Art / Sistine Chapel

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"The frescoes that we contemplate here introduce us to the world of Revelation. The truths of our faith speak to us here from all sides. From them the human genius has drawn its inspiration, committing itself to portraying them in forms of unparalleled beauty."
Pope Saint John Paul II

The Sistine Chapel is the personal chapel of The Pope, and as such, almost every inch of it is decorated, painted, and sculpted to tell some kind of narrative from The Bible. With work by dozens of artists including Raphael and Michelangelo, the Chapel holds some of the most important works in the Western world.

  • The Ceiling Fresco: Created by Michelangelo over the course of four years, the fresco on the Sistine Chapel's ceiling details nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, from God's creation of the world to the flood that wiped the Earth clean. Most famous for containing The Creation of Adam.
  • The Last Judgement: The painting above the chapel's altar, which visualizes Jesus Christ's Second Coming as described in the Book of Revelation. As the saints rising from the dead to live in paradise by God's throne, the unrepentant sinners are cast into a fiery underground representing Hell.
  • Stories of Moses: A series of frescoes across the chapel's southern walls depicting the most significant events of the life of the prophet Moses, from his exile from Egypt to his death. The final story of Moses (the Discussion over the body of Moses) hangs right above the chapel's entrance, next to the Resurrection of Christ.
  • Stories of Jesus: A series of frescoes across the chapel's northern walls depicting the most significant events of the life of the messiah Jesus, from his baptism to his final meal. The final story of Jesus (the Resurrection of Christ) hangs right above the chapel's entrance, next to the Discussion over the body of Moses.
  • Series of Popes: A level above the stories of Moses and Jesus is a series of portraits of various Popes.
  • Lunettes: Above the Series of Popes lies a web of the ancestors of Christ, although they have not been individually identified in the centuries since the Lunettes' creations.

For those unable to make a trip to Rome, a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel is available on Vatican City's website.

The Sistine Chapel contains examples of:

  • Adaptation Deviation: Michelangelo's painting of Haman's death on the ceiling doesn't show him being hanged on his own gallows like in the Book of Esther, but instead shows the genocidal villain being crucified. This may have come about because the Latin Bible which Michelangelo would be familiar with describes the gallows as a "crux," although other parts of the text make it clear he was hanged. The scene is described similarly to Michelangelo's illustration in The Divine Comedy.
  • Author Avatar: It has been argued that the positioning of Jonah on the Chapel's ceiling, with his back bent and face stating upwards, reflects the position Michelangelo himself would have been in while painting the ceiling. The three-page paper Michelangelo's Art through Michelangelo's Eyes makes a point of this.
  • Badass Grandpa: God may be depicted as an old man, but He's also sports visible muscles and is moving with clear energy in contrast to the wizened look His flowing beard gives Him. His apparent age also fails to impede Him in setting the sun in the sky, separating light from darkness, and most famously, breathing life into the first man.
  • Bowdlerise: The nude saints in The Last Judgement had their genitalia painted over with garments after Michelangelo's death, leaving the schmuck who agreed to do it to forever be known as "the breeches maker." After a restoration effort in the twentieth century, the fresco survives unbreeched.
  • Cherubic Choir: In addition to the Chapel's famous paintings, the church is blessed with a six-hundred year old Latin choir that performs during compositions from the likes of the polyphonic master Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and other artists of the Counter-reformation during the Pontifical masses; stream their hottest album on iTunes!
  • Creation Myth: The ceiling frescoes detail how God separated light from darkness, created celestial bodies of the universe, made the lands, seas, and skies distinct, and gave the first man his immortal soul. All is based off the creation narrative lined out in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis.
  • Dark is Evil: It's easy to find out which person in the Last Suppernote  is evil, just look for the shadowy man with the black beard and dark robes.
  • Decoy Protagonist: A casual viewer of The Temptations of Christ would have you believe the beautiful young man in the center would be, well, Christ. But turns out that viewer's less observant than a blind corpse, because everything surrounding the center of the painting shows Jesus in the background refusing old man Satan and his advances.
  • Devil in Disguise: In order to get The Temptations of Christ right, Satan needs a disguise to cover his wild, hideous body. Naturally, he goes for the most innocent thing he can find: a black robe that covers his whole body. Well, the bat wings, but Christ is too polite to make a point of it.
  • Empty Shell: If you look up at The Creation of Adam, you might notice that Adam is pretty uninterested in his own creation from the completely blank look on his face. Not to mention how he reclines like nothing's going on while a being of infinite power is flying around two feet away from him. This unusual lack of expression from Adam gives reason to believe that the moment depicted in the fresco is not exactly when Adam was created, but the moment just before God breathed life into Adam and gave him his immortal, rational soul, allowing him to experience emotion, reason, and awe as an image of God.
  • Everybody Hates Hades: The altar painting, The Last Judgement, has two examples.
    • The wise judge of the Greek Underworld, King Minos, sorted all of the dead, either into the blissful Elysium, the plain Fields of Asphodel, or the Fields of Punishment. In The Last Judgement, the king stands besides the fire of Hell as the damned are cast into it, while allowing a demonic snake to coil around his body and giving no implication of his role in judging those who enter Paradise.
    • Charon, who carried all the dead to the Greek afterlife, is shown beating a group of people off his boat into a horde of demons, who drag the people into Hell.
  • Evil Wears Black: The Temptations of Christ makes it obvious which character is Satan by putting him in a giant black cloak while standing next to a primary colored Jesus.
  • The Faceless: The Last Judgement only depicts God's lower torso and feet. While it's standard practice to avoid showing the full form of God for the viewer's sanity, this is an odd choice since several full-body paintings of God, face and all, lie on the ceiling above The Last Judgement.
  • The Ferryman: Charon, who brought the dead to the Underworld in Greek myth, is featured in The Last Judgement with a boat full of the damned. Not that he's trying to be helpful, as he has raised his oar and held it back to scare them off his boat right into a pile of grabby demons.
  • Fire and Brimstone Hell: All that can be made out of Hell from The Last Judgement is a massive fire which the damned are being pulled towards.
  • Four Lines, All Waiting: With about six entirely different series of paintings laid across the entire chapel, first time pilgrims often have trouble taking it in before tour guides inform them that their visit has concluded.
  • Full-Contact Magic: Although the Book of Genesis describes God using speech to bring about the creation of the universe, Michelangelo's ceiling frescoes show Him flying around with His robes billowing, stretching His hands in all different directions, and expressing physical exertion on His face in order to give a visual sense for the thought and effort God put into His creation of light, the Sun, the Earth, the Moon, water, land, and man.
  • God is Good: The Sistine Chapel is a shrine to worship God, and this is reflected in the artwork, which portrays God as a beautiful, intelligent creator who made creations of incredible detail and potential.
  • God Test: Defied Trope. One of The Temptations of Christ has Satan point towards the ground from the top of a temple, daring Christ to test God's ability to save him. Christ puts his hand to his chest to object and thus Satan moves to his third and final temptation of Christ.
  • Gold and White Are Divine:
    • While the rest of the field is shrouded in darkness, the victory of the small, but just David over the towering villain Goliath is framed against a white and gold tent. This is in a tradition of associating David's victory with the divine victory of Christ over sin, something Michelangelo knows from his most famous sculpture, David.
    • The two keys to the kingdom of Heaven, both in Perugino's Delivery of the Keys and Michelangelo's The Last Judgement, are respectively gold and silver to represent their power from Heaven and their authority on Earth.
  • Good Wings, Evil Wings: Botticelli's The Temptations of Christ gives the Angels feathered, white wings to indicate their loyalty and holiness while Satan tries and fails to disguise his black bat wings while antagonizing The Hero.
  • Grandpa God: Trope Codifier; Michelangelo's elderly, bearded portrait of God on the ceiling emphasizes the Creator's wisdom and has solidified the tradition of representing the Christian God as an old man.
  • The Great Flood: The eighth fresco on the ceiling shows people climbing the mountains escape the flood and board arks that are all turned over by the rising water. In the background, Noah's ark is shown floating unperturbed as those left behind desperately attempt to survive the flood.
  • Green Thumb: In the second ceiling fresco, God can be seen pointing his hand at a sprouting tree, showing his creation of all the plants and vegetation in the world.
  • Holy Halo: Every painting of Christ in the Sistine Chapel shows a circle of light behind his head, with the brightest of them all being the full-body halo of The Last Judgement.
  • In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: Most people do forget who built it, but the Sistine Chapel was named after the one who had it built, Pope Sixtus IV. Still, he had no real involvement with the artwork which makes the Chapel famous today, so it's not as if we've forgotten a secret genius of Western Art.
  • Jacob Marley Apparel: Several saints from The Last Judgement are seen surrounding the risen Christ while holding objects that were used to kill them for their belief in Christ.
    • Saint Andrew is seen holding an X-shaped cross, which Christian tradition says the Romans used to kill him.
    • Saint Bartholomew pops out because he's seen holding a man's skin while holding a knife in the other hand. This may look like Bartholomew skinned someone, but closer inspection of the skin makes it obvious he's holding his own flayed skin.
    • Saint Blaise is holding the iron combs used to rip his flesh apart.
    • Saint Catherine is sitting next to a broken wheel of spikes, which legends says the Roman Emperor tried to use to slowly torture and kill her, only for it to miraculously fall apart as soon as she touched it. Unable to elaborately torture her, the Emperor had her swiftly beheaded.
    • Saint Lawrence holds a ladder, referencing the legend that he died while being burnt over hot coils, only to snark that "It's cooked enough now," before his death.
    • Saint Sebastian holds the arrows he was pierced with before being beaten to death.
  • The Last Title: Borrowing from the Biblical concept, the painting above the altar is called The Last Judgement and shows the souls of Earth moving to their final positions in the afterlife.
  • Light is Good: The painting of David's victory over Goliath on the Chapel's Ceiling is highlighted by the bright white tent behind David's raised sword, contrasting against the darkness covering the rest of the soldiers.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters:
    • The ceiling covers nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, depicting God, Adam, Eve, the serpent, Noah, Noah's family, all the people fleeing the global flood, a host of characters from other Biblical episodes, and a host of prophets and sibyls who foreshadowed Christ,
    • The Last Judgement is covered with dozens of saints, prophets, and sinners that are either ascending to Heaven or descending into Hell, with Christ and Mary in the center below the throne of God.
  • Magical Gesture: God stretches His finger out to touch the fingertips of the first man as part of his creation. It's evident that God has his eyes laser focused on this finger, as if He's channeling His thought through it and into the first man, who will only now receive the spark of life.
  • Male Frontal Nudity: Adam's ideal physique is on full display in the ceiling paintings, including his penis.
  • Mass Resurrection: The Last Judgement sees saints rising from their graves to ascend into Heaven, including some that appear to only have their skeletons intact for the moment.
  • Meaningful Background Event:
    • While Roselli's Last Supper shows the titular dinner in the foreground, the fresco also shows Christ's prayer, arrest, and crucifixion through the windows in the background, which are important to understand why the next of the Stories of Jesus depicts The Resurrection of Christ.
    • The foreground of Botticelli's The Temptation of Christ doesn't actually contain the temptations of Christ, which are relegated to three different spots in the background. Instead, the foreground contains a leper healed by Jesus talking to a Jewish priest, perhaps to represent the continuity between Mosaic Law and Jesus's teachings.
  • Messianic Archetype:
    • Since The Last Judgement depicts Christ's resurrection, it's only natural for the painting directly above it to depict a figure seen as foreshadowing Christ: the prophet Jonah, who is sitting back as if to large for his portrait.
    • The handsome young man dressed in white in The Temptations of Christ is a stand-in for Christ. His interaction with a Moses-looking Jewish priest emphasizes one of the larger themes of the Sistine Chapel's artwork, that the Old Testament and New Testament are continuous with each other.
  • My Brain Is Big: Perhaps to communicate God's omnipotence and reason, God's robes in The Creation of Adam appear behind him in a way that they resemble a giant brain.
  • Mythology Gag: The Sistine Chapel, the physical building itself, has the same dimensions (40.9 meters long by 13.4 meters wide) as the Temple of Solomon does in The Bible. This reinforces one of the main theses of the Chapel: to demonstrate that the Christian tradition flows directly from the teachings of the Old Testament.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: The Last Judgement:
    • Peter is drawn to resemble Pope Pius III, who commissioned the painting. This is in line with the Catholic idea that Peter was the first Pope, making Pope Pius III his direct successor.
    • Minos, the demonic judge of Hell, is based on one of the Pope's officials who vocally complained about Michelangelo's use of nudity in his portraits.
  • Nudity Equals Honesty: In a controversial move, The Last Judgement depicts every character in the nude in order to show their equality and demonstrate how Christ's return has exposed them.
  • Passion Play: The fresco "The Last Supper" naturally shows the dinner at which Jesus announced that one of his followers would betray him. However, it manages to encompass the entire passion by showing the effects of his follower's betrayal in the room's three windows. The first window has a view of Jesus pleading to an angel in fear of death, the second shows an arrested Jesus order his followers not to violently attempt to free him, and the third window shows Jesus crucified before a crowd with two thieves being executed with him.
  • Plot Parallel: The point of displaying the Stories of Moses'' and the Stories of Jesus next to each other is to demonstrate the similarities between the two and the continuity from Moses's teachings to Jesus's.
  • Religious Horror: The right half of The Last Judgement sees dozens of life-like characters drawn with all of Michelangelo's expertise being dragged into pits of fire by hideous demons, with terror plain on all their faces.
  • Rivers of Blood: "Crossing the Red Sea" sees Moses and the Israelites watch as the faltering Egyptian army covers the entire sea in their muddy red blood.
  • Rule of Symbolism: In the context of The Last Judgement, it's unclear how those entering Heaven managed to get a hand on Jesus's cross, though that makes it easy to remember who died for whose sins.
  • Second Coming: The Last Judgement shows the final result of Jesus's return from Heaven: a final judgement upon all of humanity.
  • Sistine Steal: Ur-Example; The Creation of Adam provided a famous template for artists to parody for centuries to come, even if the original is anything but a parody.
  • Snakes Are Sinister: In addition to the Serpent from Genesis, a large snake can be seen coiling around Minos in The Last Judgement to let the viewer know he's one of the big dogs in Hell.
  • Snake People: The Serpent from Genesis is visualized as a beautiful women with scaled, green tail where her leg should be. This helps to show the temptation she offers Adam and Eve without any verbal explanation.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: In the Sermon on the Mount, there are two people chatting away with their backs turned to the Son of God freely giving the truths of the universe away.
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