Sistine Chapel Seminar

A 2 hour colloquium in the Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel is an extraordinarily space in terms of content and symbolic organization. Of particularly astonishment is its homogeneity in style despite various artists contributions and elaboration.

This chapel is the highlight of almost everyone’s visit to the Vatican Museums. It hosts some of the most important art in the world from both artistic viewpoints regarding integrity, and from a religious viewpoint regarding the chapel’s meaning. This space has never ceased to inspire artists, holy men and women, and cultural connoisseurs since its origin. In a modest tribute to the chapel’s most celebrated artist, Michelangelo (1475-1564), Goethe commented: “without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what a single man is capable of achieving.”

Upon entering the chapel this colloquium focuses on the historical circumstances that brought the chapel into existence. Discussion will center on the chapel’s architecture before considering the fresco technique used extensively  throughout. We then turn to what is undoubtedly the chapel’s crowning glory, the impressive vision of Michelangelo’s humanist composition on the ceiling. Giorgio Vasari, Renaissance art historian, once described this work as the nec plus ultra: one that could never be equaled let alone surpassed. Here the expression of the French writer Alphonse de Lamartine will speak to us more clearly:

“On commence par être troublé, on passé ensuite à l’enthousiasme, on finit par être anéanti. Michel-Ange exalte au-delà de l’Homme” (One starts with being disturbed, then passed to enthusiasm, finishes by being destroyed. Michelangelo exalts beyond Man” in Cours familier de littérature).

Here we begin to explore Michelangelo’s stages of painting his visual “creation narrative”, as he once called it, retracing the way back to the divine source by the author’s double path of religion and art. We will see how this pictorial poem, a “picture in pictures,” culminates in Michelangelo’s image of the heavenly Father surrounded by his children, illustrating more vividly than all the greatest theological discourses put together, the meaning of the Creation of Man. Attention is given to the relationship between Julius II and Michelangelo. Inspired by the content of such an  evocative space, and while sharing our immediate interpretations and insights, we will discuss the commentaries and divergent meanings that critics continue to propose.

Keeping in mind that three hours is not enough for a full interpretation of the ceiling alone, next we take a look the images in the lunettes and spandrels to begin to understand how everything connects to Michelangelo’s “finale,” The Last Judgment. We will discover how these themes systematically afford an artistic and religious synthesis, uniting the ensemble, historically and architecturally, in a space that admits neither comparison nor imitation.

Keeping in mind that three hours is not enough for a full interpretation of the ceiling alone, we turn to Michelangelo’s more somber opus magnus, The Last Judgment, a work of evanescent figurines, strikingly different from that of his humanist ceiling fresco. While inevitably sensing the master’s passion and anguish, his toil and victory in spiritual terms, we discuss the historical climate during which the aging Michelangelo worked on this new style, now with exceptionally dramatic overtones.

Following Michelangelo’s works, we then turn to the masters who decorated the chapel at the onset of its commission. Here we explore the Quattrocento walls that comprise an ensemble, both contemplative and spiritual, of Judeo-Christian connections. These walls will exhibit some of the finest artistic creations unsurpassed throughout the history of art. We will discover the legacy of various masters of the Umbro-Tuscan schools who vied with each other to create their works. Mindful that a full interpretation of just one of these twelve artworks would involve the entire time allotted to us, as Vasari once remarked that if each of these paintings were in a different corner of the universe, a trip to go and see each one would still be worthwhile, here we have twelve masterpieces together in once space. If Raphael Sanzio was the master in his short lifetime (1483-1520), here we will see the masterpiece of the master’s master, Pietro Perugino (c.1446-1524) – The Consignment of the Keys. Vasari claimed that “truly, this work was and is the shining glory of our art. It has brought so much light and aid to painting that it will illuminate the world that was in darkness for so many centuries.” Due to pressing time we will briefly discuss the relational content of this series, the subject-matter and the great personalities who created them.

To end, casting our eyes down to admire the exquisite mosaic marble-work of the cosmatesque we learn of the refined technique of Giovanni Cosmati’s thirteenth century flooring.

Other notable artworks are sculptural embellishments such as the marble altar, marble cantoria, marble screen and candelabra, all contributing to making this chapel one of incomparable artistic integrity.

At the end of this seminar we will be in a better position to appreciate the Church’s patrimony of art, the heights of spiritual struggle and the tangible evidence of the magnitude of what the human person is capable. We will go forth with an understanding of what Pope John Paul II meant when he said: “The truths of our faith speak to us here from all sides. From them the human genius has drawn its inspiration, committing itself to portraying them in forms of unparalleled beauty.” — Homily preached by Pope John Paul II, Sistine Chapel (8 April 1994).

To participate on this seminar contact SACRA SORGENTE by sending an email to

  • Small group seminar up to six persons.
  • This seminar incorporates into its duration the time needed to enter the chapel, approximately 15 minutes to half an hour from the Vatican Museum entrance time. During this period no time is wasted as we discuss the preparatory information in anticipation of seeing the chapel.
  • The seminar is conducted during ordinary Vatican Museum opening hours.
  • The seminar focuses solely on a visit to the chapel.
Explore posts in the same categories: Uncategorized

%d bloggers like this: