Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Letter S - SISTINE CHAPEL

Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics


Constantine, Rome's first Christian Emperor, erected and dedicated a basilica to St. Peter, Christ's first representative on earth, above the apostle's tomb. The basilica became home to the popes, Peter's successors, who required their own chapel. Several Renaissance popes undertook construction and decoration of the capella papalis, notably Sixtus IV, the Franciscan friar Francesco della Rovere (1414-1484), who reigned as pope from 1471 to 1484, and Sixtus's nephew, Julius II, the Franciscan Giuliano della Rovere (1443-1513), who reigned from 1503 to 1513. Sixtus and Julius were clerics, generals, and patrons of culture and the arts. Sixtus had the purpose-built chapel abut the original St. Peter's. Julius laid the cornerstone of the present-day St. Peter's and worked to complete decoration of his uncle's chapel.


The brick Sistine Chapel (Sistina) was designed by the Florentine architect Gionvani de Dolci and built between 1475 and 1483 by Baccio Pontelli proportionate to the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem: 130 ft long by 43 ft wide by 65 ft high. The Chapel was consecrated in August 1483, the anniversary of Sixtus's election, and dedicated to the Virgin of the Assumption.

Structure and Decoration. The Sistina consists of four stories. The basement and mezzanine below the chapel are each divided into nine rooms, the latter occupied by the offices of the Masters of Ceremonies (one of whom, Paris de Grassis in 1518 declared the Sistina the first chapel in the world, both for its majesty and for its structure). The attic above housed the Pope's guards, for the Sistina was originally a chapel and a fortified bastion of the Vatican Palaces. Art was used to illuminate stories for the illiterate and recall doctrinal messages for the literate, for services were long and filled with meandering eyes and minds. The frescoes adorning the Sistina's walls and ceiling portray biblical and papal history and spirituality as well as the story of humanity as intended by God from the creation on the first day to judgment on the last day, encompassing ante legem, sub legem, sub gratia in the ancient formula. In 15th-century fresco, cartoons or full-scale drawings of a composition were first executed on large sheets of heavy paper. They were then cut into sections, whose shapes coincided with areas to be painted. In the technique of buon fresco, a 3/4-inch layer of rough plaster (arriccio) was applied to the surface. Just before painting, a finishing smooth 9/16-inch layer of finer plaster (intonachino) was applied. Actual fresco painting, which must take place in a window of about 6 hours before the intonachino dries, leaves little time for rethinking and little space for error. The cartoon was perforated along key contours, mounted, and then dusted (spolvero) or incised (incisione) along its contours to transfer the outline of the design to the fresco.

Walls. The interior walls of the Sistina are divided into three zones. Leo X (Giovanni de Medici, 1475-1521, the Franciscan who succeeded Julius II and reigned from 1513 to 1521) commissioned Raphael in 1515 to design 10 scenes from the lives of Saints Peter and Paul to decorate the lowest zone with trompe l'oeil curtains. From Raphael's cartoons Pieter van Aelst (in Brussels) wove tapestries of gold and silver thread that were hung in the lowest zone. (These Leonine tapestries were stolen in 1527 but later recovered. They were hung again in the Raphael Anniversary Year, 1983.) A 12-chorister cantoria overhangs the chapel floor at this level.

The iconographic program conceived by Sixtus IV for the middle zone of the walls compares the Old and New Covenants. Corresponding events in chronological cycles of the lives of Moses and Christ appear in 12 (11 . 18 ft) parallel en face frescoes. The thematic subtext is the evolution of the Evangelical Law of Christ over the Written Law of Moses. This zone was frescoed (July 1481 to May 1482) by the 15th century's greatest artists: Sandro Botticelli, Piero di Cosimo, Bartolomeo della Gatta, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Francesco Granacci, Pietro Perugino, Bernardino Betti Pinturicchio, Cosimo Rosselli, and Luca Signorelli. (The frescoes by Signorelli and Ghirlandaio were replaced with frescoes by Matteo da Lecce and Hendrik van den Broeck.) To promote unity and harmony, frescoes on opposite walls depicting corresponding chronological scenes were awarded to the same atelier.

In the highest zone are 14 windows and false niches with scallop-shell backs about 8 feet high each portraying the full-length standing effigy of a pope in colorful gowns. This gallery of 28 pontiffs is arranged in chronological order based on the papal history of Bartolomeo Platina, Sixtus' librarian.

Last Judgment. While Clement VII (Giulio de Medici, 1478-1534, reigned from 1523 to 1534) commissioned Michelangelo to execute a Last Judgment on the altar wall, in 1536 Paul III (Alessandro Farnese, 1468-1549, reigned from 1534 to 1549) forced him to execute the fresco. This was 25 years after Michelangelo had completed the chapel ceiling (see below). In 1541, Michelangelo unveiled his 45- by 40-foot picture of the last act of human history. Michelangelo adopted the iconographic tradition of symmetry around a central dynamic Christ the Judge with the heavenly zone above and a terrestrial zone below, dividing the Blessed, raised to Paradise on Christ's right, from the Damned, destined for hell on his left.