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“). Sixtus restored the Sistine Chapel, but it was his nephew, Pope Julius II, il papa terribile, 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.
Michelangelo decided to decorate the ceiling with images from the Old Testament to link with the images of the New Testament that decorated the walls of the chapel. The design includes nine stories from the Old Testament 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.
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.
Compare the movement and drama depicted in The Flood with the, arguably, most famous of the Sistine Chapel’s panels, 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.
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.
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.
In addition to the sculptures located in the Octagonal Court, the Vatican Museums are home to hundreds of other fascinating statues. I’m just going to highlight my favorite ones here, organized by museum and room.
The Pio Clementino Museum
The original papal sculptures were housed in the then Cortile delle Statue (now known as the Octagonal Court), but by the 18th century, keeping the ever-growing collection in that courtyard was no longer tenable, as the collection had dramatically increased in size over the years due to both donations and archeological excavations. Thus, Pope Clement XIV Ganganelli, followed by Pope Pius VI Braschi, converted rooms of the Belvedere Palace into a museum to house the papal collection of ancient Roman sculpture. This museum is now known as the Pio Clementino Museum, in honor of the aforementioned popes.
Hall of the Muses
The Hall of the Muses was redesigned with the intention of housing statues found at the Villa of Cassius near Tivoli (it is now commonly believed that the so-called Villa of Cassius was not actually owned by Cassius). These sculptures date from the 2nd century AD and included several (but not all nine) muses. Unfortunately, some of the sculptures found at the villa were irreparably modified by 18th century restorers in an attempt to complete the set of the nine Muses, including a sculpture that was repurposed as the muse Euterpe.
Muses were minor deities that imparted their gifts of music, poetry, and dance to men and gods, allowing both to forget their troubles by losing themselves to art. Fittingly, the Muses were the daughters of the goddess Mnemosyne (i.e. memory) and the king of the gods, Zeus.
The vaulted ceiling of the hall accurately reflects the hall’s namesake. (I know this section is supposed to be about sculptures, but I couldn’t resist this ceiling, so bear with me.) Painted by Tommaso Conca, the ceiling depicts both Apollo and the Muses inspiring artistic endeavours. Apollo is included along with the Muses because he was commonly associated with music, especially with an instrument known as the lyre. According to myth, the god Hermes, the inventor of the lyre, offered it to Apollo after he had been caught stealing Apollo’s cattle.
The final, and some would argue most important, piece of the Hall of Muses is known as the Belvedere Torso. The Belvedere Torso (so called due its original placement in the Vatican’s Belvedere Courtyard) dates from the 1st century BC and owes much of its fame to Michelangelo’s admiration of it. In fact, during and after the sixteenth century, the Belvedere Torso became the model for nudes in multiple works, including Raphael’s figure of Christ in his Vision of Ezekiel and Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker.
The Round Hall
The Round Hall was based off the hemispherical vault of the Pantheon. Indeed, vaulted ceiling is seemingly structurally identical (albeit a touch more ornate) to that of the famous temple to the Gods.
The floor mosaics of the Round Hall are from the early 3rd century AD while the porphyry basin in the center of the room is likely to have stood in an imperial Roman piazza. The gold Heracles housed in one of the niches in this room was found lying horizontally and covered by a stone with the letters F.C.S., standing for Fulgur Conditum Summanium, translated as “hidden from lightning flow.” Thus, historians have deduced that it had been given a ritual burial, which was customary for Romans to do for statues that had been hit by lightning.
Hercules is shown in his traditional iconography: holding his club and the Nemean lion skin. (Indeed, Hercules is generally shown in this posture.)
Gallery of the Candelabra
The Gallery of the Candelabra houses The Persian Warrior, who is depicted wearing a Phrygian beret with his upper hand grasping his sword. This work is probably a Roman copy of a Greek Bronze that was made to celebrate the Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Allegedly, an Athenian ran from Marathon to the city of Athens (about 25 miles) to deliver the news of the Persian defeat. It is this run that became the basis for the masochistic early morning, freezing races in which yours truly loves to participate. (Although, I do wish whoever came up with the idea had done his/her math better and kept the race at 25 miles rather than 26.2. For some reason, that seems much more manageable.)
The New Wing
The New Wing was built to house the works that Napoleon had taken from the Vatican, but which France has since returned. It links the Chiaramonti Museum to the Apostolic Library and was designed to recreate the space for which the works were originally created. One of the New Wing’s most famous pieces, Augustus from Prima Porta (1st century AD), is a statue of Augustus that was found in the Villa of Livia (Livia was Augustus’ wife; for the Julio-Claudian family tree, click here).
On Augustus’ cuirass (breastplate), there is a scene showing a Parthian king returning the Roman standards lost by Crassus during the Battle of Carrhae. Although the loss of a standard seems trivial to modern readers, to the superstitious ancient Romans, the loss of a standard was a monumental disaster. Therefore, Augustus’ recovery of such was a huge political victory for him, so much so that the event is commemorated on this larger than life statue. At the top of the breastplate is the personification of the Heavens and the chariots of Apollo and Aurora while at the bottom is the goddess Diana and the goddess Earth, symbolizing divine sanction of Augustus’ rule.
Notice the weird baby attached to Augustus’ leg? Well that weird baby was likely designed to promote Augustus’ supposed divine descent from the goddess Venus. Historians have identified the baby as Cupid, Venus’ son, in part, because he is riding a dolphin, an animal closely linked to Venus, who in one myth is born of the sea (see Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, to the left of this text, which will hopefully be featured in an upcoming post about the Uffizi).
The Julii clan (i.e. the family of Julius Caesar and his grand-nephew/adopted son, Augustus) claimed descent from the Trojan Aeneas, who himself was alleged to have descended from the goddess Venus. And therefore, Venus’ son Cupid was likely included in this piece to emphasize Augustus’ links to divinity.
The Nile is a 1st century AD Roman copy of a Greek original. The work personifies the River Nile as an old man while Egypt is represented by a sphinx, supporting the Nile. Sixteen children run along the top of the Nile; according to Roman historian Pliny the Elder, the children represent the sixteen cubits of water by which the Nile rises for its annual flood. Interestingly, this piece was at the center of an international debacle between Italy and France during the early nineteenth century. As it turns out, Emperor Napoleon was quite fond of Italian art, and during his invasion of Italy, he commandeered several pieces (including the Nile) and sent them to the Louvre. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the Pope demanded that the French return the artwork to the Vatican. The French, reluctant to give back this treasure, offered the Pope a nude statute of Napoleon as compensation. The Pope, obviously not keen to own a colossal nude statute of an overthrown foreign invader, declined the offer and demanded the Nile back. As evidenced, the French acquiesced.
Also here is a statue of Silenus and the baby Dionysus (yes, that Dionysus; even gods of wine and the bacchanal were babies at one point). In a tribute to the baby’s eventual celestial purview, the branch supporting the two is decorated with grape vines. Silenus is variously described as Dionysus’ foster father, companion, and/or tutor, depending on the source. This statue, as usual, is a Roman copy of a Greek original (the ancient Romans had some serious appropriation issues – stealing myths, artwork, etc), and it dates from around the 2nd century AD.
I hope you enjoyed some of my favorite pieces from the Vatican. Thanks as always for reading!
The papal apartments that are now known as “Raphael’s Rooms” were commissioned by Pope Julius II upon his election to the papal throne. Rather than live in the rooms of his predecessor, Pope Alexander VI Borgia, whom Julius detested, Pope Julius collected a team of artists, including Raphael, to redecorate previously unused chambers. Raphael was soon put in charge of the whole project.
The Room of Heliodorus was the second of the papal apartments to be decorated. Its walls are frescoed with events chosen to convey a dual message: of God’s protection of the Church and of Julius II’s desire to “free Italy” from its current French occupation. The fresco from which this room takes its name, Expulsion of Heliodorus from theTemple, depicts a Biblical episode wherein a Syrian named Heliodorus is sent to the Temple in Jerusalem to take its treasure. The high priest of the temple calls on God for protection, and God sends a horsemen and two youths to banish Heliodorus.
Pope Julius II is seen on the left, witnessing the event, while Heliodorus is knocked to the floor with the spilled gold in the right corner of the work. The implicit characterization of the French as the thieving Heliodorus would not have been lost on the fresco’s contemporary viewers.
Also in this room is the Encounter of Leo the Great with Attila, which was completed after Pope Julius II’s death. The portrait of his successor, Pope Leo X, appears twice in this fresco: once as Leo the Great and once as a cardinal. According to legend, St. Peter and St. Paul appeared during this momentous meeting, and it was this appearance that dissuaded Attila from invading Italy. (As typical of portraits of St. Peter, he is depicted holding keys; while St. Paul is identifiable via his pointed beard.) Once again, the underlying message to the French, that God protects Rome from foreign invaders, would have been very potent to contemporaries.
It is the Room of the Segnatura, however, that houses Raphael’s most famous frescoes, including his School of Athens. Julius II used this room as his study/library, and it is this use that the frescoes are meant to reflect.
The School of Athens celebrates philosophers, focusing on Plato and Aristotle, who represent the two schools of thought: idealism and realism. Plato, holding his Timaeus, is pointing to the heaven as the source of knowledge while Aristotle, holding his Ethics, points to the earth.
The Room of the Fire in the Borgo was decorated after Pope Julius II’s death in 1513. The new pontiff, Pope Leo X, took over the commission given to Raphael and made significant changes. One of those changes was to dedicate this room to the pope’s namesakes, Leo III and Leo IV. Thus, the paintings include the Crowning of Charlemagne, which depicts the crowning of Charlemagne by the Pope in the year AD 800, the Justification of Leo III, the oath taken by Leo III that reaffirmed the principle that the pope is answerable to God alone, and the Battle of Ostia when, in AD 849, the papal armies were pitted against Muslim forces.
The Fire in the Borgo depicts the fire that broke out in AD 847 in front of St. Peter’s, in an area known as the Borgo. Allegedly, the efforts of a mass of people to put the fire out had no effect until Pope Leo IV appeared at a window in the Vatican Palace and imparted a blessing. At that moment, the fire was miraculously extinguished.
Leo IV can be seen in the background, giving his blessing while in the left foreground is a group of figures inspired by Virgil’s homeric epic Aeneid. In the Aeneid, the hero Aeneas flees his home city of Troy as the Greeks burn it to the ground. Aeneas carries his father, Anchises, on his back while his young son, Ascanius, runs alongside him. After escaping Troy, Aeneas leads the surviving Trojans on a treacherous search for a new homeland, eventually settling in what would one day become Rome. Allegedly, the mythical founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, are Aeneas’ descendants. It is in this way that Virgil ties Rome and its founding to a prestigious and ancient culture. (During Rome’s early history, many, including Greeks, thought of Rome as an uncultured back-water. Apparently, even the Romans felt like they had something to prove.)
One of the most fascinating museums housed in the Vatican is the New Pinacoteca. The “new” Vatican Pinacoteca actually dates to 1932 (although in comparison with the works held, this could be accurately dubbed “new”). Most of the paintings held in this collection picture Christian themes, stories, images, and sometimes all of the above. Therefore, before we dive in, I linked this page to go over some of the saints’ typical iconography. (I will be regularly updating it as more saints appear in the art in later posts.)
The first major art work I want to talk about it known as the Stefaneschi triptych (Giotto di Bondone, c. 1330). It was commissioned by Cardinal Jacopo Caetani degli Stefaneschi for the high altar of St. Peter’s (St. Peter’s being the Vatican’s church). For such an important piece, Stefaneschi commissioned the famous Giotto. At this time, Giotto had already been praised as the greatest artist of the time by such names as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio due to his innovative technique of depicting figures with life and emotion. The figures in Giotto’s work are not static, but real and relatable; indeed, human.
Next on our swift tour of the gallery is The Redeemer conferring a blessing (Simone Martini, 1315-20), which is believed to be a panel of a polyptych (an altarpiece that was very popular during the 14th and 15th centuries). Martini manages to infuse the old tradition of Byzantine with the more modern elegance and refinement of color found in his home town of Siena. The Byzantine School was characterized by emotionless figures set in a gold background. Although those features are indeed present in this work, Martini’s positioning of the hands betrays the modern innovation that was swirling around the art world at this time: depth creation and perspective. The mere placement of one hand on a book while the other raised in a blessing catapults this work into straight into the nascent stirrings of the Renaissance.
Sixtus IV appoints Bartolomeo Platina Prefect of the Vatican Library (Melozzo da Forlì) illustrates the appointment of Bartolomeo Sacchi as the first Prefect of the Vatican Library. Sacchi (known as Platina) had been put in charge of building the new Vatican Library, but during his momentous building project, he stripped marble, ancient sculptures, and other building material from ancient Roman buildings to incorporate within the new library. So although he helped beautify “new” Rome, it was at the expense of the old. Astonishingly, the painting was painted in only thirty days.
The painting shows Pope Sixtus IV surrounded by his cardinal and lay nephews, including Raffaele Riario (standing behind the Pope’s throne) and Giuliano della Rovere (the Cardinal in red), the future Pope Julius II, ominously known as il papá terrible. Girolamo Riario (in the blue) wears a gold chain, likely alluding to his recent appointment to burgher of the city of Rome and a member of the Roman nobility. The inclusion of his nephews in this group portrait is telling of Sixtus’ is a telling reminder of his unabashed use of the papal office to promote his family. Nepotism was absolutely not a new phenomenon, but contemporaries took more issue with Sixtus’ nepotism due to his relatively obscure birth (his father was a fisherman).
Platina is depicted kneeling at the Pope’s feet in gratitude for his new position. And, indeed, Platina would have been very thankful for his change in fortune; just a few years earlier, he had been imprisoned and tortured by Paul II, who had suspected Platina and other humanists of plotting against him. Interestingly, Platina was a great admirer of Lorenzo de’Medici, one of Sixtus’ bitter enemies.
The Vatican owns several of Raphael’s works, including one known as the Crowning of the Virgin (also known as the Oddi Altarpiece) (Raffaello Sanzio, 1502-04), which was originally intended for the altar of the Oddi Chapel in the church of St. Francesco al Prato in Perugia. It is an early work, and as such, it is the closest of his paintings to the style of his maestro Perugino. Like his final piece, Transfiguration, this work depicts two scenes, one on top of the other, but unlike his Transfiguration, this work fails to unify the two scenes into a single composition, leaving it feeling disjointed.
Another Raphael is known as the Madonna of Foligno (1511), which was commissioned by Sigismondo dei Conti for the high altar of St. Maria in Aracoeli (Rome). Unfortunately, Sigismondo died before he could provide the intended inscription on the plaque held by the angel, and none of his heirs wanted to presume what the inscription was supposed to be; thus, the angel was left holding a blank plaque. Sigismondo is shown on the right, kneeling by St. Jerome, while on the left, St. John the Baptist is standing next to St. Francis. The background of the scene may provide the motive for this ex voto altarpiece. In the distance is a town that is narrowingly missed by an oncoming meteorite.
Raphael’s last major piece in this museum is The Transfiguration, which was commissioned by then-Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (later, Pope Clement VII) for the cathedral of St. Giusto of Narbonne. Raphael, however, was notoriously slow at the time of this commission due to his immense popularity and ever-growing number of commissions. To speed Raphael’s work along, Cardinal Medici commissioned a second altarpiece from Raphael’s great rival, Sebastiano del Piombo. In response, Raphael determined to create a complex composition, which proved it be his final work.
Like Raphael’s two other works mentioned above, the Transfiguration separates the action into two distinct scenes. But here, the distinct scenes flow together into a single cohesive composition. The first is the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, when the divinity of Christ is revealed in the presence of the prophets Moses and Elias. The second depicts a possessed boy, surrounded by the disciples, who await Jesus’ return from Mount Tabor. The piece illustrates the transition from High Renaissance to Mannerism, which is typified by agitated movement, intense emotion, and deep color schemes.
Next on our list is the Vision of St. Helen (Veronese, 1580). St. Helen was the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great (the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity). According to the Church, St. Helen recovered a piece of the True Cross (the cross on which Jesus was crucified) from Palestine and took it back to the West as a relic.
Veronese was well-known for depicting female saints in luxurious silks and velvets, paying special attention to the folds and weight of the cloths. Additionally, St. Helen is placed in a setting that is reminiscent of a late sixteenth century Venetian room despite the fact that she died during the fourth century. Veronese does, however, add the marble columns in the background, maybe as a nod to her ancient roots.
The Entombment is considered to be one of Caravaggio’s greatest works, it was commissioned by Girolamo Vittrice for his family chapel in Santa Maria in Vallicella. Caravaggio deviated from the traditional iconography (as he typically would when painting religious themes), showing Christ being laid by Nicodemus and John on the Anointing Stone (the stone that is used to close the sepulchre). In fact, Caravaggio was known for his revolutionary treatment not only of religious figures but of art and painting in general. By all accounts, Caravaggio was irascible, violent, and unpredictable. (For an entertaining and informative podcast on Caravaggio’s life, check out Daniele Bolelli’s History on Fire, episode 11). And his character is reflected in his work.
Although apprenticed in a studio during his youth, Caravaggio was largely self-taught, allowing him to develop a distinctive style that (1) focused on light and its effects; and (2) depicted his figures as realistically as possible. You can see in his Entombment that the saints are shown without their usual halos and are not adorned in gold and light. Instead, Caravaggio’s saints are human, with human cares and human worries shown in their furrowed brows and crestfallen faces.
Finally, we get to the Communion of St Jerome (Domenichino, 1611-14), which was commissioned by the Congregation of St. Jerome of Charity for the high altar of St. Jerome della Carità in Rome. The work depicts St. Jerome taking his last communion before his death.
The positioning of the Eucharist speaks to the turbulent times, especially in terms of religion. This work was produced during the Counter-Reformation, which was characterized by the Catholic Church’s reaffirmation of its central doctrines, including transubstantiation and the worship of the martyrs. The Counter-Reformation was the Church’s response to the Protestant movements arising across the Western world. One of the tenants championed by the Protestants was that the Eucharist did not actually transform into the body of Christ during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, a process known as transubstantiation. Placing the host smackdab in the center of the painting was likely meant to promote the doctrine.
Indeed, despite artists’ personal religious leanings, they tended to try and stay on the right side of the Catholic Church publically. Mainly because it was the Church from which most of their commissions came. Indeed, a major attempt to stem the Protestant movement was the increase of commissions of art. At the time, Protestants believed that art in church equated to worship of a saint, and thereby worship of an idol, which was prohibited by the Ten Commandments. Therefore, the Catholic Church poured money into art to make its churches more beautiful to entice people to attend mass.
The Gregorian Etruscan Museum was the first museum dedicated solely to artifacts found in ancient Etruria (modern-day Tuscany, Lazio, and Umbria).
Etruscan cities were prosperous, independent city-states that were linked by culture, religion, and language. Because of their prosperity, trade flourished in this area, leaving many artifacts for archeologists to find and study. Etruria remained a dominant force in central Italy until the Etruscans supported the Roman Marius in Rome’s civil war and the region was fully incorporated into the burgeoning Roman Empire.
By far the most interesting room of this museum is Room IX, which houses imported Greek ceramics found in the ancient city of Vulci. Before we dive into the artwork, it is probably helpful to explain the different types and uses of each vessel.
The first ceramic depicted above, the Amphora, was used to hold both wine and oil. Its name was derived from the Greek word amphí, which means “on both sides” (a reference to the double handle), and the Greek word phérō, which means “carry.” Victors of the Panathenaic Games would receive so-called Panathenaic amphora filled with oil made from sacred olives.
The next ceramic, the Kantharos, was a deep vessel with a tall foot and two handles that rose above the lip of the cup. It was closely linked to the God Dionysus, who would typically be depicted with a Kantharos.
The Kyathos was a deep vessel with a low foot and a single handle that rose above the lip of the cup. It was used as a ladle, and in fact, the word “Kyathos” was a term of measurement, meaning 0.136 litres.
A Kylix was a wide vessel with two handles and was used during symposia (drinking parties). It was also used in a game known as kottabos, where a player would attempt to fling wine from a whirling kylix into a small container.
The Oinochoe was used in conjunction with the Kylix during symposia. It was the vessel which transported wine from a krater to the kylix. Its name was derived from the Greek word oînos, which means “wine,” and the Greek word chéō, which means “I pour” – pretty literal those Greeks, even if they did have awesome drinking parties.
Finally, the Hydria was used to hold and transport water. Its name was derived from the Greek word hydōr, which means “water.” This particular vessel had three handles, two on either side and a third protruding from the lip, which was used while carrying the vessel on one’s head.
Now that we have the types of ceramics straight, let’s dig into the actual works located in this room. The first major work is known as the Attic black figure Amphora by the Ptoion Painter, which juxtaposes a banquet scene, representing the world of man, with a scene depicting the Judgment of Paris, representing the world of the gods. The Ptoion Painter was well known for his depictions of this juxtaposition of the two universes. In fact, similar juxtapositions are also found painted in Etruscan tombs; these paintings are believed to have been done by Greek immigrant artists.
The Attic black figure Amphora of the E Group has been identified as being part of the “E Group,” a classification of amphorae that are thought to have been created by the Attic potter Exekias, who was active during the 6th century BC. This particular amphora depicts a victorious athlete lifting a large tripod on one side while on the other depicts a charioteer. Exekias was known to be fond of depicting horses, four of which appear on this amphora.
The Etruscan black figure Amphora by the Micali Painter is decorated with a battle between Iolaus, Athena, Heracles, Cycnus, Ares, and Phobos, among others. It has been attributed to the Painter of Micali, who was known for his disproportionate figures, reduced spaces, marked gestures, approximate anatomies, and ornamental details.
Rooms XVII and XVIII of the Gregorian Etruscan Museum house what were thought to be Etruscan, but were re-identified as Roman or Greek vases.
For instance, the Laconic Kylix with Prometheus and Atlas was made in Sparta during the early 6th century BC. It depicts Atlas, whose punishment for helping his brother Prometheus is to keep heaven and earth separated. Prometheus, on the other hand, was tied to a pole and presented as food for an eagle, who ate his liver every day, only for it to regrow every night. Comparatively, Atlas sounds like he got off lightly.
Room XIX of the Museum is dedicated to Attic ceramics ranging from 560 to 460 BC, which reached Etrusia via trade routes from Athens. In this room is the Panathenaic Attic Amphora of the Michigan Painter, which is typical of panathenaic amphorae. As mentioned above, panathenaic amphorae were given to the winners of the Panathenaic games. All such Amphorae were decorated with the goddess Athena, flanked by two small columns topped with a cockerel, a symbol of combative temperament, and the inscription “ton Athenethen athlon,” meaning “of the Athens contests.”
During the 6th century BC, ceramicists moved away from the traditional black-figure style in favor of the red-figure method, which allowed ceramicists to better define the figure’s details, since the details were now painted on instead of scratched into the ceramic. The “Bilingual” Attic Kylix shows the transition towards fully adopting the red-figure style, combining both methods into the single work. Indeed, the figure on the inside of the kylix was done in the black-figure style, while the figures on the outside surface are done in the red-figure style on a painted black background.
Attic black figure Amphora signed by Exekia is one of the most famous amphorae. The ceramicist Exekia, as mentioned above, was rather prolific, and this amphora is considered his masterpiece. It depicts Achilles and Ajax playing dice on one side and Castor and his horse Kyllaros and Pollux playing with his dog on the other.
For those unfamiliar with the Trojan War myth, Achilles is the Greek’s greatest fighter and is nearly invincible, save for his ankle (thus, our expression “Achilles’ heel”). Ajax is a fellow Greek warrior in the fight against Troy; in fact, it was said that he was second in bravery and strength only to Achilles. He is known for recovering Achilles’ body from the Trojans and for committing suicide after Achilles’ armor is awarded to Odysseus rather than to him. This scene obviously takes place before the tragic ending of these two mythical heroes. Castor and Pollux, depicted on the reverse, are mythical twins of Leda and Zeus, the father of the Gods, who had seduced Leda while he was in the guise of a swan. (Although according to some versions of the story, Pollux is the son of Zeus and Castor is the son of Leda’s husband, the King of Sparta.) The Greek gods had very messy love lifes.
Another famous ceramic is the Attic Kylix in the style of Douris, which depicts Heracles floating along inside a golden goblet (yes, a golden goblet) on his way to the island of Erytheia, where he will face the Geryon, the herdsman Eurytion, and the dog Orthros on his quest to capture a herd of cattle (his 10th labor). Heracles is shown in his usual iconography: the Nemean lion skin, the cub, and the bow.
The Attic Kantharos of the Vatican Class also uses Heracles’ life as its inspiration. This kantharos is a janiform with the face of Heracles on one side and the face of an African King on the other.
Historians believe that the King is a depiction of Busiris, the mythical Egyptian king who sacrificed any foreigner that came to Egypt in exchange for the total avoidance of famine. Heracles was such a foreigner who was captured and brought to the sacrificial altar, which turned out to be a disatorious mistake on the part of the Egyptians. Heracles escaped his bindings and massacred the entire Egyptian court.
The final vessel that I want to talk about is the Attic Kylix of the Painter of Oedipus. On the inside of the ceramic, Oedipus is depicted seated listening to a riddle put to him by the Sphinx of Thebes. To enter the city, Oedipus must answer the riddle correctly, which he is indeed able to do. Upon entering the city, however, Oedipus unwittingly married his mother, recently widowed Jocasta, Queen of Thebes. Giving Sigmund Freud the name for his famous “Oedipus Complex.”
The Octagonal Court was once known as the Cortile delle Statue because it was here that Pope Julius II displayed his collection of antique sculpture. Major works here include The River God (Arno), which dates from the age of Hadrian.
It is thought to be a personalization of the River Arno because the sculpture has a carving of a lion’s head, which possibly alludes to the Medici. (The lion’s head is hiding within the vase; see the picture below for a better view.) The Arno River is the river running through Florence, the city that the Medici unofficially ruled until they were formally invested as the Grand Dukes of Tuscany.
Another famous statue is the Lacoön, depicted below.
Lacoön depicts the moment when the priest Lacoön and his sons are killed by serpents after they tried to warn the Trojans about the wooden horse. According to Roman historian Pliny the Elder, this statute once graced the halls of Emperor Titus. The sculpture was rediscovered in 1506 and immediately acquired by Pope Julius II. It was during this time that Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel, and its influence can been identified in his depiction of the human body.
The Renaissance artists were also captivated by the Belvedere Apollo.
Apollo Belvedere (mid 2nd century A.D.) was considered to be bodily “perfection” by the Renaissance thinkers. It is believed to be a Roman copy of an earlier Greek bronze from 330 BC, but the decision to make the copy in marble presented structural problems, most significant of which was that statues made of bronze were hollow and therefore much lighter than statutes made of marble. To compensate for the weight, the sculptor placed a wedge of marble underneath Apollo’s left foot and added the support of a tree trunk behind the statue. Apollo came to the Vatican without hands, but – on the advice of Michelangelo – Pope Clement VII commissioned sculpture Giovanni Agnolo Montorsoli to restore the statue. Unfortunately, rather than simply sculpt hands for Apollo, Montorsoli cut off Apollo’s forearm and replaced it with his own design. This “restoration,” being made of marble, also needed support for its added weight, and Montorsoli inserted the block of marble that sits atop the tree trunk.
Another statue named for its location in the Papal Palace is the Belvedere Hermes. Hermes is depicted in his role of Psychopompos (if anyone watches Netflix’s Sabrina, the term should be familiar), the leader of souls to the underworld. He is identifiable via his travelling cloak, which has been thrown over his shoulder, then wrapped around his forearm, typical iconography for Psychopompos.
The last major masterpiece in the courtyard is Perseus Triumphant.
Perseus Triumphant is a relatively recent work, comparatively speaking. It was carved by renowned sculptor Antonio Canova in late 1800/early 1801. Perseus is shown holding Medusa’s severed head, dressed in Hermes’ winged cap, which he had borrowed for his adventure. Pope Pius VII Chiaramonti bought the statue, which he displayed on the pedestal that once held the Apollo Belvedere, but was currently unoccupied due to Napoleon’s forced art acquisition. Luckily, Perseus was of the same dimensions, weight, and proportions of the Apollo, as it was that piece of art that inspired Canova.
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 IIEnthroned, 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.
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.