Rome – The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican

This was erected in 1473 under Sixtus IV, after whom it was named. The chapel is one hundred and thirty-three feet long and fifty wide, with six windows on each side over the frieze.

The structure is beautiful in itself, being made so, partly by its simple and harmonious proportions, but chiefly by the great works of art that adorn its ceiling and its walls; and beautiful, too, as any cluster of diamonds or string of pearls, is that chaste and artistic marble screen near us, surmounted by eight marble lamps.

Examine those lovely panels. Could anything be more delicate than those charming little cherubs and graceful festoons ! And the work on the frame of the door and on the marble posts is as dainty as any Brussels lace.

To the right is seen the gallery for the choir; at the end of the hall is a modest altar, with four marble steps. To the right of the altar, upon a raised plat-form, is a chair for the Pope.

Observe that there are no monuments in the chapel, its only ornamentation being the illustrious paintings with which it is completely covered.

There is no doubt that as long as the frescoes were bright and fresh there was nothing in the world that could compare with this magnificent chapel ; but now that the colors are dimmed by the dampness that has played such sad havoc with the walls, what we see to-day is but the ruined splendor of its former glory. However, enough remains to show that the greatest triumphs of the world of art have been achieved in this Sistine Chapel.

It is to be regretted that it is frequently dark and gloomy here ; and my experience was but the common one, since I had to go to the chapel again and again before I saw it at all perfectly. The difficulty is that most travelers cannot, as a rule, wait for ideal weather, and a sunless day or a summer storm will spoil all. We are seeing the chapel on one of Italy’s most golden days.

On the walls of the chapel are paintings by many of the most celebrated artists of the fifteenth century, but everything is overshadowed by the powerful genius and overwhelming vigor displayed in the work of Michelangelo. And just as the rising of the sun puts out all the stars and fills the heavens with its own radiance, so this masterful spirit obscures all other artists, and fills the Sistine Chapel with himself.

It is universally admitted that the ceiling of this chapel contains the most perfect painting done by Michelangelo in his long and marvelously productive life, but because these frescoes are where they can only be seen with difficulty, many visit the place, and miss seeing them after all. I lay on the floor for hours studying these masterpieces, and while I was in this undignified position hundreds of tourists rushed in and out. One wealthy and portly American entered with his three daughters, glanced hastily around, and remarked in a matter-of-fact tone, as he consulted his guide book, ” Ah, yes, Sistine Chapel, very fine! Well, girls, we’ve seen it; better be going; we lunch at two “- pulling out a heavy gold watch – ” we’ll just make it.” And with a rustling, hardly suggestive of angels’ wings, they vanished through the open door.

The painting which attracts the greatest attention is that of The Last Judgment, which completely fills the wall opposite us.

Michelangelo was sixty years of age when he received the commission from Pope Clement VII to paint this vast fresco. His long years of incessant devotion to his arduous work had already begun to tell upon the artist and he was loath to apply himself to this great undertaking, so, in order to induce his more hearty cooperation in its execution-for it required seven years to complete the painting-Paul III, who succeeded Clement VII as Pope, went in person to the house of the famous painter, accompanied by ten cardinals, an honor rarely conferred upon other men.

Michelangelo is said to have drawn his inspiration for this painting from two sources: from the Inferno of Dante, which he has practically illustrated in the lower part of the fresco, where he has introduced Charon and his boat crossing the River Styx; and from the Revelation of St. John, which inspired the upper part of the painting.

As it is badly damaged, I will describe the painting. In the upper left-hand corner under the arch is a representation of Paradise, the spirits of the blessed who throng the left side of the picture, mounting higher and higher until they attain this blessed abode.

The center of the painting is occupied by the form of the Saviour, who, influenced by the supplications of the Virgin Mary, is rewarding the good who occupy the space on his right hand (on our left), and condemning the wicked who are on his left hand and who are dragged down by grinning demons to purgatory and even to hell itself, which is across the river and in the picture is in the lower right-hand corner.

Truly, it is a terrible and sublime work, full of emotion and of power, though the walls are cracked and broken away, and the colors faded.

When originally painted, these figures were naked, but one of the cardinals, Biagio of Cesena, who was master of ceremonies, complained to the Pope that the figures were indelicate and that they must be draped. This, Michelangelo refused to do, and, by way of retaliation, painted out one of the figures in the domain of lost souls and introduced that of Cardinal Biagio in its place.

When the cardinal found this out, he brought the matter to the attention of the Pope with the request that he command the painter to take him out of the picture. This the Pope, who evidently entered into the spirit of the thing, refused to do, on the ground that, while he had the power to release from purgatory, over hell, where the cardinal had been placed, he had no jurisdiction whatever; and so, among souls eternally lost, the cardinal is doomed to remain while Michelangelo’s work shall last.

If you will look over the door at the extreme right-hand corner of the chapel, you can, even from here, make out the form of the cardinal, as it stands wrapped about with the folds of the serpent.

Afterwards the Pope employed a painter, Volterra by name, to drape the figures, and the artist who performed the task was ever after known as ” Braghettone” (the breeches-maker).

Before leaving this chapel to visit the Vatican Palace, take notice of the gallery, which extends along the side walls in front of the windows, a view from which gives one a very clear idea of the height of the building. Could we look out of the windows on our left we should see the dome of St. Peter’s, and if out of those on our right we should look over the entire length of the Vatican Palace, as we can readily understand by consulting the map. We are in the east end of the chapel looking west. When looking over the Vatican Palace from the dome of St. Peter’s (Position 5), we saw one end of the roof of this chapel directly below us on our right. It was evidently that part of the roof which covers the great painting before us.

We now traverse the length of the chapel and leave it by the farther right-hand door, over which the lost cardinal keeps his ceaseless vigil. Passing through that doorway we turn to the right, walk along the corridor near to the northern end of the palace, which stretches away directly to our right from this building, and look back in this direction. On the map of St. Peter’s and the Vatican we find this next position indicated by the number 15 in a circle at the apex of the two lines connected with it.