The Sistine Chapel is one of the most famous painted interior spaces in the world, and virtually all of this fame comes from the breathtaking painting of its ceiling from about 1508-1512. The chapel was built in 1479 under the direction of Pope Sixtus IV, who gave it his name (“Sistine” derives from “Sixtus”). The location of the building is very close to St. Peter’s Basilica and the Belvedere Courtyard in the Vatican. One of the functions of the space was to serve as the gathering place for cardinals of the Catholic Church to gather in order to elect a new pope. Even today, it is used for this purpose, including in the recent election of Pope Francis in March 2013.
Sistine Chapel as it appeared before Michelangelo's ceiling fresco
Sistine Chapel as it appeared before Michelangelo’s ceiling fresco
Originally, the Sistine Chapel’s vaulted ceiling was painted blue and covered with golden stars. The walls were adorned with frescoes by different artists, such as Pietro Perugino, who painted Christ delivering the keys to St. Peter there in 1482.
In 1508, Pope Julius II (reigned 1503-1513) hired Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the chapel, rather than leaving it appear as it had. Before this time, Michelangelo had gained fame through his work as a sculptor, working on such great works as the Pieta and David. He was not, however, highly esteemed for his work with the brush. According to Vasari, the reason why Julius gave such a lofty task to Michelangelo was because of the instigation of two artistic rivals of his, the painter Raphael and the architect Bramante. Vasari says that the two hoped that Michelangelo would fall flat, since he was less accustomed to painting than he was to sculpting, or alternatively he would grow so aggravated with the Julius that he would want to depart from Rome altogether.