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In 1508, the redoubtable Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to fresco the more than 10,000 square feet of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling. (Sistine, by the way, is simply the adjective from Sixtus, in reference to Pope Sixtus IV, who commissioned the chapel itself.) The task took four years, and it's said that for many years afterward Michelangelo couldn't read anything without holding it over his head. The result, however, was the greatest artwork of the Renaissance. A pair of binoculars helps greatly, as does a small mirror—hold the mirror facing the ceiling and look down to study the reflection.
Before the chapel was consecrated in 1483, its lower walls were decorated by famed artists including Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Signorelli, and Pinturicchio. They painted scenes from the life of Moses on one wall and episodes from the life of Christ on the other. Later, Julius II, dissatisfied with the simple vault decoration—stars painted on the ceiling—decided
to call in Michelangelo. At the time, Michelangelo was carving Julius II's resplendent tomb, a project that never came near completion. He had no desire to give the project up to paint a ceiling, considering the task unworthy of him. Julius was not, however, a man to be trifled with, and Michelangelo reluctantly began work. See our special photo feature, "Agony and Ecstasy: The Sistine Ceiling," for the complete backstory.
More than 20 years later, Michelangelo was called on again, this time by the Farnese pope Paul III, to add to the chapel's decoration by painting the Last Judgment on the wall over the altar. The subject was well suited to the aging and embittered artist, who had been deeply moved by the horrendous Sack of Rome in 1527 and the confusions and disturbances of the Reformation. The painting stirred up controversy even before it was unveiled in 1541, shocking many Vatican officials, especially one Biagio di Cesena, who criticized its "indecent" nudes. Michelangelo retaliated by painting Biagio's face on Minos, judge of the underworld—the figure with donkey's ears in the lower right-hand corner of the work. Biagio pleaded with Pope Paul to have Michelangelo erase his portrait, but the pontiff replied that while he could intercede for those in purgatory, he had no power over hell. As if to sign this, his late great fresco, Michelangelo painted his own face on the flayed-off human skin in St. Bartholomew's hand.
The best way to avoid long lines is to arrive between noon and 2, when lines will be very short or even nonexistent, except Sundays when admissions close at 12:30. Even better is to schedule your visit during the Wednesday Papal Mass, held in the piazza of St. Peter’s or at Aula Paolo Sesto, usually 10:30 am.
Vatican Palace; entry only through Musei Vaticani, Rome, Latium, 00193, Italy