How to Visit the Sistine Chapel and What to See

Sistine Chapel, Vatican City, Italy

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The Sistine Chapel is one of the main attractions to visit in Vatican City. The highlight of a visit to the Vatican Museums, the famous chapel contains ceiling and altar frescoes by Michelangelo and is considered one of the artist's greatest achievements. But the chapel contains more than just works by Michelangelo; it is decorated from floor to ceiling by some of the most famous names in Renaissance painting.

Visiting the Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel is the last room that visitors see when touring the Vatican Museums. It is always very crowded and difficult to see all of the works inside of it at close range. Visitors can rent audio guides or book one of a few guided tours of the Vatican Museums to learn more about the Sistine Chapel's history and artworks. You can avoid the huge crowds by taking a privileged entrance tour or a private after-hours tour.

It is important to note that, while the Sistine Chapel is part of the Vatican Museums tour, it is still used by the church for important functions, most famously being the site where the conclave to elect a new Pope convenes.

Sistine Chapel History

The grand chapel that is known around the world as the Sistine Chapel was built from 1475-1481 at the behest of Pope Sixtus IV (the Latin name Sixtus, or Sisto [Italian], lending its name to "Sistine"). The monumental room measures 40.23 meters long by 13.40 meters wide (134 by 44 feet) and reaches 20.7 meters (about 67.9 feet) above the ground at its highest point. The floor is inlaid with polychrome marble and the room contains an altar, a small choristers' gallery, and a six-paneled marble screen that divides the room into areas for clergy and congregants. There are eight windows lining the upper reaches of the walls.

Michelangelo's frescoes on the ceiling and the altar are the most famous paintings in the Sistine Chapel. Pope Julius II commissioned the master artist to paint these parts of the chapel in 1508, some 25 years after the walls had been painted by the likes of Sandro Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Pinturrichio, and others.

What to See in the Sistine Chapel

Sistine Chapel CeilingThe ceiling is divided into 9 central panels, which depict The Creation of the World, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve, and The Story of Noah. Perhaps the most famous of these nine panels are The Creation of Adam, which shows the figure of God touching the fingertip of Adam in order to bring him to life, and Fall from Grace and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, which depicts Adam and Eve partaking of the forbidden apple in the Garden of Eden, then leaving the Garden in shame. To the sides of the central panels and in the lunettes, Michelangelo painted grandiose images of the prophets and sibyls.

The Last Judgment Altar Fresco: Painted in 1535, this giant fresco above the Sistine Chapel altar depicts some gruesome scenes from The Last Judgment. The composition depicts hell as is described by the poet Dante in his Divine Comedy. At the center of the painting is a judgmental, vengeful Christ and he is surrounded on all sides by nude figures, including apostles and saints. The fresco is divided into the blessed souls, at left, and the damned, at right. Note the image of the flayed body of Saint Bartholomew, on which Michelangelo painted his own face.

The North Wall of the Sistine Chapel: The wall to the right of the altar contains scenes from the life of Christ. The panels and artists represented here are (from left to right, beginning from the altar):

  • The Baptism of Jesus by Perugino
  • The Temptation of Jesus by Botticelli
  • The Calling of the First Disciples by Ghirlandaio
  • The Sermon on the Mount by Rosselli
  • The Handing of the Keys to Saint Peter by Perugino (a very noteworthy work among the wall frescoes)
  • The Last Supper by Rosselli

The South Wall of the Sistine Chapel: The south (or left) wall contains scenes from the life of Moses. The panels and artists represented on the south wall are (from right to left, starting from the altar):

  • Moses' Journey Through Egypt by Perugino
  • Scenes from the Life of Moses Before His Journey Through Egypt by Botticelli
  • Crossing the Red Sea by Rosselli and d'Antonio
  • The Ten Commandments by Rosselli
  • The Punishment of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram by Botticelli
  • Moses' Final Acts and Death by Luca Signorelli

Sistine Chapel Tickets

Admission to the Sistine Chapel is included with a ticket to the Vatican Museums. The ticket lines for the Vatican Museums can be very long. You can save time by buying Vatican Museum tickets online ahead of time.