The Vatican Museums are a collection of museums located in Vatican City, located in Rome, Italy. The Vatican Museums showcases historical and artistic works from the vast array of works collected by many Popes of the Catholic Church over many centuries.
The Vatican Museums’ collections are over 70,000 works, of which less than one-third are displayed at any point in time. There are 54 galleries in the museum, with one of the key attractions being the Sistine Chapel.
A Tour of the Vatican Museums
- Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling
- Raffaello’s “School of Athens”
- Laocoön and His Sons
- “The Trials of Moses” by Sandro Botticelli
- Belvedere Torso
Highlights of the Vatican Museums
- Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling
- The Sistine Chapel is the room where the College of Cardinals are locked in and required to decide on the next Pope. The walls and the ceiling are masterfully decorated. The walls are painted with frescoes by various artists, and Michelangelo painted the Masterpiece of the ceiling fresco. Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) is one of the critical Renaissance sculptors, painters, and architects. He painted the Sistine Chapel from 1508 to 1512. The many figures painted on the high ceiling when viewed from the ground level look multidimensional and look like the sculptured figures we see in the Laocoön statute. The figures are depicted with the muscular strength to give them a presence that is powerful and, at the same time, beautiful.
- Raffaello’s “School of Athens”
- “The School of Athens” by Raphael is one of the most famous frescoes of the Italian Renaissance. It is widely reproduced because of its artistry and because of the subjects portrayed. In 1508, the 25-year old painter Raphael was summoned to the Vatican by Pope Julius II (1503-13) and given the most important commission of his career, the decoration of the Papal Apartments, including the Stanza Della Segnatura. Raphael used the ample space with imposing coffered vaults to paint imagines of the greatest philosophers, mathematicians, thinkers, and artists of antiquity all in one area to symbolize the School of Athens.
- Laocoön and His Sons
- “Laocoön and His Sons” is one of the most famous ancient sculptures and a highlight of the Vatican Museums, ever since it was placed there on public display. The statue depicts Laocoön, the priest of Apollo from the city of Troy. He and his two sons are locked in the death coils of two serpents, on the steps of an altar.
- “The Trials of Moses” by Sandro Botticelli
- “The Trials of Moses” by Sandro Botticelli is a fresco, executed in 1481–1482 at the Sistine Chapel, Rome. The fresco shows four episodes from Moses’ life, taken from Exodus. Firstly, Moses is depicted on the right, killing the Egyptian who was mistreating a Hebrew, and he is then shown fleeing to the desert. Moses is distinguishable in the scenes by his yellow dress and the green cloak. In the next episode, Moses fights the shepherds who were preventing Jethro’s daughters, including his future wife, Zipporah, from watering their herd at the well. In this episode, he is also shown taking water from the well to help water the flock. In the third scene, in the upper left corner, Moses removes his shoes, and he then receives from God the mission to return to Egypt to free his people, the Hebrews. In the final episode in the lower-left corner, Moses is shown leading the Jews to the Promised Land. In total, Moses appears seven times in this fresco.
List of Vatican Museums
- Gregorian Egyptian Museum
- Gregorian Etruscan Museum
- Pio Clementino Museum
- Chiaramonti Museum
- Lapidary Gallery
- New Wing
- Gregoriano Profano Museum
- Lapidario Profano ex Lateranense
- Pius-Christian Museum
- Christian Lapidarium
- Jewish Lapidarium
- Ethnological Museum
- Carriage Pavilion
- Christian Museum
- Profane Museum
- Room of the Aldobrandini Wedding
- Chapel of St. Peter Martyr
- Collection of Contemporary Art
- Sistine Chapel
- Raphael’s Rooms
- Borgia Apartment
- Niccoline Chapel
- Chapel of Urban VIII
- Room of the Immaculate Conception
- Room of the Chiaroscuri
- Name: Vatican Museums
- Founder: Pope Julius II
- Established: 1506
- Location: Vatican City, Rome, Italy
- Visitors: 6 million per Year
- Address: Viale Vaticano, Roma, Italy
The History of the Vatican Museums
Pope Julius II founded the museums in the early 16th century, over 500 years ago. The start of the museum was the purchase by Pope Julius II of the recently excavated sculpture of Laocoön and his Sons, which was discovered in 1506.
Upon hearing about the discovery of a mysterious marble statue, Pope Julius II sent Michelangelo, who was working at the Vatican, to examine it. On Michelangelo’s recommendation, the pope immediately purchased the sculpture from the landowner owner on whose property the statue was discovered. The sculpture of Laocoön and his Sons was placed on public display and were so popular it laid the foundation for further collections to be put on display. The Laocoön and then the Belvedere Apollo formed the core of classical statues that were set up in what today is known as the Octagonal Court.
Julius II understood the value of art towards his legacy and, in 1508, commissioned Michelangelo with updating the ceiling decorations in the Sistine Chapel. He also commissioned Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino) to decorate select rooms and gave Raphael free rein to create frescoes and artworks as he wished a significant project which continued under Pope Leo X (de’ Medici) (1513-1521). These rooms are now called Raphael’s Rooms and feature the School of Athens.
Successive Popes added to the collections, the building projects, and the number of Museums. Some of the essential Museums and collections include:
- Pinacoteca Vaticana (art gallery)
- Collection of Modern Religious Art
- Sculpture museums
- Museo Pio-Clementino
- Museo Chiaramonti
- Museo Gregoriano Etrusco ( Etruscan)
- Museo Gregoriano Egiziano (Ancient Egypt)
- Vatican Historical Museum
Today the museums contain masterpieces of sculpture, paintings, and many other works of art collected by numerous popes over the centuries. Most popular are Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and the Stanze di Raffaello decorated by Raphael, which is on the museum visitor route through the Vatican Museums tour. Over 6 million people visit the Vatican Museums every year makes them one of the most visited museums in the world.
Finding Meaning at The Vatican Museums
The Vatican museums contain thousands of priceless treasures that cover over four thousand years of history. From the earliest, which is the statue head of the Egyptian King Mentuhotep, which is from 2050 B.C., (The term “Pharaoh” was used for the sovereign of Egypt only after the 16th-century BCE.) to the most recent modern art pieces.
The Vatican Museums consist of multiple museums. From the Egyptian Museum and the Etruscan Museum to the other various museums named in honor of patron Popes. If you add the former Papal Apartments, the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica, the challenge is how to find meaning among all this symbolism of power and prestige.
After all the corridors of amazing objects, beautiful statues, and colorful paintings at the Vatican, one of the last masterpieces remaining is the Sistine Chapel. Although crowded with tourists, the Sistine Chapel provides seating space (you might have to wait for a vacancy) to sit back, block out the continuous movement of people (5 million visitors per year), and attempt reflection and meditation.
The Sistine Chapel is the room where the College of Cardinals are locked in and required to decide on the next Pope. All the walls, floors and the ceiling are decorated. The base of the walls has painted curtains. The higher-level walls are painted with frescoes by various artists, and Michelangelo paints the Masterpiece of the ceiling fresco. Of all the masterpieces at the Vatican, we will reflect on the painter Michelangelo and his work on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. What meaning can we find?
Pope Julius II ordered the 33-year-old Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the chapel. Michelangelo ran away back to Florence on the first opportunity but was ordered to return by the Pope. Michelangelo preferred to sculpt and not paint. Unfortunately, the Pope assured him that he would have to complete the Sistine Ceiling before he could resume his sculptural projects.
The Sistine Ceiling painting stretched over four long years and was one of the longest and most challenging projects Michelangelo undertook. Below is Michelangelo’s despairing poem about painting the Sistine Chapel.
I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me, all the time dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!
My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.
Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.
My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.
As is clear from his sad poem, even the great Michelangelo, with his giant ego, questioned his abilities. Yet he became the most celebrated living artist during his lifetime and is today regarded as one of the greatest artists of all time.
The poem above, in a small way, reflects the significant challenges Michelangelo had in completing the ceiling painting. Below are just some of the difficulties faced by Michelangelo:
- He had to first remove all the old plaster from the ceiling with it earlier decorations and not damage any of the wall frescos.
- The Chapel had to stay open as the Pope’s personal chapel for services and functions while he was painting.
- Standard scaffolding was not going to work, as the Pope required full access to the Sistine Chapel.
- The height of the Ceiling was over 18 meters or 60 ft high.
- Michelangelo had to design a new form of scaffolding to leave the floor clear for the Pope.
- Michelangelo had to hide his progress from all the curious eyes so he could proceed with freedom of expression.
- Michelangelo had limited experience in fresco painting and needed to practice with new techniques.
- The daily routine required significant physical effort in climbing stairs and scaffolds.
- Making corrections in plaster was not easy and took a long time.
- Michelangelo had one of the most demanding patrons in history with Pope Julius II, harassing him to finish and wanting to advise on the work.
- Michelangelo saw himself as a Sculptor, not a Painter; painting was not his preferred medium.
- Michelangelo had to prepare his color pigments.
- Summers in Rome got very hot, and there was not enough ventilation with the scaffolding and curtains to give him privacy.
- Fresco painting is one of the most challenging forms of artwork, requiring detailed stencils to transfer drawings to the horizontal ceiling and requiring work at speed before the wet plaster set.
After four years of struggles, Michelangelo delivered one of the world’s greatest masterpieces and proved he was a genius for all time
Michelangelo’s central painting is the story of Genesis from the Bible. His vision was beyond anything anyone else had ever envisioned. No one had ever portrayed God as he did in “The Creation of Adam” and the other panels on creation.
Unfortunately, there was controversy about the number of large nude in the Pope’s private chapel. The controversy increased after Michelangelo painted the fresco called “The Last Judgment” on one of the walls below his ceiling masterpiece. At that time, the press was emerging, and the press labeled his art as pornographic. This controversy propelled more people to go and see the artwork and exacerbated the controversy.
During the year of Michelangelo’s death, a new Pope allowed thirty separate draperies to be painted to provide modesty cover for some of the nude figures in “The Last Judgment.” Fortunately, reaching the ceiling was too challenging, and no modesty draping was applied to the ceiling fresco. It was around this time that many male nude statues in the Vatican also received their fig leaf addition.
Michelangelo used giant nude figures because it was the best universal artistic language available to him. Michelangelo portrayed inner strength and nobility by using physical muscular, athletic power, and energy. He was inspired by all the copies of Greek human sculpture that Pope Julius II had collected in the Vatican such as the Laocoön sculpture. Michelangelo wanted to inspire us to glory with his art, and the human body was his best artistic expression.
Reflecting on Michelangelo’s heroic and visionary masterpiece, created under significantly challenging circumstances, we cannot avoid the big questions of life. The fresco acts as a mirror for us to reflect on the significant issues in our lives.
- What is my role in the evolving human drama presented in the Sistine Chapel?
- Which of the many figures best represents me?
- How do my challenges compare to Michelangelo’s?
Vatican Museums Maps
A Tour of European Museums
- France Museums
- Italy Museums
- Greece Museums
- Germany Museums
- Austria Museums
- Ireland Museums
- Netherlands Museums
- Spain Museums
- Belgium Museums
- Serbia Museums
- Poland Museums
- Switzerland Museums
- Czech Museums
- Norway Museums
- Sweden Museums
- Hungary Museums
- Portugal Museums
“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.“
Photo Credit: 1)© User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons 2) Thomas Römer/OpenStreetMap data [ODbL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 2)By Владимир Шеляпин (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 2) See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 3) FSU Guy at English Wikipedia [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 4)Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 5) Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons