The Churches of Rome

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The Vatican and the Sistine Chapel

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St. Pietro in Vaticano, 324, 1506-1615
St. Peter's Mausoleum

If Michelangelo's dome were only not so beautiful...

Michelangelo, who became chief architect in 1546, designed this perfect dome. At the time of his death (1564), the dome was finished as far as the base drum. The dome was vaulted between 1585 and 1590 by the architect Giacomo della Porta assisted by the extraordinary Domenico Fontana, who was probably the best engineer of the day. Fontana built the lantern the following year, and the ball was placed in 1593.

The statue of St. Peter (late 13th cent)

The first Basilica over Peter's Grave

In the 1st century AD, the site of St. Peter's Basilica was occupied by the Circus of Nero and a cemetery. According to ancient tradition, St. Peter was martyred in the Circus and buried nearby. His simple grave was remembered and visited by the faithful, and in 324, Emperor Constantine began construction on a great basilica over the tomb. Contrary to popular misconception, Saint Peter's is not a cathedral, as it is not the seat of a bishop. It is properly termed a papal basilica. The Archbasilica of Rome is St. Giovanni in Laterano.

In the mid-15th century it was decided that the old basilica should be rebuilt. Pope Nicholas V asked architect Bernardo Rossellino to start adding to the old church. This was abandoned after a short while, but in the late 15th century Pope Sixtus IV had the Sistine Chapel started nearby.

Construction on the current building began under Pope Julius II in 1506 and was completed in 1615 under Pope Paul V. Donato Bramante was to be the first chief architect. Many famous artists worked on the "Fabbrica di San Pietro" (as the complex of building operations were officially called). Michelangelo, who served as main architect for a while, designed the dome, and Bernini designed and cast the massive bronze baldachine over the modest fisherman's tomb.

Bernini's baldachine over the altar of St. Peter.
Photo Wikipedia

St. Peter's Square (1656-1667), here seen from the roof of the Basilica, is a superbly designed urban space. It was conceived by Bernini during Pope Alexander VII's reign. The Vatican Oblisk at its center and the two fountains at the foci of the ellipse together with the radial lines of its pavement draw the pilgrims towards the fassade of the church crowned by Michelangelo's dome. - The Via Conziliatore and its fascist-style buildings leading from the Bridge and the Castello di Sant'Angelo to the Pontifical Basilica was constructed on order of Mussolini for the Great Jubilee of 1950 - by demolishing the intervenining quarter.

Capella Sistina, 1508-1541
One of the reasons for coming to Rome

The chapel with Michelangelo's Last Judgement over the altar

Michelangelo's Ceiling after the restoration 1984-94.

Creation of Renaissance Man 1510

Iesaia 1509

Ezechiel 1510

Jonah 1511

God turning his behind on the world he created, the Church and the Pope, painted 1511 after Michelangelo had a quarrel with the Pope.
He did not return until 36 years later to paint the Last Judgement

The Last Judgement (1537-41)

Michelangelo's last years

In 1527, the Medici were again expelled from Florence, and Michelangelo, who was politically a Republican in spite of his close ties with the Medici, took an active part in the 1527-29 war against the Medici up to the capitulation in 1530 (although in a moment of panic he had fled in 1529) and supervised Florentine fortifications. During the months of confusion and disorder in Florence, when he was proscribed for his participation in the struggle, it appears that he was hidden by the Prior of San Lorenzo. A number of drawings on the walls of a concealed crypt under the Medici Chapel have been attributed to him, and ascribed to this period. After the reinstatement of the Medici he was pardoned, and set to work once more on the Chapel which was to glorify them until. In 1534, he left Florence again and settled in Rome for the thirty years remaining to him. He was at once forcefully commissioned by Pope Paul III Farnese to paint the missing Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, which affords the strongest possible contrast with his own Ceiling.
He began work on it in 1536. In the interim there had been the Sack of Rome and the Reformation, and the confident humanism and Christian Neoplatonism of the Ceiling had curdled into the personal pessimism and despondency of the Judgment. The very choice of subject is indicative of the new mood, as is the curious fact that the mouth of Hell gapes over the altar itself where, during services, stands a crucifix symbolizing Christ standing between Man and Doom.
It was unveiled in 1541 and caused a sensation equalled only by his own work of thirty years earlier. It was the only work by him to be as much reviled as praised, and only narrowly to escape destruction, though it did not escape the mutilation of having many of the nude figures 'clothed' after his death. Most of the ideas of Mannerism are traceable implicitly or explicitly in the Judgment and, more than ever, it served to imprint the idea that the scope of painting is strictly limited to the exploitation of the nude, preferably in foreshortened - and therefore difficult - poses. Paul III, who had commissioned the Judgment, immediately commissioned two more frescoes for his own chapel, the Cappella Paolina; these were begun in 1542 and completed in 1550. Michelangelo, 84, died in Rome in 1564.

The Quattrocento Frescoes of the Sistine Chapel

Overwhelmed by Michelangelos ceiling the visitor overlooks the cycle of 12 large (350x570 cm!) frescoes, which at half-height cover the side walls of the chapel. Painted by some of the greatest painters of the Florentine and Umbrian Schools, they predate Michelangelos work. In addition they tell stories, which are often obscure to the modern mind. To prepare the future visitor I add reproductions of all twelve paintings with detailed descriptions from Web Gallery of Art..

The paintings are to be read in pairs, six from the New Testament on the northern and six from the Old Testament on the southern wall. Thus, for example, the Baptism of Christ faces the Circumcision of Moses' son both by Perugino. - Which is the order in which I shall present them here.

A comparison of the pairs of scenes shows that the objective of this arrangement was to show how the new religion of Christ was deeper and more spiritual than the Jewish religion. Thus the pair of frescoes showing the Baptism and the Circumcision emphasize how baptism - prefigured, according to Augustine and many of the Fathers of Church, by circumcision - represents a "spiritual” circumcision

Northern Wall - Pietro Perugino and Pinturicchio, Christ's Baptism. There are two secondary scenes,
Christ Preaching on the right and the Sermon of John the Baptist on the left. 1482

Southern Wall - Pietro Perugino and Pinturicchio, Moses journey into Egypt, where an angel tells him to circumcise his second son, 1482

Northern Wall -Sandro Botticelli, Christ's threefold temptation by the Devil, as described in the Gospel of Matthew,

The first temptation is seen in the background, with the devil disguised as a hermit. At top left, up on the mountain, he is challenging Christ to turn stones into bread; in the center, we see the two standing on a temple, with the Devil attempting to persuade Christ to cast himself down; on the right-hand side, finally, he is showing the Son of God the splendour of the world's riches.

On the right in the background, three angels have prepared a table for the celebration of the Eucharist, a scene which only becomes comprehensible when seen in conjunction with the event in the foreground of the fresco. The connection between these two events is clarified by the reappearance of Christ with three angels in the middle ground on the left of the picture, where He is apparently explaining the incident occurring in the foreground to the heavenly messengers: the celebration of a Jewish sacrifice, conducted daily before the Temple in accordance with ancient custom. The high priest is receiving the blood-filled sacrificial bowl, while several people are bringing animals and wood as offerings.

At first, the inclusion of this Jewish sacrificial scene in the Christ cycle would appear extremely puzzling; however, its explanation may be found in the typological interpretation. The Jewish sacrifice portrayed here refers to the crucifixion of Christ, who through His death offered His body and blood for the redemption of mankind. Christ's sacrifice is reconstructed in the celebration of the Eucharist, alluded to here by the table prepared by the angels.

Southern Wall. - Sandro Botticelli, The Trials and Calling of Moses 1482

Opposite The Temptation of Christ and also painted by Botticelli started thre Moses Cycle. thematically related in that both deal with the theme of temptation. Botticelli integrated seven episodes from the life of the young Moses into the landscape with considerable skill, by opening up the surface of the picture with four diagonal rows of figures.

As the Moses cycle depicts the Hebrew Bible, the scenes should be read from right to left:
(1) Moses in a shining yellow garment, angrily strikes an Egyptian overseer and then (2) flees to the Midianites. There (3) he disperses a group of shepherds who were preventing the daughters of Jethro from (4) drawing water at the well. After (5,6) the divine revelation in the burning bush at the top left, Moses obeys God commandment and (7) leads the people of Israel in a triumphal procession from slavery in Egypt.

Northern Wall Domenico Ghirlandaio, Christ calling the Apostles, 1481-82

On the left are scenes from the life of Moses, and on the right scenes from the life of Christ, a thematical arrangement that sees Moses as the predecessor of Christ. This cycle of frescoes became one of the major artistic achievements of the Italian Quattrocento.

Southern Wall. Cosimo Rosselli, Moses Crossing the Red Sea, 1482

In the painting the people of Israel passing through the Red Sea. The sequence begins in the background to the right, where Moses and Aaron are pleading with Pharaoh to release the people of Israel. After that God sends the plague on Egypt, Pharaoh finally relents, but then pursues the departing foreigners with his army. Moses parts the waters of the sea with his staff so that the Israelites can pass through them. When he raises the staff a second time the waters close up behind them, and their pursuers, Pharaoh in the lead, are drowned. Rising above the flood is the pillar of fire with which God struck fear in the army of the Egyptians. On the left-hand shore Moses stands, staff in hand, with the people of Israel. The kneeling woman in the foreground is the prophetess Miriam, who has taken up a thither to thank the Lord for their rescue.

Northern Wall Cosimo Rosselli, Sermon on the Mount, 1481-82

The Sermon on the Mount is filled with masses of people. The twelve disciples huddle close together behind Christ and to the right. Farther back we see them approaching with their master. On the right side Christ is seen healing a leper.

Southern Wall. Cosimo Rosselli, Moses breaking the Tablets, Adoration of the Golden Calf 1482.

Moses in the middle distance is on Mount Sinai, where God is handing him the tablets. The sleeping youth is Joshua, who had accompanied Moses on his climb. In the left half of the picture Moses and Joshua have returned and Moses is showing the tablets to the people. In the adjacent scene he smashes them to the ground, for he has discovered that in his absence the Israelites, spurred on by Aaron, have been worshipping the golden calf, depicted in the centre. The idolators are being put to death in the background on the right. In the corresponding spot on the left side of the picture there are people standing in front of their tents, a scene that has not been fully explained

Northern Wall Pietro Perugino, Christ hands Peter the Keys of the Church, 1481-82

The style of the figures in this Peruino fresco is iheavily ndebted to Verrocchio. The active drapery, with its massive complexity, and the figures, particularly several apostles, including St John the Evangelist, with beautiful features, long flowing hair, elegant demeanour, and refinement recall St Thomas from Verrocchio's bronze group on Orsanmichele. The poses of the actors fall into a small number of basic attitudes that are consistently repeated, usually in reverse from one side to the other, signifying the use of the same cartoon. They are graceful and elegant figures who tend to stand firmly on the earth. Their heads are smallish in proportion to the rest of their bodies, and their features are delicately distilled with considerable attention to minor detail.

Southern Wall. Sandro Botticelli, The Punishment of Korah and the Stoning of Moses and Aaron 1482

The message of this painting provides the key to an understanding of the Sistine Chapel as a whole before Michelangelo's work. The fresco, located in the fifth compartment on the south wall, reproduces three episodes, each of which depicts a rebellion by the Hebrews against God's appointed leaders, Moses and Aaron, along with the ensuing divine punishment of the agitators. On the right-hand side, the revolt of the Jews against Moses is related, the latter portrayed as an old man with a long white beard, clothed in a yellow robe and an olive-green cloak. Irritated by the various trials through which their emigration from Egypt was putting them, the Jews demanded that Moses be dismissed. They wanted a new leader, one who would take them back to Egypt, and they threatened to stone Moses; however, Joshua placed himself protectively between them Moses.

The centre of the fresco shows the rebellion, under the leadership of Korah, of the sons of Aaron and some Levites, who, setting themselves up in defiance of Aaron's authority as high priest, also offered up incense. In the background we see Aaron in a blue robe, swinging his incense censer with an upright posture and filled with solemn dignity, while his rivals stagger and fall to the ground with their censers at God's behest. Their punishment ensues on the left-hand side of the picture, as the rebels are swallowed up by the earth, which is breaking open under them. The two innocent sons of Korah, the ringleader of the rebels, appear floating on a cloud, exempted from the divine punishment.

The principal message of these scenes is made manifest by the inscription in the central field of the triumphal arch: "Let no man take the honour to himself except he who is called by God, as Aaron was." The fresco thus holds a warning that God's punishment will fall upon those who oppose God's appointed leaders.

This warning also contained a contemporary political reference through the portrayal of Aaron in the fresco, depicted wearing the triple-ringed tiara of the Pope and thus characterized as the papal predecessor. It was a warning to those questioning the ultimate authority of the Pope over the Church. The papal claims to leadership were God-given, their origin lay in Christ giving Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven and thereby granting him privacy over the young Church. Perugino painted this crucial element of the doctrine of papal supremacy immediately opposite Botticelli's fresco.

Northern Wall Cosimo Rosselli, The Last Supper, 1481-82

This scene is not so eventful as the other frescoes of the cycle, but the highlighted chalice standing on the table in front of Christ emphasizes the fact that we are seeing the institution of the sacrament of the Eucharist and, accordingly, a symbol of the New Covenant between God and mankind.

The three "window" paintings in the background show Christ Praying on the Mount of Olives, the Arrest of Christ and the Crucifixion. The latter two are the work of Biagio d'Antonio Tucci, a Florentine painter who assisted Cosimo Rosselli in the execution of the Last Supper.

Southern Wall. Luca Signorelli, The Song of Moses and his Death 1482

The fresco depicts the last episodes in the life of Moses. On the right sits the hundred-and-twenty-year-old Moses on a rise, holding his staff and with golden rays circling his head. He sings the “Song of Moses” ( Deuteronomy 32, 16-28) at God's command.

At Moses's feet stands the ark of the Covenant, opened to show the jar of manna inside and the two tablets of the law. In the left half of the picture Joshua is appointed Moses's successor. Joshua kneels before Moses, who gives him his staff.

In the centre of the background we see Moses being led by the angel of the Lord up Mount Nebo, from which he will be able to look across to the Promised Land that by the will of God he will never enter. At the foot of the mountain we see him again, turning toward the left. His death is depicted in the background, in the land of Moab, where the children of Israel mourned him for thirty days.

Text – shortened - and all photos from Web Gallery of Art.

A picture walk through the Sistine Chapel with large reproductions but misleading explanations is found here

The Sistina is open: Mon-Sat 09:00-18:00. Closed on Sundays except last Sunday of the month when its free (crowded) and open 9:00AM-2:00PM. The museum is closed for holidays on: January 1 & 6, February 11, March 19, April 4 & 5, May 1 , June 29, August 14 & 15, November 1, and December 8, 25, & 26. - Visitors: €15, Concessions: €8.00
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