16 Baffling Facts About the Sistine Chapel Murals That Even Tour Guides Might Not Know

The murals on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are one of the biggest pieces of artwork from the Renaissance period that can still be seen today. Its size, which is 1/6 the size of a soccer field, is absolutely mind-blowing especially if you think about the fact that all the paintings were completed in less than 5 years. Interestingly, Michelangelo, who considered himself a sculptor, but not an artist, had never painted murals before. Maybe this was the reason why this great Italian sculptor was not very eager to work on the Chapel. But some biographers think that it was his desire to prove his skill that ultimately made him agree to do the work.

We decided to learn more about the work of this genius artist that up to 30,000 people come to see every day.

The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican was built during the period from 1473–1481 at the order of Pope Sixtus IV who the Chapel was named after. To paint a mural on the walls of the Chapel, the most famous artists of the time were invited, including Sandro Botticelli. The ceiling got a lot of attention, too: artist Piermatteo d’Amelia drew golden stars on the blue background.

In 1504, cracks appeared on the ceiling and they were fixed with bricks. But Pope Julius II decided to decorate the ceiling again and in 1508, the famous Michelangelo Buonarroti from Florence started working on his greatest creation.

Since 1871, the Sistine Chapel is the only place where the election of the new Popes is done. This is the place where the white smoke rises, signaling that the new head of the Catholic Church is soon going to be presented to the world.

16 Baffling Facts About the Sistine Chapel Murals That Even Tour Guides Might Not Know

  • Despite a popular misconception, Michelangelo wasn’t doing the work lying on some sort of a deck, but he was standing with his head back. The work on the mural (and we are not exaggerating) cost the artist his health (even though at the moment when he started in 1508, he was only 33 years old). He developed an ear infection because of the paint that got on his face, and he also had arthritis and scoliosis. More than that, because of the lack of light during the process, Michelangelo could only read text if he lifted it high above his head.
  • Michelangelo worked using the affresco technique: the technique involved covering the ceiling with as much plaster as it was planned to cover with paintings in one day. Unlike the al secco technique where you draw on dry plaster, affresco allows you to create something that will last for a longer time. If the plastered surface wasn’t painted on the day it was applied, it was removed and the next day the plaster was put on back again. Some parts of the murals were done al secco, which led to the fact that during the restoration from 1980-1994, the shadows of some figures and the eyes disappeared.

16 Baffling Facts About the Sistine Chapel Murals That Even Tour Guides Might Not Know

Right next to the head and the arm, you can see the line of plaster that was applied before Michelangelo started this piece of the mural.

  • Some people believe that Michelangelo created all of the paintings alone. However, the data collected during the restoration in 1980-1994, says that at least 3 other people helped the great artist to draw putti (the pictures of boys often seen in the Renaissance period) and the architectural parts.
  • On the sides of the central scenes of the mural, Michelangelo placed a picture of the 7 prophets of Israel and 5 Sibyls — the oracles that in Ancient Greece were able to predict the future. There were 10 Sibyls and we still have no idea why the artist chose these 5. According to one of the versions, they symbolize different places on Earth.
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