A brief history of the Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel owes its name to Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere (high priest from 1471 to 1484 for lovers of historical dates). You can this world famous place in the Apolian Palace, which is in fact just a special name for the residence of the Pope. Originally this was a two-story castle that was built by Pope Nicholas III next to the old St. Peter’s Basilica. Over time, more wings and chapels were added.
In 1475, the famous Sistine Chapel was commissioned by the aforementioned Pope Sixtus IV. Giovanni Di Dolce was entrusted with the construction. But the inside also had to be dazzling. Pope Sixtus IV called in an elite squad of painters, including Sandro Botticelli (whose works you can also visit in the world-famous Uffizi), Domenico Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Rosselli and Pietro Perugino.
On August 15, 1483, the Sistine Chapel was solemnly consecrated in the name of the Assumption of Mary.
A few years later, the nephew of Sixtus IV, Julius II (also high priest from 1503 to 1513) received the (divine) idea to adjust the chapel a bit. In 1508 he ordered Michelangelo Buonarroti to paint the magnificent ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In four years he delivered such good work that Pope Paul III commissioned him again in 1536 to paint the Last Judgment on the wall behind the altar. Here, Michelangelo (the painter, not the ninja turtle) needed no less than five years to complete his masterpiece. But in his defense, it has become one of the most iconic paintings of all time!
Visit the Sistine Chapel
The good news is that the Sistine Chapel is actually as beautiful as most people claim it to be (and even more beautiful). The bad news is that you’re anything but the only one who wants to visit the Sistine Chapel. The queues and associated waiting times are almost legendary, but fortunately there are several manners to avoid them.
The first way is to buy a fast track ticket that gives you access to the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums without having to wait in line. You pay more for this than for a normal ticket, but you avoid queues of two hours or more (!!!)!
In any case, I didn’t think twice before I bought one…
Another possibility is to plan the timing of your visit. Avoid standing in line at 9 a.m. when the doors open. At this time an endless load of tourists is coming this way and waiting times increase enormously. Especially during the spring and summer months you can queue for at least two hours. Also avoid Mondays, because on Sundays the Vatican museums are almost always closed. Almost, because every last Sunday of the month you can visit the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums for free. I don’t have to tell you that there are also a lot of people waiting in line at these occasions. Sometimes there are lines of five hours long… And that really is way too long for a short visit to the Sistine Chapel!
The best time to avoid long queues is therefore just after noon when most people are having lunch. However, I would like to say that the minimum time is still one to one and a half hours. So if your time is dear to you: just buy priority tickets!
How much time should you spend in the Sistine Chapel?
You’ll also want to know how much time you have to plan to visit the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. Art lovers can certainly spend at least four or five hours here, tourists who mainly want to admire the Sistine Chapel should plan in at least two hours. Often, people want to combine their visit of the Vatican museums with the St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s best to go directly from the Sistine Chapel into the St. Peter’s Basilica (normally you have to plan a guided tour before you can make direct use of this ‘special door’, but if you just pretend that you belong to a group you should be able to sneak in. If you don’t do this, you’ll need to wait in line for the St. Peter’s Basilica or you should buy skip-the-line tickets instead).
Of course you can always combine the famous basilica with the nearby Castel Sant’Angelo.
Tickets for the Sistine Chapel
I think it’s best to book tickets for the Sistine Chapel in advance so you don’t have to wait for hours before visiting the Sistine Chapel.
That being said, these are the possibilities:
- An individual ticket if you buy it on the spot
- 17 euros per person
- An individual priority ticket (which allows you to skip the queues)
- A tour with an audio guide
- A two-hour tour with a real guide
- From € 40 per person
- An individual guided tour with a lunch in the Vatican museums
Opening hours of the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums
- Monday to Saturday: from 9 am to 6 pm (last admission at 4 pm)
- Every last Sunday of the month (if not a public holiday): from 9 am to 2 pm (last admission at 12:30 pm)
- In addition, access to the Sistine Chapel is not possible on 1 and 6 January, 19 March, 2 April, 1 May, 29 June, 14 and 15 August, 1 November, 8 – 25 and 26 December.
Also make sure that you wear appropriate clothing: sleeveless T-shirts, miniskirts, shorts and headgear are forbidden, just like using your mobile phone. Taking pictures inside the Sistine Chapel is also not allowed.
Eleven fun facts about the Sistine Chapel
- The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is world-famous thanks to Michelangelo. Originally, it was decorated with a fresco of a starry sky by Pietro Matteo d’Amelia.
- The same Michelangelo didn’t really like to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He was in first place a sculptor, but eventually he decided reluctantly to accept the assignment. This is part because of Sixtus IV who also gave him the chance to sculpt a statue of Moses, which you can now admire in the San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome.
- Many believe that Michelangelo painted the ceiling while lying on his back. This was not the case however, he always was in an upright position. This gave him more precision and control over the painting.
- Michelangelo waited until the very last moment to paint God so that his technique was sophisticated enough to portray him in the best possible way. He saw God as an older man with long white hair and a beard and thus actually shaped the image that most of us have of God. He was in fact the first artist to paint God in its entirety. Before the Almighty Father was mostly depicted as a hand reaching down through the clouds.
- You’ll not be the only one to visit the Sistine Chapel. No less than 25,000 people can be found here every day. That brings the total number of visitors to five million per year. This generates 80 million euros in income for the Vatican.
- The chapel has the same dimensions as the Temple of Solomon, according to the Hebrew Bible the first Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The length is 40.9 meters, the width is 13.4 meters and the height is 20.5 meters, exactly as stated in the Old Testament.
- Originally the nude portraits were completely naked. Until the Council of Trent in 1564 decided that these images were immoral. Daniele da Volterra was commissioned to paint fig leaves and garments in a few strategic places. In the 80s and 90s it was decided to remove some of these again.
- Surprisingly, acorns are a recurring motif in the frescoes. This was a wink from Michelangelo to his client Sixtus IV whose last name was Rovere. This is Italian for oak.
- Since 1942, the cardinals have also come here to vote for a new pope.
- There is also a small side room called the Chamber of Tears. The newly elected pope is allowed to come here to pour his tears of happiness and leave all the emotions of the whole process behind him.
- Taking pictures is prohibited because the flashes would discolor the frescoes.
As you can read, it’s definitely possible to visit the Sistine Chapel last minute, but then you must choose your time well. Much better is to buy your tickets for the Sistine Chapel online. Visiting the Vatican is indispensable if you plan to spend a few days in the Eternal City. You don’t have to be a pious Catholic to appreciate and admire such wonderful human achievements.
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Hi, I'm Sam Van den Haute. The last three years I've been traveling the world almost constantly. Heading out for an adventure and visiting the most beautiful places are what I love to do! Let me inspire you with great stories, beautiful pictures and handy tips from my adventures and travels. On my facebook page and instagram account you'll get to see the latest updates and photos to inspire you for your next vacation.