10 surprising facts you probably didn’t know about the Sistine Chapel

6) Saint Bartholomew holding Michelangelo?!

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As we mentioned before, the other great painting by Michelangelo inside Sistine Chapel pertains to ‘The Last Judgment’ on the altar wall. As the name suggests, the fresco depicts a scene from the Revelation of John: Chapter 20 that majorly relates to the second coming of Christ on the Day of Judgment. In accordance with this cataclysmic event, the portraiture is given a grand overview – with the heroic figure of Christ centered in the middle of the frame, while the dead are raised from their graves in the left, and the souls assigned to Hell being depicted in the right. Interestingly, Michelangelo included his self-portrait twice in this magnificent work of art – with one pertaining to a figure watching the dead rise on the lower-left corner of the fresco.

The other self-portrait can be a bit ‘disturbing’, with Saint Bartholomew holding a flayed skin with presumably Michelangelo’s face. This certainly alludes to the gruesome manner that Bartholomew himself was said to be martyred (according to some popular traditions) – by being flayed alive in Armenia. In any case, as we mentioned in the earlier entry, beyond brutal depictions, Michelangelo was also accused of obscenity by Cardinal Carafa (who later became Pope Paul IV) and Biagio da Cesena (who was Pope’s Master of Ceremonies), because of the presence of the so many nude figures in the painting. The artist however took his revenge by portraying a nude and horned Minos, judge of the underworld, in the likeness of da Cesena.

7) The resilience of the frescoes –

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Quite intriguingly, the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes of Michelangelo and others have stood the test of time and degradation in a pretty convincing manner, with their almost preserved scenes surviving ‘naturally’ for around 500 years. In other words, the paintings have withstood the great historical events ranging from the Protestant Reformation, Industrial Revolution, Napoleonic Wars, to the Victorian Age, World Wars and the Moon Landing. However ‘Noah’ was not so lucky, with the depiction of his escaping the great flood, still missing from the ceiling. This is because the plaster panel on which the biblical scene was represented, fell on the floor and shattered – due to the reverberation caused by a nearby explosion in a gunpowder depot in 1797 AD.

8) Touched-up and undressed (once again) –

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A grand restoration work commenced from 1984 and ended in 1994 to refurbish the entire ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This delicate and extensive process involved many art-experts and specialists. Ultimately they were successful in removing layers of grime, soot and other intrusive deposits like automotive exhausts and even bacteria – thus resulting in significantly brightened scenes (see above image). In fact, this led to a concern that some paintings were perhaps given too much of a glistening makeover (by severe cleaning) that might have gone beyond their originally intended effect. To put it simply, some experts were concerned about the aggressive form of restoring the scenes, as opposed to conserving them.

In any case, Michelangelo seemingly had his sweet revenge after more than 400 years, with the restoration works undoing the covering-up job of the late 16th century. This resulted in the removal of many a loin cloth and fig leaf, which lead to the ‘conserving’ of the original nudes.

9) Astronomical visitor count –

Surprising_Facts_Sistine Chapel_Visitors

Sistine Chapel is probably Vatican City’s most popular tourist destination, and as such the building attracts an astronomical five million people on an annual basis (which is almost equal to population of Norway!). This translates to around 25,000 visitors per day, and over 80 million euros generated in revenues per year – from the entry fees collected by the admission of the myriad tourists.

But beyond just numbers, the sheer magnitude of foot traffic and humidity (from sweat) from such high volumes of visitors might have its adverse effect on the Sistine Chapel structure and frescoes. To that end, one of the protective measures entails the prohibition of photography inside the chapel during visiting times. Furthermore, the Vatican authorities have taken the conservation and security scope to yet another level by even scanning the high-level cardinals for bugs, when they make their way into the building during various papal conclaves.

10) Election of Pope and ‘room of tears’

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Considering all the facts that we have gone through till now, suffice it to say, the Sistine Chapel proudly stands as an important bastion of history and art within the Vatican State. But beyond its flourishing frescoes and austere architecture, the chapel itself serves one of the most crucial religious purposes, and that relates to the election of the pope. This meticulous process involves the gathering and subsequent voting by the College of Cardinals – a major event for Roman Catholicism that has been taking place inside the Sistine Chapel since 1492 AD. In accordance with this tradition, a specially designed chimney of the building conveys the voting statuses, with white smoke signifying that a new pope has been elected; and dark smoke signifying that no candidate has yet received the required two-thirds majority.

Interestingly, once a new pope is elected, he is allowed to privately retire into an adjacent ‘room of tears’ to don his new pontifical choir robes. The small red room is given this nickname because of the intense emotions and the presumably tears of joy that the candidate is expected to have after winning the election.

Now, in case you are one of those ‘speed readers’, you can also take a gander this nifty little infographic compiled by the resourceful folk over at OMNIA –


Other Sources: VaticanState / Sacred-Destinations

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