Yes, I had a couple of drinks. What of it? It helps calm me. I’ve been under a lot of stress lately. You see, it’s the third anniversary of my wife’s death. Thank you. Thank you for saying that. That’s very kind of you. Yes, it’s tough, but I’m holding up. If you must know, she was murdered. Well, it remains unsolved, but I have my suspicions. It’s political. Let’s leave it at that. Someday, I’ll bring the person responsible for her death to justice. It’s a promise I made to her as she died in my arms in that Saint Petersburg hotel. But first things first. Right now, I have to land this plane safely. Then I can deliver your baby.

Please stop crying. It will be okay. Look, you seem like a nice woman, so I’ll be honest with you. There’s a high-level diplomat on this plane. Nevermind who. Yes, as a matter of fact, it does sort of tie into the nuclear device situation. I don’t have time to go into details, but you should know: The fate of the free world depends on me getting this plane on the ground safely. You see, this diplomat has highly sensitive documents he needs to get to Washington. I don’t know, apparently he didn’t have access to a scanner. I think he was in Cameroon. But that doesn’t matter right now, does it? All that matters is that he has highly sensitive documents in his briefcase that he needs to get to Washington, and if he doesn’t, the future of our country is in jeopardy. What? Yes, I realize that, but it will be even more in jeopardy. So this isn’t just about you or your baby or me or anyone else on this plane. This is about America. This is about the free world.

Sit back. Take this woman’s hand. Breathe deeply, in and out. That’s it. I’ll get this plane down, don’t you worry. Then we’ll get your baby delivered. Have you thought of a name? Oh, that’s a pretty name. She’ll like that. Your grandmother you say?

Listen, I’m not going to lie to you, there’s a chance I may need to defuse the bomb before we land. Otherwise, it could go off midair. It’s on some sort of timer. Sorry? Well, I took an online class once. Yes, it’s amazing what you can learn in them. Anyway, I’m just telling you this because it may take a little time. So you just hang tight. You and your  baby will be safe. We’ll all be safe. America will be safe. And we’ll all have a good laugh about it later.