Architectural Details of the Sistine Chapel

The Architectural and Building History of One of the World's Most Famous Chapels

Sistine chapel in vatican city
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The Sistine Chapel is one of the most important places for the Catholic Church. It is at the center of papal activity for the church, and it is here where the papal enclave gathers when a new pope is selected. The Sistine Chapel, widely known for its frescoes painted by Michelangelo, is also known for its great architectural and structural features.

Sistine Chapel Early Beginnings

The Sistine Chapel architect Giovannino de Dolci was assigned the task of recreating the chapel in the exact spot, known as the Cappella Maggiore.

The architect's initial design, however, was more than one hundred twenty feet long and seven stories height.

A unique pavement simulating medieval floors was also designed, featuring multicolored mosaics forming geometric patterns and concentric circles. During the 1500’s some excavations done for nearby buildings affected the Sistine Chapel causing an enormous crack in the vaulted ceiling. Nonetheless, it was solved by locking the roof timbers in place with a series of metal chains.

Sistine Chapel Architecture

The Sistine Chapel resembles a high rectangular building with no doorways, as its entrance is through the Papal Palace. The exterior of the Sistine Chapel can be seen only from nearby windows.

Its interior is divided into three stories, including a vaulted basement with several windows and a doorway leading to the exterior court. The vaulted ceiling rises more than 65 feet, and over it is a third story that forms the upper level of the Chapel.

The Chapel was built with six-foot tall arched windows on each size; however, some of those have been blocked. Some major maintenance corrections have been done to the open gangway as well as repairs to the Sistine Chapel masonry.

Sistine Chapel Interior

The ceiling appears as a flattened barrel vault that has been cut transversely, creating a sequence of pendentives on the ceiling.

The vault is cut transversely by smaller vaults over exterior windows, dividing it at its lowest level.

The original vault was painted to the design of Piermatteo Lauro de' Manfredi da Amelia. The pavement of the Chapel is marble and a colored stone that marks the processional way from the main door that the Pope follows on Palm Sunday.

The Sistine Chapel was originally divided into two equal sections, one area for the laity and a presbytery for the clergy, by a marble screen and a pattern of floor mosaics. However, the screen was moved to make the nave smaller and the presbytery much larger.

The Sistine Chapel Ceiling

It was in 1508 that Pope Julius II asked Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo painted the ceiling between 1508 and 1512. His painting followed three themes: God's Creation of the World, God's Relationship with Mankind, and Mankind's Fall from Grace.

There are twelve Biblical as well as Classical men and women painted on the large pendentives who prophesied the salvation of mankind through Jesus Christ. Also depicted are the ancestors of Jesus along upper windows.