The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Updated by Jim Deckebach

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is a legendary work of art that is often considered to be one of Michelangelo's most famous creations. The Sistine Chapel's history is as remarkable as the painting itself, and no visit to Vatican City could possibly be complete without seeing this amazing artistic accomplishment.

First Impressions

Anyone venturing inside the Sistine Chapel immediately notices two prominent features: First, the ceiling is extraordinarily high, and second, the ceiling is detailed with paintings. For hundreds of years, people have imagined the process of Michelangelo lying on his back and suspended high in the air while he endlessly worked to create his masterpiece. It's thought that Michelangelo accepted the project grudgingly, never wanting to work on it, but this may not be completely accurate. Regardless of the initiation of the project or how it was done, the Sistine Chapel is undoubtedly one of the most important pieces of art in the world.

A Project for Pope Julius II

Michelangelo began the project for Pope Julius II in the year 1508. He was covering up a ceiling that was painted to portray a night sky with stars. The pope wanted the ceiling to have a geometric pattern with the 12 apostles positioned at various points. Instead, Michelangelo suggested painting Old Testament scenes, each divided by fictive architecture to organize the ceiling as a whole.

The first paintings tell the stories of the creation of heaven and Earth, the creation of Adam and Eve, their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and Noah and the flood. Nude figures sit around the frescoes, accompanied by prophets and sibyls, which are ancient seers. In each of the four corners, scenes showing the salvation of Israel are positioned.

  • Pope Julius II: Pope Julius II is sometimes referred to as the "Warrior Pope," largely due to his militaristic expansion of the papacy.

The Deluge

The Deluge is a smaller fresco with water and sky separating different parts of it. On one side, people are huddled together to keep dry from the rain. On the other side, people are climbing up a mountain to escape rising water. In the middle, a boat is about to capsize due to hard rain. In the background, you can see a team of workers building the ark, which was the only hope of salvation. Upon close examination, it's easy to see the desperation of the people as the flood began threatening.

A Shift in Style

Michelangelo took a break from painting the Sistine Chapel in 1510. When he got back to work after his break, the new frescoes were different from the earlier ones. These frescoes were full of emotion, which is easy to feel even from the floor of the chapel. The newer paintings tell the stories of the Old Testament without lots of extra details.

The Sibyls

The sibyls and prophets, possibly based on the ancient sculpture Belvedere Torso from the Vatican's collection, are focal points. The Delphic Sibyl is one of the most celebrated figures. Her body is imposing, and her arms are powerful. However, Michelangelo managed to paint her with harmonic proportions and a watchful expression. The Libyan Sibyl is another notable character. She is portrayed in a contorted position, but Michelangelo painted her to make it look easy.


Completed in 1512, the Sistine Chapel has become one of the most important works of art in the world. Young painters have traditionally studied the ceiling to learn about art. Michelangelo even returned to the Sistine Chapel 20 years later to create a final fresco, the Last Judgment. Recently, a controversial cleaning was executed, which renewed the colors and details.

Restoration Efforts

The restoration of the Sistine Chapel began in 1980. Workers set up equipment and racks and took 14 years to work on each fresco. They also removed some modesty drapes that had been added to the artwork. This project was controversial, with some critics claiming that the restoration removed a second layer of paint that Michelangelo had added to give the figures more depth. Those in favor of the restoration believed that it was crucial for keeping the painting intact and reviving the colors.

Papal Use

Although considered an artistic masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel is also a place where religious activity occurs. The College of Cardinals gathers in the chapel to elect new popes, a process that has happened there since 1492. A special chimney in the chapel is the means by which the cardinals announce the results of their voting for a new pope. White smoke shows that a new pope has been elected, and black smoke shows that a candidate has yet to receive the required two-thirds majority vote.

Further Reading


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