A Brief Look at the Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel’s ceiling is likely the most well-known of the artworks housed by the Vatican Museums. The chapel itself was named after Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere (whose name should be familiar from the painting Sixtus IV appoints Bartolomeo Platina Prefect of the Vatican Library mentioned in “The Vatican’s Picture Gallery“), who built the Chapel in 1483. The architecture of Chapel hints at the violence of the fifteenth century: the walls are extraordinarily thick, the windows are narrow slits (presumably to drop boiling oil on invaders without exposing the defenders to counter-attack), and the building itself has battlements. Pope Sixtus commissioned the greatest artists of his day, including, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Piero di Cosimo, to fresco the walls of the Chapel with scenes from the life of Moses and of Christ.

Pope Sixtus’ nephew, Pope Julius II, il papa terribile, however, was the one who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the now-famous ceiling. Michelangelo actually tried to get out of the commission because he identified as a sculptor, not a painter. Pope Julius II, however, was not known as il papa terribile for nothing; he forced Michelangelo to take up the commission despite all of Michelangelo’s protests.

To complement the already frescoed walls, Michelangelo looked to St. Paul’s division of history, which divided the whole of human existence into three stages: (1) The Book of Genesis, which represented the history of man ante lege (i.e. before law); (2) Moses, who represented the history of man sub lege (i.e. under law); and (3) Christ, who represented the history of man sub gratia (i.e. under the disposition of grace).

Because Numbers Two and Three of St. Paul’s Division of History were already represented on the walls, Michelangelo determined to fresco the ceiling with the Book of Genesis. The design includes nine stories from Genesis that run down the middle of the ceiling.

The central panel of Old Testament stories is bordered by alternating lunettes and human figures. The lunettes (which look like small triangles) contain pictures of Christ’s ancestral lineage as recounted in the New Testament.

The figures that are placed in between each lunette alternate between Sibyls and Prophets. (Sibyls were popularized in ancient Greece, and they were believed to be oracles that spoke prophecies imparted to them by the Gods.) Below each figure is a plaque identifying whom the figure represents.

Now that we have been oriented, let’s look at the work in more detail, starting with the central panel. The central panel is divided into nine episodes found in the Old Testament Book of Genesis. These nine are subdivided into three groups of three, each group telling an origin story. Starting from left to right: The Drunkenness of Noah, The Flood, and The Sacrifice of Noah relate to the origin of evil; The Fall of Adam and Eve and the Expulsion from Paradise, The Creation of Eve, and The Creation of Adam relate to the origin of man; and the Separation of Land from Sea, The Creation of the Heavenly Bodies, and The Separation of Light from Darkness relate to the origin of the universe. Although at first glance, it seems that Michelangelo scheme is backwards because he starts with Noah and ends with the origin of the universe. The reverse order, however, is intentional. The Drunkenness of Noah is the imperfection of man, but as the viewer moves towards the alter towards the Eucharist, he/she moves closer to purity of spirit and so too the figures depicted on the ceiling. Moreover, each scene holds the promise of redemption: The Drunkenness of Noah is the mirror image of the Eucharistic wine that becomes Christ’s blood. The mocking of Noah by his sons reflects the mocking of Christ during his Passion. The Flood reminds the viewers of the Covenant with God, which is fulfilled with the birth of Christ. The Birth of Eve from the rib bone of Adam echoes Christ’s fatal wound beneath his rib.

The first section that Michelangelo painted was the Flood (the second panel from the left), which is evidenced by the overwhelming amount of action within that piece as compared to the more figure-focused scenes that were created later. To depict the Flood, Michelangelo shows figures in the bottom corner of the scene struggling to get to dry land, hampered by their worldly possessions. Meanwhile, Noah and his family are not the central figures, but are physically and emotionally in the background. As I said, the scenes telling the story of Noah relate to the origin of evil and therefore the focus is on evil.

The Flood

Compare the movement and drama depicted in The Flood with the, arguably, most famous of the Sistine Chapel’s panels, The Creation of Adam.

The Creation of Adam

Notice the muscular figures depicted in these works? Well as Michelangelo was working, the Romans discovered the Laocoön, an ancient sculpture of the Trojan priest fighting the snakes sent by Athena, as well as the Belvedere Torso. These sculptures informed Michelangelo’s portrayal of the human form while painting the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, especially those figures known as the Ignudi. The Ignudi sit in the four corners of each episode, symbolizing antiquity to link the Church with the illustrious Roman past.

The contorted, stressed muscles of the figures are a staple of Michelangelo’s depiction of the human body. The external tension of the figures hint at the inner turmoil of man, who is constantly at war with himself in an effort to shed his earthly flesh and desires.

As mentioned above, the central panel is surrounded by alternating Hebrew Prophets and Greek Prophetesses (known as Sibyls). If you are wondering why Michelangelo painted pagan oracles on the ceiling of the most famous Roman Catholic Chapel, you aren’t alone. Some historians argue that early Jews and Christians appropriated the tradition of sibylline prophecies because such had a storied and ancient reputation. Through the appropriation of this tradition, historians argue, early Jews and Christians were able to give their nascence religions legitimacy and authority within the pagan world in which they operated. It is also believed that the sibyls predicted the coming of Jesus. Again, connecting the Church to the ancient past.

Michelangelo also painted the fresco known as The Last Judgment (1541) on the wall behind the altar decades after he finished the ceiling and, perhaps more significantly, after Emperor Charles V sacked the city of Rome in 1527. The fall of Europe’s “eternal city” proved to be traumatic for most of Christianity, and this trauma was clearly expressed in the art commissioned and produced after the city’s fall. Comparing The Last Judgment with the ceiling, the figures appear more frenzied and confused, demonstrating real turmoil felt amongst Christendom.

Michelangelo, The Last Judgment

Although the overall composition seems disoriented, the groupings of figures are placed intentionally; the scene is meant to be read rising from the bottom left and descending on the right, mimicking the scales believed to be used to weigh souls with Christ acting as the fulcrum.

The Resurrection is depicted on the lower left of the work, where skeletons ascend to join those above in Heaven. Michelangelo’s depiction of those in Heaven, however, is completely unconventional. St. John the Baptist, on Christ’s right, is depicted as almost Herculean, not the traditional emaciated hermit while St. Peter, on Christ’s left is shown in similar proportions. Moreover, Christ himself is depicted as though a Greek God, and although Michelangelo is in keeping with tradition that Christ’s right hand is raised and his left hand is lowered (raising the righteous and felling the damned), he positions the palms so as to allude that the opposite is occurring. Slightly beneath Christ, Michelangelo included self-portrait in a rather grotesque manner: his visage is perceptible in the face of the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew, dangling over Hell. This depiction recalls his belief that one must shed his outer skin to reach the truth that lays beneath.

Under this main group, Michelangelo places the angels who raise the dead with their trumpets. One of these angels is holding the book of the damned, pointedly showing the damned their misdeeds written in the book.

In response to the nontraditional depiction, one of the Pope’s secretaries reportedly complained that the scene was more appropriate for a bathhouse than a chapel. Michelangelo had his revenge by painting the complainant’s face onto the figure of Minos, the judge of the dead in Virgil’s and Dante’s epic poems.

Michelangelo changed the physical architecture of the chapel to create the illusion that the scene was taking place within the room rather than the traditional belief, espoused by Leon Battista Alberti, that a painting should be a “window” so that viewers are seeing the scene play out beyond their own space.

So much more could be said about this room; in fact, many articles and books have been written on the topic. What is in this post is merely the tip of the iceberg, but I hope that I have at least piqued your interest in some of this art.

A Short Tour Through the Vatican’s Gregorian Egyptian Museum

The Gregorian Egyptian Museum was founded in 1839 by Pope Gregory XVI and consists of nine rooms that once housed Pope Pius IV’s private apartments in the Belvedere Palace. During the Imperial Age, Romans were crazy for everything Egyptian, and it became fashionable to import Egyptian works to Rome to decorate residences, shrines, temples, etc. In fact, after the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. (when the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, defeated his one-time ally Marc Antony and Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt), rich Romans imported various spoils of war to their city, spurring a fade. Later Emperors continued the importation of Egyptian artifacts during their respective reigns, thus creating the treasure trove that is now housed in the Vatican.

The First Room of the museum houses epigraphic artefacts (i.e. artefacts with inscriptions). Its centerpiece is the partial Statue of Ramesses II Enthroned, which is engraved with the Pharaoh’s cartouches (a “cartouche” is an oval shape enclosing hieroglyphs that represent a name). Some scholars believe that Ramesses II may be the Pharaoh mentioned in Exodus, against whom Moses and Aaron revolted. Ramesses II was also known as Ozymandias in Greek, and it is this name that Percy Shelley invokes in his eponymous sonnet:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said — “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The other notable artifacts in this room include the False-door funerary stele of Iry (2230-2180 B.C.). According to the Egyptians, funerary stelae would “render living the name” of the deceased and give them life in the afterlife. “False-door” funerary steles were derived from the ancient practice of putting frame stelae into the façade of a building. The false-door stelae mimicked this practice, but instead of decorating the façade of a building, they were placed in the façade of the funeral chapel. It was in front of this “door” that the deceased’s relatives could place offerings of food and drink (apparently, one still needed such things in the afterlife). This particular stele was found in the tomb of Iry, or Iri-en-achti, a priest of the cult of the Pharaoh Khufu, as well as Khufu’s superintendent of the pyramid of Giza.

The Commemorative stele depicts Hatshepsut with her nephew, the future Thutmose III. Hatshepsut was one of the world’s first feminists. The daughter of one king and the wife of the other, she took hold of power while acting as regent for her nephew and named herself co-king. Unfortunately, in his old age, Thutmose III ordered that history forget her, and he attempted to erase her name from everything that alluded to her kingship. But, obviously, we know she ruled as King (from this stele as well as other sources), and so he failed in erasing her reign from history. For more detailed analysis of Hatshepsut’s story, look into The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney. It is a very interesting read that touches on a myriad of issues including gender roles, social status, and the influence of religion on both.

The challenges Hatshepsut faced and the sacrifices she made are familiar to powerful women of the twenty-first century: balancing the personal and the political, overcoming stereotypes of hysterical and unbalanced femininity, and making compromises never asked of powerful men.

Kara Cooney

Another interesting artifact housed in this room is known as The Vatican Naophorous (521-486 B.C.). A Naophorous is a statue holding the naos symbol, the symbol of a temple. This particular naophorous is in the likeness of Udjahorresnet, the “chief physician, treasurer of the king of Lower Egypt and commander of the king’s fleet.” Udjahorresnet lived during the Persian occupation of Egypt, which is described in the hieroglyphics as relatively peaceful, a description which is in stark contrast to the Greek’s description of the Persian occupation (think the movie 300, when the 300 Spartans defended the narrow pass of Thermopylae). Interesting to note the differences in which cultures respond to occupations.

Room II houses works related to the funerary customs of Ancient Egypt, including two mummies, the more famous of whom is named the “Lady of the Vatican.” The Shroud of the “Lady of the Vatican” is unique, as compared to traditional female burial shrouds, because it depicts the entire body of the deceased rather than simply the face. In fact, only six such shrouds are known to be in existence today. The lady depicted in the shroud is wearing robes and jewelry are typical of the Roman Era; in fact, her hairstyle mimics those of the Imperial women from the Severian family. Apparently, the Severian women were the “Princess Kates” of their day (except without the helpful websites that tell you where Kate gets her amazing clothes – for those who are interested whatkatewore is a great resource, providing Kate’s schedule, details about her look, and dupes of her clothes that are nicer to your pocketbook than clothes worn by royals). The other mummy, The Mummy of Amenirdis, dates from the 21st Dynasty, when mummification became the norm even among the lower classes. It was around this time that the belief that preserving the body ensured eternal life became popularized.

The Sarcophagus of Djedmut sarcophagus dates to the 22nd Dynasty, during which there was an economic crisis. Due to the limited resources during this time, the sarcophagus itself was decorated, rather than the usual practice of inscribing the tomb, and thud the text inscribed on the sarcophagus had to be condensed. Sarcophagi contained three parts: (1) an external sarcophagus (which is what is exhibited here); (2) an internal sarcophagus (Djedmut’s is in the Museum of Rochelle in France); and (3) a wooden cover.

The Ushabti of Pharaoh Seti I (Ushabti were funerary figurines that were buried with the deceased to help him or her in the afterlife. Ushabti actually means “he who answers.”) are from the tomb of Seti I (the father of Ramesses the Great), located in the Valley of the Kings. Seti I was buried with over 700 hundred Ushabti – obviously he thought he needed a ton of help in the afterlife – but they are now dispersed around the world, so I guess he might have to do more work in the afterlife than he had planned. The material with which ushabti were made varied, but Seti I’s ushabti are made out of wood and covered with a resin of some sort of vegetable, known as “black varnish,” which is supposed to signify survival after death.

The final masterpiece held in this room is the Fayum Portrait of a Young Man. Fayum Portraits, which were made out of wood and painted with tempera or encaustic, were placed over the face of the deceased, replacing the traditional funeral masks. Although called “Fayum Portraits” because the first were found in Fayum, others have since been discovered elsewhere in Egypt. Scholars believe the Fayum Portraits to be a wholly Hellenistic influence on Egyptian burial customs, in part, because the portraits became popular around the same time as the Roman occupation of Egypt.

Room III is a reconstruction of the Serapeum of the Canopus in Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli. Emperor Hadrian’s villa contained a multitude of Egyptian artifacts, which were moved to this room in the Vatican. The original curator of this museum believed that the Serapeum was a place of worship, but based on recent excavations in the villa, it is now believed that the space was actually a banqueting area, and that the name “Canopus” actually refers to a city on the Egyptian Delta, which Romans would retreat to for holidays. Located in this room are a Statue of Osiris-Apis, one side of which represents Osiris and the other the bull Apis, and a Statue of Osiris-Antonius. Emperor Hadrian’s favourite, Antinous, drowned in the Nile in AD 130, prompting Hadrian to found the city of Antinoopolis and deify him. The new cult was known as Osiris-Antinous; it took off with the citizens.

Room IV holds Roman works that were inspired by the influx of Egyptian culture after Augustus won the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Major works in this room include a Campana Plaque (mid 1st century BC through the mid 2nd century AD), The Cacco (the Roman term “Cacco” means “macaque,” a type of Asian monkey) (Phildias and Ammonios, AD 159), which once portrayed a dog, a sacred animal to the god Thoth, but it has since been damaged, and a Statue of the God Anubis (1st to 2nd century A.D.), the Egyptian god of death, who was typically represented as a jackal. Interestingly, in Roman culture, Anubis was merged with the Roman god Mercury, which is why he is seen here with Mercury’s staff.

The Statuary in Room V houses Egyptian statues, including The Head of Pharaoh Mentuhotep II, which likely came from his burial site in Thebes. Also here is The Statue of Queen Tuya, which originally depicted Queen Tiye, the wife of Amenhotep III, but it was repurposed by Ramesses II to honor his mother Tuya. Next to Tuya is the princess Henutmire, one of Ramesses’ sisters. Other works include a Statue of the God Bes, the god of infants and expecting mothers, and The Anthropomorphic Statue of the God Apis. The god Ptah and a virgin cow produced a bull that lived on earth and was the divine incarnation of Apis. When the bull died, the god’s essence united with the god Osiris, creating the god Osiris-Apis.

Located in Room VI is an Urn for the Mummy of a Cat, which is not as nice as it sounds. The Egyptians would strangle or fracture the spinal cord of baby kittens to offer as sacrifices to the gods, specifically the goddess Bastet. According to myth, Bastet was a lioness who had to be “tranquilised” through ritual (and apparently through offerings of dead cats, which I would think would piss her off more…..). Also located here is the Statuette of an ibis, which was probably the vessel for a mummified ibis (hopefully not killed or sacrificed like the kittens). During holidays, priests of the cult of Thoth (who manifested as an ibis) would take statuettes like the one here from the temple dedicated to Thoth in Hermopolis to the Tuna el-Gebel necropolis.

On a more happy note, The Stele of Horus on Crocodiles is housed in this room. It depicts Horus (son of Isis, goddess of magic) standing on two crocodiles, while simultaneously holding several dangerous animals. This image is meant to convey his triumph over evil. Steles, such as this one, were believed to be infused with magic that cured individuals who had been stung by a scorpion or bitten by a snake, forcing my husband (a toxicologist) out of the job.

Room VII houses artifacts from the 4th through 2nd century BC, generally from Alexandria and Palmyra, a Syrian city that connected Rome with Persia and therefore, was a commercial hub. Objects from all over the known world would pass through Palmyra, either going to or coming from Rome. The constant movement of goods through this city has produced many artifacts for historians to mull over, including the Alexandrian Terracottas that were produced in Alexandria during the Ptolemaic and Roman Age and the Palmyran Burial Reliefs (2nd and 3rd century AD). The necropolises in Palmyra contained three different types of tombs: (1) tombs shaped like a tower; (2) those underground; and (3) those in the form of a mound. Those in the form of a tower and those underground were sealed with limestone slabs that depicted the deceased and are now located in this room.

Room VIII houses “antiquities of the Ancient Near East,” or in other words, works from Mesopotamia and Syria-Palestine (3rd to 2nd century BC). I’m not quite sure why they are housed in the Egyptian museum, but they are… One of the most significant pieces, although seemingly mundane to modern eyes, is a cuneiform tablet that records a sale of land in Sumerian. The Sumerians, who lived in Mesopotamia, produced the first known writing in the 4th millennium BC (i.e. 4000 BC to 3001 BC), and this tablet is a prime example of the cuneiform script. Also here are Cylindrical Seals, which were generally worn around an individual’s neck and were used for signatures in Mesopotamia starting in the 3rd millennium BC. The Cylinder of Nebuchadnezzar II celebrates King Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Persia from 605-562 BC.

Room IX houses several reliefs and inscriptions that once decorated Assyrian Palaces. The inscriptions were written to celebrate Assyrian greatness as well as the Assyrian Kings’ accomplishments. By linking the magistry of the kings, the expansive palatial complexes, mythical heroes and military successes, the inscriptions elevated the status and prestige of the Imperial elite. If you’re wondering why Assyrian artifacts are housed in the Egyptian museum, it is because Assyria conquered Egypt in 671 B.C. under King Esarhaddon. Assyria, however, was only able to hold onto Egypt for a short period.

The Relief with winged Genius comes from Ashurnasirpal II’s palace, which was located on the Acropolis of Nimrud, ancient Khalku. Ashurnasirpal II reigned from 883 through 859 BC, and it was under his rule that neo-Assyrian figurative art bloomed. The relief is an example of such art, and it depicts the sacred tree (which symbolized royal fruitfulness) protected by Genius. In stark contrast to the flourishing art and culture occurring at his court, Ashurnasirpal II’s reign was characterized by violent empire expansion. He was known for his brutal treatment of conquered peoples; in fact, his “trademark” was to skin the conquered city officials alive and nail the result to the city’s walls. He did have a great party (allegedly inviting about 70,000 people) to celebrate the establishment of his new town Khalku though…

The Brick with Inscription of Sargon II is from Sargon II’s palace located in Khorsabad. The inscription is in Sumerian and states, “Sargon, king of the universe, built this city: Dûr-Sharrûkin [literally “fortress of Sargon”] is its name; within, he had this unrivalled palace built.” Sargon II, who reigned from 722 through 705 B.C., founded the Sargonid Dynasty, which would reign Assyria for the next century until Assyria’s eventual fall and Babylon’s rise. It was under Sargon that the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed, causing 10 of the 12 Hebrew tribes to disappear from history. They are known as the “Lost Ten Tribes.”  

The Relief with Assyrian Soldiers is from Sennacherib’s palace and depicts Assyrian soldiers leaving a city’s gates, carrying loot, thus emphasizing the military prowess and wealth of the Assyrian state. Sennacherib, Sargon II’s son, ruled from 705 through 681 B.C. Sennacherib moved the capital to Nineveh; some historians believe he had issues with his father so he obviously did not want to live in his father’s city, if indeed that is the case. He apparently had issues with his own sons as well, since they assassinated him.

The Relief with Arab Tent Set Alight is from Ashurbanipal’s palace in Nineveh. The relief (in conjunction with another which is at the British Museum) depicts Ashurbanipal’s victories over the nomads who lived in the Syro-Arabian desert. The Relief with the siege of Bit-Bunaki is also from the Ashurbanipal palace and, as its name implies, depicts the siege of Bit-Bunaki. Ashurbanipal was Sennacherib’s grandson, and he reigned from 680 through 636 BC.