Consecrated to the Virgin Mary in 1483, the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel was created by Renaissance men: Sixtus IV and Julius II, popes who commissioned its artworks in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and the artists Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, and, most famously, Michelangelo, who transformed the chapel into a glory to behold.
Michelangelo’s frescoes, painted in bright colors to be visible from the floor, took four years, tormenting the artist, who penned a poem complaining of his aching spine. Completing the ceiling in 1512, he returned 24 years later to paint the “Last Judgment” on the altar wall.
Here are a few more fun facts about this High Renaissance masterpiece:
Well plastered: Michelangelo’s ceiling has lost only one piece in 500 years. In 1797, an explosion from a nearby gunpowder depot caused a chunk of sky in “The Great Flood” to fall to the floor.
Naked Ambition: Michelangelo painted 20 muscular men, the ignudi, whose bare bodies scandalized Pope Adrian VI. He wanted them painted over. They weren’t.
Seers and Augurs: Bordering the chapel’s ceiling are 12 figures who prophesied the coming of Christ. The seven men are Old Testament prophets. The five women are pagan sibyls from ancient Greek and Roman mythology.
With a Little Support: Contrary to popular belief, Michelangelo did not paint his masterpiece flat on his back but was supported while leaning backward onto scaffolding he cleverly engineered.
Crowd Control: More than 350 figures are portrayed on the ceiling, including families with children and angels and demons, some of them wearing the faces of Michelangelo’s contemporaries.
God Heads: Michelangelo painted the Deity’s face five times on the ceiling. In the “Last Judgment,” he painted a beardless Christ who looks like the Greek god Apollo.
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Behind the Pigment: After Michelangelo died, the Vatican ordered loincloths painted over the genitalia of the “Last Judgment” characters. During the 20th-century restoration, many were stripped away, revealing that one of the figures was actually a woman.
Revenge of the Artist: When Vatican functionary Biagio da Cesena complained of the nakedness in the “Last Judgment,” Michelangelo painted Cesena as a demigod of the underworld, with donkey ears and a snake biting him in the crotch.
Pope Smoke: When smoke goes up the chapel chimney to signal the selection of the Holy Father, what makes it white? A likely suspect: potassium chlorate, which flames fast, lofting fumo bianco skyward.
This article was written by Andrew Nelson for the August/September issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.