Ten must-see works of art in Vatican City
It may be the smallest state on the planet, but Vatican City also boasts a superb art collection that is the envy of the world. Successive popes have generated unrivaled artistic wealth, spending huge sums of money on paintings, frescoes, architecture and sculpture to project the Church’s immense power and cement their own reputations in the annals of the story. The vast Vatican Museums include the Sistine Chapel, private papal apartments, and dozens of art collections spanning ancient sculpture, Renaissance masters, and modern and contemporary art. With some 20,000 works (out of the vast collection of 70,000) on display in around 1,400 rooms, chapels and galleries, it can be easy to miss the highlights. Here are our suggestions on what to check off first on your list.
Michelangelo’s frescoes (1508-1541), Sixtine Chapel, Vatican Museums
Pope Julius II commissioned the Sistine ceiling fresco from Michelangelo in 1508. The artist spent the next four years replacing the lapis lazuli sky ceiling studded with gold stars with figures and 13 scenes from the Old Testament, including the Fall of Man, Noah and the Great Flood and the iconic Creation of Adam. Completed 25 years after completing the ceiling, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment fresco on the altar wall, inspired by Dante’s Hell– bursts with graphic detail, with the terrified damned dragged into hell by demons.
Michelangelo Pieta (1497-1499), Saint Peter’s basilica
Prior to the Sistine Chapel commission, Michelangelo identified himself more as a sculptor than a painter. The Pieta, the artist’s first major work, characterizes his deeply expressive sculptural style. Mary holds a lifeless Christ, his face exuding silent, excruciating pain. It is not the only remarkable work in Saint Peter’s Basilica, where Bernini’s statue of Saint Longinus (1629-38) also draws crowds. It must be said that St. Peter’s Basilica is a wonderful work of art in itself. With its huge Michelangelo-designed dome (based on Brunelleschi’s for Florence Cathedral) and relics housing a Bernini-designed niche, the church, the largest in the world, is an imposing monument to papal wealth .
of Caravaggio The Entombment of Christ (c.1600–04), Vatican Pinacoteca, Vatican Museums
In this striking example of Caravaggio’s dynamic and dramatic realism, tense figures lift the inert body of Christ from the tomb. A finger is placed inside a wound, a detail likely to make the most delicate viewers wince. There is no scenic background, only a wall of inky black that contrasts with brightly lit figures (an illuminated Marie Cléophas raises her eyes and arms like Saint Paul seeking spiritual guidance). Although it is an unmistakable example of Caravaggio’s unique Baroque style, the painting is also steeped in the High Renaissance, with the style of Michelangelo Pieta and that of Raphael Deposition (1507) two obvious influences.
by Van Gogh Pieta (circa 1890), Collection of modern and contemporary art, Vatican Museums
Van Gogh painted this work just months before committing suicide. Some have suggested that the lifeless, bearded figure of Christ is a kind of self-portrait. Inspired by Delocroix’s own version of the same subject, the work takes pride of place in the 55 rooms of the Borgia apartment which house the Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art, inaugurated in 1973 after Pope Paul VI claimed that the Church had moved away from contemporary art. . The Madonna stretches her arms forward, sadly presenting the passion of Christ to the world. A larger and more colorful version of the Pieta is on display at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Augustus of Prima Porta (1st century AD), Chiaramonti Museum, Vatican Museums
This iconic sculpture of Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of the Roman Empire, is one of the most famous works of art from the ancient world. Sculpted by expert Greek sculptors, the original full-length work shows Augustus addressing his troops in the classical adlocutio laid. Its breastplate is richly decorated with reliefs of a Parthian king and a cosmic landscape representing the goddess Diana, the chariots of Apollo and Aurora, the goddess of the Earth.
Laocoön and his sons (around 40-30 BC), Chiaramonti Museum, Vatican Museums
Whether Augustus of Prima Porta is one of the best-known works of art of the ancient world, Laocoön and his sons is perhaps the best. In the first century AD, the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder described it as “a work to be placed above all that the arts of painting and sculpture have produced”. The 6 foot representation of Laocoon, the Trojan priest, with his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus, was discovered in 1506 in the vineyard of Felice De Fredis in Rome. When the work was discovered, Pope Julius II sent excited court artists, including Michelangelo, to watch it being unearthed. The sculpture shows a serpent coiling itself around the figures’ legs, their faces twisted in horror. According to British classicist Nigel Spivey, the work is “the prototypical icon of human agony in Western art“.
Raphael The school of Athens (1509-1511), Raphael’s rooms, Vatican Museums
Pope Alexander VI lavishly decorated his Borgia papal apartments at the end of the 15th century. Aiming to surpass his predecessor, Julius II commissioned Raphael to paint four frescoed rooms in his own papal apartments. Adorning the Stanza della Segnatura, the first of the halls, The school of Athens celebrates the marriage of art, philosophy and science: the hallmark of the Renaissance that flourished at the time. A who’s who of intellectuals and artists – from Perugino to Bramante via Socrates – gathers in a vast building reminiscent of the architecture of Saint-Pierre. Plato points to the heavens, a reference to his theory of forms, while Aristotle holds out a flattened palm, emphasizing his focus on concrete matters.
Raphael The Transfiguration (1516-1520), Vatican Pinacoteca, Vatican Museums
Raphael’s last work – which art historian Giorgio Vasari has called “the most famous, the most beautiful and the most divine” – marks the culmination of the artist’s output. The painting combines two stories from the Book of Matthew in an allegorical juxtaposition of human failings and divine redemptive power. At the top, a transfigured Christ is depicted elevated before puffing, illuminated clouds with the prophets Moses and Elijah on either side. In the lower part, apostles try in vain to rid a boy of demons. The work connects artistic languages: while the figures adopt dramatic Mannerist-style poses, the proto-baroque chiaroscuro lighting heightens the dynamic tension.
The Matisse room, Collection of modern and contemporary art, Vatican Museums
In 1947, Henri Matisse began work on the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence on the Côte d’Azur (his first and only religious work). He designed everything from stained glass windows to interior furnishings, murals and priests’ vestments. More than 60 years later, Pierre Matisse, the artist’s son, donated the plans, models and preparatory sketches of Vence to the Vatican. Visitors to the Matisse room dedicated to the Collection of Modern Religious Art can admire three life-size sketches for the illuminated stained glass window; where green represents vegetation, yellow the sun and blue the Mediterranean Sea. A drawing of the Virgin and Child made for the chapel’s white ceramic panels, a bronze cast of an altar cross and five silk chasubles are also on display.
Frescoes by Fra Angelico (1447-1451), Nicoline Chapel, Vatican Museums
Visitors passing from the Raphael rooms to the Sala dei Chiaroscuro often miss the small doorway of the Cappella Niccolina which was once the private chapel of Nicholas V (pope from 1447 to 1455). The chapel is lined with beautifully preserved frescoes by Fra Angelico – the devout Florentine monk and early Renaissance artist – depicting the life and martyrdom of St Stephen and St Lawrence. Beautiful architectural details in the backgrounds allude to Nicholas V’s desire to rebuild Rome as the new capital of Christianity.