How the Sistine Chapel Became a Wonder of the World

sistine chapel

The story of the legendary Sistine Chapel in Rome begins in 1491. Catholic Christian Pope Sixtus IV orders its construction based on the designs of Baccio Pontelli. The building took until 1481 to complete and stands thirteen meters wide and forty meters long. It has six imposing windows and the interior walls were painted by such celebrated masters as Ghirlandaio, Signorelli, Botticelli, and Pinturicchio.

When Pope Julius II arrives on the scene, Rome, and Catholicism, is in somewhat of disarray. Julius II decides to begin a massive building program to restore Rome, and especially Vatican City, to the glory he has envisioned for them. He begins his ambitious vision with the restoration of Saint Peter’s Basilica. In addition, he hires on the young, but already quite well known, Michelangelo to paint the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. It was originally envisioned as a simple project, but soon morphed into what would become one of the most awe inspiring works of art in the history of the world.

The walls had been painted by the likes of Botticelli with Catholic Christian theology in mind. For them, the history of the world has been divided into three classic epochs. The first epoch was life before God gave his laws to Moses; the second epoch occurred when God gave his laws to Moses, and the third epoch is considered an epoch of grace that began with the birth of Jesus. The artists of the interior walls painted their visions of the second and third epochs.

It soon became abundantly clear to the young Michelangelo that the ceiling must represent the first epoch. That time before God came to Moses. His frescos would recreate those great biblical times prior to the advent of Moses which would include the world’s creation by God, Adam and Eve, and the fall and banishment from the Garden of Eden.

It took Michelangelo four years of lying on his back to finish the masterpiece. However, he returned 22 years later to add more. In painting what is known as The Last Judgment, Michelangelo reflect as different style from his earlier years. It became a personal mission to paint the scene as he hoped to reinvigorate himself with Christian fervor and to, perhaps, inspire those around him. The world had become an uncertain place after Rome was sacked in 1527 by troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. These troops had rebelled and mutinied from Charles V and proceeded to throw Europe into political chaos.

The first restoration effort was made on this national monument in 1566 when Pope Pius VI ordered that damage done to the ceiling be fixed. In the fifty years following the completion of the masterpiece, rainwater has left its mark, as well as salty residue, and soot had begun to smear and hide the colors. The first restoration attempt was completed in 1572.

The centuries after that took their inevitable toll and it was not until 1980 that a complete overhaul of the building was undertaken. The ceiling was washed with special detergents and a layer of varnish was painted on to further protect the brilliant colors and the inspiration of the Michelangelo.

Now, twenty first century technology guards and protects this wonder of the world. Special cold lights have been installed and the condition of the Chapel is monitored continuously by computers to keep both humidity and temperature at a stable level.

Source: Tours Italy