The most famous chapel in the papal palace. It was built for Pope sixtus iv for papal functions and serves as palatine and court chapel. (see vatican; vatican city.) The design by the architect Giovannino de'Dolci is a rectangular brick structure with travertine corners and window projections. It has six arched windows on each of the two main walls and a barrel-vaulted ceiling, and contains a simple interior space which is divided into choir and nave by a screen. On the right side is the cantoria for the Sistine Choir.
On Oct. 27, 1481, after the completion of construction, a contract for its decoration was drawn between the Pope's architect, Giovannino de'Dolci, and the painters Rosselli, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and perugino. Other painters—Signorelli, Bartolomeo della Gatta, Pintoricchio, and Fra Diamante—assisted in the project. The vaulted ceiling was painted to simulate a blue heaven studded with gold stars. Between the windows at the top of the walls were placed portraits of popes, standing in shell niches. Below these, as the main feature of the decoration, was painted a series of scenes from the life of Moses and of Christ complementing each other on the left and right walls, respectively, as one faces the altar. An "Assumption of the Virgin" originally painted on the altar wall above two of the scenes was later removed, together with the two scenes, to make room for michelan gelo's Last Judgment. These wall decorations were dedicated on the feast day of the Assumption, 1483.
In 1508 Pope julius ii finally persuaded Michelangelo to undertake the redecoration of the vaulted ceiling. This monumental project was completed in 1513. In this gigantic enterprise Michelangelo attempted to blend the Christian doctrine of the fall of man and his need for salvation with Neoplatonic ideas current in Renaissance Italy, ideas that are present also in Michelangelo's own sonnets. The Christian doctrine of the hopelessness of man when left to himself is illustrated in nine scenes running down the center of the ceiling, beginning with the creation and ending with the drunkenness of Noah. In the temptation episode man chooses to disobey the command of God. In the Noah scene he cannot even control his personal behavior.
God's intervention to save man is then illustrated in scenes at the four corners of the ceiling vault, depicting episodes from the Old Testament in which the Hebrews were delivered from disaster. The theme is then carried on by the huge figures of the Prophets and their classical counterparts, the sibyls, enthroned along the lower edge of the vault. The Prophets and the Cumean sibyl had announced the coming of a deliverer. Christ Himself does not appear in the ceiling decoration. However, in the lunettes along the top of the walls are groups of figures presumably representing His ancestors. The scenes from the life of Christ along the right wall, already mentioned, then take their place in the entire scheme that is concluded by Michelangelo's huge Last Judgment on the end-wall, painted many years later in 1548. The Neoplatonic element injected into the decoration of the ceiling is present in the restless, ideal, nude figures of youths seated on the pedestal projections of the illusionistic architectural framework for the scenes along the center of the ceiling. Renaissance Neoplatonism saw in the beauty of the human form a reflection of God's beauty from which the
forms emanated. Their restlessness suggests their unhappiness in the human shell and their desire to be reabsorbed into God, the source from which they issued.
Bibliography: e. steinmann, Die Sixtinische Kapelle, 2 v. (Munich 1901–05). c. de tolnay, Michelangelo, v. 2, 5 (Princeton 1960). e. t. dewald, Italian Painting 1200–1600 (New York 1961) 325–331, 378–394.
[e. t. dewald]