An arched ceiling decorated with many rectangular frescos

Another Country

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We set out in the height of the warm afternoon — well into the low nineties — to visit a very different country from the antiquities of Rome, or even the flashy design of modern Italy. We went to the Vatican — technically the world’s smallest independent nation, with a permanent population of just under 500 people. We usually had that many just in the same room with us, as we visited the galleries and the most famous churches of the little country.

We had a different guide today. Carolina, who guided us yesterday and the day before, was a Roman who loved her city and had learned about it for her job. But Patricia, who took us into the Vatican galleries, was an archaeologist and an art historian, a true scholar who went into guiding because she loved her subject. She was a great deal of fun to listen to, going into much greater depth than Carolina had done. She and J got along great.

The first thing Patricia explained to us is, “The Vatican galleries were never intended as a museum. They are used that way now, but they were designed for the highest ranking, most privileged guests of the Pope himself. When you walk through this space, you have to imagine yourself, not shuffling along amid a crowd of eager tourists, but strolling in luxury, surrounded by a small handful of cardinals, monarchs and ambassadors. Perhaps there are musicians playing in the background. A waiter serves you a glass of chilled wine. Think about it as it would feel to you under those circumstances.”

We did, and it made an enormous difference. There is a peace here, and a sense of eternity — Patricia told us, “Marble has always signified eternity and that is why Rome is covered in marble,” — that you can’t really feel if you stay aware of the crowds. But let your consciousness melt away into the sixteenth century and the environment the papal court was trying to make, and you feel it.


This is not a museum in other ways as well. No museum, no matter how wealthy or powerful, has ever been capable of amassing a collection like this. It’s not simply the best art of its time, but the best art of several centuries of time — the Church being the only institution since the Roman emperors themselves with the resources to keep collecting at that level over such a long period. In addition, many of the pieces are reclaimations from those emperors, because the Church was collecting during the Renaissance when the old Greek and Roman art and philosophy were returning to the public consciousness. “The Popes were educated men,” Patricia reminded us. “They understood the new philosophies of their age, and they were interested in the arts and sciences. When scholars began taking an interest in ancient Greece and Rome, they realized they were sitting practically right on top of a treasure trove of art from that period that nobody was paying attention to yet. So they set workmen to dig it up and assemble a collection of the finest.”

They certainly did assemble a collection of the finest. Ancient Roman busts and statues, Egyptian porphyry basins, Greek vases and sculpture, were all represented in the antiquities section. You don’t really grasp, or at least I didn’t really grasp, the full power of the Church at its height until you look at what they could acquire for private use. It’s simply on a different order of magnitude from any museum collection I had ever seen.

A huge bowl of reddish stone, standing on three legs on a tiled hexagon.  Two marble statues occupy niches in the background.
Egyptian porphyry basin at the center of the rotunda.

The antiquities occupied the first segment of the galleries. There was a hall full of sculptures of emperors; a hall filled with sculpture of Greek and Roman deities; and a statuary zoo that was filled with statuary of all different types of animals, real and mythological. (At the time, admittedly, the distinction was somewhat nebulous.) Patricia pointed out that this was a period in which there was a great deal of renewed interest in the natural world… but where more temporal rulers obtained living specimens for their menageries, this institution with its eyes on eternity accumulated its menagerie in marble, bronze and stone.

Busts of Roman emperors lined up on two long shelves
Busts of Roman emperors.
A hall with statues of animals along the right-hand wall
The marble menagerie

And there was a spectacular rotunda filled with twelve statues, one in each of a dozen arched niches carved into the wall. The center of the room contained that Egyptian porphyry basin I mentioned earlier, a dozen feet wide and made of solid stone. But the incredible thing here was the dome.

Above the basin was a dome with windows designed at precisely the correct angles to turn the room into a clock. Each hour, a shaft of golden sunlight fell directly on one of the dozen statues surrounding the edge of the room. Between the hours, the light moved between one statue and the next. We arrived at just about 2PM, and saw the light hit a beautiful marble muse. It was breathtaking.

Two statues in niches; the farther one is illuminated by a shaft of sunlight. Busts occupy the spaces between the niches.
The dome is a sundial — this statue was lit a little after 2pm.
An arch supported by marble columns, one of which is visible on the right.  A decorated, vaulted ceiling stretches beyond it.

“Imagine, you have never seen the Internet or CGI or even a photograph,” Patricia pointed out to us. “This would be magic to you.” I could well believe it. It was very nearly magic to me.


After the hall of antiquities came a hall of tapestries. I wasn’t as excited by those, but the ceilings in that long hall were incredible. Fresco and molding combined to make a pattern like a patchwork quilt, but about thirty million times more luxurious and elegant. Many years ago, when I was only about ten, I went to Hampton Court with my parents on a vacation to England. I fell in love on the spot with the incredible ceilings there, and I have admired beautiful, intricate ceiling art ever since.

An arched ceiling decorated with many rectangular frescos
A ceiling decorated in subdued colors, mostly light brown.

Today, I saw what Hampton Court had been attempting to copy. The original is better.

After the tapestry room, there was the Hall of Maps. This gallery, unlike the antiquities and the tapestry art, did not contain a collection by the Renaissance popes of already-made art. Instead, it held a series of maps commissioned and painted explicitly for the gallery. (So was the ceiling work in the tapestry room, but the tapestries themselves were collected.) They were painted by the friar Ignazio Danti, artist and geographer, at the order of Pope Gregory XIII in 1580.

A large painted map of the northern Adriatic Sea. The water is decorated with three boats, a raft, and several monsters.
Large wall painting depicting the northern part of Adriatic Sea.

“That was the age of discovery,” Patricia reminded us, “and the popes, like other educated Europeans, were very much fascinated by the explorers’ stories of new lands. Maps of all kinds were extremely popular then.” Instead of collecting maps of the newly explored areas of the world, however, Pope Gregory XIII decided to commission a precise, incredibly detailed series of maps covering the whole of Italy. They line the long gallery, organized from the south to the north of the country, and they include some territory like Corsica, which isn’t Italian now but it was then. Patricia told us that many visitors to this day can look at the maps on the walls and find the tiny village where their grandparents came from, because even the smallest hamlets are represented.

We left the map room with reluctance. But the best was yet to come. Down the stairs we went, and Patricia led us through the doorway of the Sistine Chapel.

The Sistine Chapel

Everyone knows the Sistine Chapel in principle, of course. I’d seen photographs since before I can remember, but it’s one of the few places I have ever been where the original blows even the greatest professional pictures away.

The Chapel is named after Pope Sixtus IV, who commissioned its construction in the late 15th century. Since 1492, it’s been used to house the papal conclave, at which the College of Cardinals elects a new Pope when the position falls vacant. It’s a long, high rectangular building with surprisingly little decoration on the exterior — all the ornament is inside, where every inch is covered in frescoes. It’s a little difficult to understand exactly what’s going on amid all that paint, so we were very glad of Patricia’s explanations.

A rectangular stone building in the background, with a hedge in front.
The Sistine Chapel from the outside

In keeping with the Renaissance passion for mathematical order, the Chapel is constructed in an exact ratio: the length is twice the height and three times the width. The ceiling is a barrel vault which was originally painted blue with a scattering of golden stars, until Pope Julius II brought Michelangelo to redo it in 1508. The lower three stories have paintings by other artists — hangings of gold and silver (painted hangings, not real ones) on the lowest story to replace where tapestries used to hang; then on the second level, a story-sequence in paintings of biblical scenes down each long wall. One side is covered in scenes from the life of Moses; the other, scenes from the life of Jesus. Above those, the third level has painted images of the previous popes, from St. Peter onward.

Those were all painted by lesser mortals. But above them, Michelangelo takes over.

First, just above the arched windows, he painted a series of the ‘ancestors’ of Jesus. I put ancestors in quotes because this lineage runs from King David in the paternal line through Joseph, but because Joseph was allegedly not actually Jesus’ father, I’m not quite sure how this lineage is supposed to work. No matter; they’re all there, in paint that fairly jumps out at you from the wall.

In this view of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the center is occupied by rectangular frescos; there are triangular sections on either side of it.
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Michelangelo , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

You see, Michelangelo, as he would have been the first to tell you — and did tell everyone he could get to listen to him — was no painter. He was a sculptor and an architect. He knew how to draw in order to design his three-dimensional buildings and sculpture. This means that, when he set out to draw the original designs for his Sistine Chapel paintings, he did it the only way he knew how: three-dimensionally. And by doing that, he created an entirely new style of painting. His figures look so vividly three dimensional that we were literally unable to determine exactly what parts of the overall design were painted on, and what parts were molded around the windows beneath.

Above the Ancestors of Jesus is a ring of the major prophets from the Old Testament, and above that — finally fully onto the vaulted ceiling — is Michelangelo’s famous nine-segment design of the creation and fall of humanity. At one end is the creation of the world, its division into light and darkness, land and water. At the other end is Adam and Eve’s temptation by the serpent and their judgment and eviction from Eden. In the middle, directly over the center of the chapel, is the famous fresco in which God creates Adam and brings him to life with a touch of fingertips.

Michelangelo thought he was finished, after four years working on that ceiling. But in 1535, he was brought back — an old man by that time — to design and paint the Last Judgment on the wall behind the altar. It took him until 1541 to complete it, and the final product faced bitter controversy… both because Michelangelo painted his human figures naked for the judgment, showing that they had no way to hide themselves; and also because the judgment as Michelangelo painted it was a dark, terrifying time, and his Jesus was angry and arguably even cruel. This was the end of the world, and the painter did not pull his punches. The blue background is the blue of emptiness, while clusters of humans huddle in fear on scraps of cloud, awaiting their fate. Only one is in a safe place: Mary, who according to Church doctrine was the only human born without original sin, huddles against Jesus’ side, protected on his own cloud. But even she looks frightened — for others, if not for herself.

The Last Judgement
Michelangelo , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This fresco was painted by an aging man who was beginning to contemplate his own eventual death and was inevitably becoming uneasy about it. It showed.

J and I spent as long in the Sistine Chapel as we could get away with. They were moving people through with only a minute or two to look, but we managed to snag a couple of the chairs along the side where we were out of the way of the shuffling masses, and just stared. For about half an hour, which was as long as we felt comfortable staying while everyone else was being moved along past us. Had we not had reason to feel that we were overstaying our welcome, I could have gladly sat there for hours, just soaking up the colors and the incredible three-dimensional-appearing figures.

The final stop on our tour of the Vatican was St. Peter’s Basilica. But this is running long, so I’ll tell you about that next time.

2 responses to “Another Country”

  1. Gary McGath Avatar

    I wasn’t aware of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. In a way it’s a more interesting work than the more famous parts, dealing with one of the more unpleasant aspects of Christian doctrine. I just came across a YouTube video that combines it with Verdi’s Dies Irae. It’s terrifying.

    1. Naomi Avatar

      It was definitely more interesting than the more famous ceiling to me, and so were his prophets around the high edge of the wall before you got into the Genesis images. That’s part of what made the Chapel blow me away — there was so MUCH there which you don’t usually hear about or see in the pictures that are all over the place. And they were at least as wonderful as the ones you do see everywhere.

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