Things You Didn't Know About The Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel is located in the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City where the Pope resides. It is famous largely because it is home to of one of the greatest artistic achievements of humankind. Michelangelo painted the incredible frescoes on its ceiling and The Last Judgment on the wall during the 15th century.

Millions of visitors travel to Rome each year to see the paintings. Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the chapel, and the artist, who was predominantly a sculptor, reluctantly agreed to the arduous task. The Sistine Chapel frescoes include stories from The Book of Genesis, such as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

In addition to Michelangelo's famous artwork, the chapel is also the location of the papal conclave, where high ranking officials in the Catholic church elect the new pope. Cameras are not allowed into the chapel, so those who want to see it today either have to fly to Rome and visit in person or peruse published representations of Michelangelo's masterpiece. Know before you go and read up on these little known facts about one of the world's most treasured art pieces.

  • Michelangelo Painted The Ceiling On His Feet, Not His Back

    It’s an urban legend that Michelangelo created his masterpiece while lying on his back. He and his assistants built wooden scaffolding that allowed him to stand and paint the ceiling above his head. Michelangelo designed the platform and attached it to the wall with brackets to keep it steady. The myth that the artist painted the ceiling while lying down may have come from Charlton Heston’s 1965 film The Agony and the Ectasy which is about the creation of the painting.

  • Michelangelo Wrote A Poem About How Miserable It Was To Paint The Ceiling

    Painting the Sistine Chapel was physically exhausting. In 1509, Michelangelo related the struggle in a letter/poem to friend Giovanni da Pistoia. He wrote, “I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture.”

    He added,  "[my] stomach’s squashed under my chin,”  “[my] face makes a fine floor for droppings,” “[my] skin hangs loose below me” and “[my] spine’s all knotted from folding myself over.”  He also complained about being chosen for the job, writing, “I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.”

  • Michelangelo May Have Painted Hidden Internal Organs In The Ceiling's Most Famous Section

    One panel of the ceiling's painting, known as The Creation Of Adam, shows two figures depicting God and Adam reaching their arms out to each other. Their fingers don’t quite touch. It’s one of the most recognized images in the world. Some believe the image is the outline of the human brain, which includes the angels and robes around God.

    Doctor Frank Lynn Meshberger came up with this idea, believing that Michelangelo was demonstrating how God gave the first human being intelligence. And he's not the only one who believes Michelangelo showed off his knowledge of human anatomy in the details of The Creation of Adam. A kidney and other brains have been among the other hidden anatomical items viewers claim to see.

  • The Nudes Were Considered Inappropriate So Their Bits & Pieces Were Covered Up

    In 1564, the Council of Trent decided that the nude images on the ceiling were not appropriate. As a result, the council commissioned Daniele da Volterra to paint fig leaves, clothing, and other items over the private parts to hide them. The alterations stayed in place until restoration efforts were undertaken in the 1980s and 1990s. The articles used to cover up sensitive areas were removed, revealing details that hadn’t been seen in centuries.

  • Michelangelo Really Didn't Want The Job

    Pope Julius II asked Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in 1508 while the artist was in the midst of working on the pope’s marble tomb. Michelangelo had no interest in the project. He considered himself first and foremost a sculptor.

    Michelangelo much preferred to complete the tomb but funding for the project was running out. He reluctantly agreed to paint the ceiling and spent four years on scaffolding in order to complete it. He finished the papal tomb, albeit on a smaller scale than he had envisioned, in 1545.

  • Cardinals Gather At The Chapel In A Super Secret Ceremony To Elect The Pope

    Cardinals Gather At The Chapel In A Super Secret Ceremony To Elect The Pope
    Photo: National Gallery, London / Wikimedia Commons

    While the Sistine Chapel is Vatican City’s most famous tourist spot, it is also a sacred site. Many papal conclaves - the process in which cardinals elect a new pope - have been held in the brick building since 1492. The conclave announces its pick by using a special chimney on the roof. If white smoke is released, a new pope has been elected. If black smoke billows out of the chimney, then the cardinals have not yet reached a two-thirds majority to pick a new pope.

    All 115 cardinals participating in the conclave are sworn to absolute secrecy when entering a conclave. They are also not allowed access to the Internet or allowed cell phones, television, or radios in order to prevent leaks to the press about deliberations. Staff of the Vatican are also sworn to secrecy with the threat of excommunication as the price of revealing what happens during the election process.