Work Begins on the Sistine Chapel

Under Pope Sixtus IV, this Vatican structure was completed within five years, after which many of the great masters of the period were summoned to contribute to its interior decoration.

Summary of Event

Around 1477, Pope Sixtus IV inaugurated the construction of the Sistine Chapel, which was meant to celebrate his pontificate. Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), now famous for his biographies of artists of the period, attributed the design of the building to Baccio Pontelli, though it is unclear whether he was the main architect. The most likely candidate for that task appears to have been Giovanni dei Dolci. Sistine Chapel;construction of
Sixtus IV
Giovanni dei Dolci
Botticelli, Sandro
Ghirlandaio, Domenico
Rosselli, Cosimo
Signorelli, Luca
Sixtus IV
Medici, Lorenzo de’ (1449-1492)
Salviati, Francesco
Riario, Raffaele
Montefeltro, Federico da
Malatesta, Roberto
Perugino, Pietro
Botticelli, Sandro
Rosselli, Cosimo
Ghirlandaio, Domenico
Lecce, Matteo da
Signorelli, Luca
Lippi, Filippo
Clement VII

A sketch of the interior of the Sistine Chapel.

(G. P. Putnam’s Sons)

The new chapel had to be built on top of the Capella Magna (Big Chapel), until then used for conclaves and other major official church rites. The rectangular space was three times as long as its width, and it was as tall as half of its length. One of the reasons adduced for the strange vault structure is that it would guarantee bad acoustics, so that the private conversations of cardinals reunited to elect a new pope would be not heard.

Andrea Trapeziuntius, a papal secretary, wrote in May of 1482 that the construction had been rushed because of the Florentine war. The main body of the building was most likely finished by 1479, in the final year of the so-called Pazzi War Pazzi War (1478-1480) . To understand the birth of the chapel, it is important to be aware of the political context in which it developed.

In April, 1478, the Pazzi family, which had close ties with the pope, was involved in the attempted coup in which Lorenzo de’ Medici, known as the Magnificent, was wounded and his brother Giuliano was stabbed to death. In the riots that followed the conspiracy Pazzi Conspiracy (1478) , many members of the Pazzi clan were killed, along with the archbishop of Pisa, Francesco Salviati. The young cardinal Raffaele Riario, nephew of the pope, was kept hostage for a few weeks until he was released under Roman pressure. The release without ransom did not prevent the threat of excommunication, which was proclaimed in June, 1478. Subsequently, two years of violent fighting pitted the Florentine and Milanese front against the papal and Neapolitan troops, conducted by captains Federico da Montefeltro (who had been part of the Pazzi plot) and Roberto Malatesta. In December, 1479, when the military situation of Florence was desperate, Lorenzo de’ Medici decided to go to Naples and plead to King Ferrante of Aragón (Ferdinand II) for a peace treaty, which he eventually obtained. The pope was forced to accept the agreement in December, 1480.

In the summer of 1481, Sixtus IV summoned a group of Florentine painters to decorate the Sistine Chapel, under the direction of the papal painter Pietro Perugino. The resulting contract, for ten frescoes (supposedly the total for the original plan), is dated October 27, 1481. Painting;Italy The four masters commissioned to paint them were Sandro Botticelli, Cosimo Rosselli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Perugino himself. The estimate for the cost of the first four frescoes is dated January 17, 1482. The contracts were drawn between the painters and the clerk of works, architect Giovanni dei Dolci.

The structure of the two cycles is symmetrical, with the Life of Moses on the south wall and the Life of Christ on the north wall. The original Latin tituli (inscriptions), recovered after the restorations of the 1970’, bear constant reference to the “written law” (the Old Testament in the Moses cycle) and to the “evangelical Law” (the Gospel in the Christ cycle). A total of eight frescoes were originally executed in each cycle. The first two on the altar wall were destroyed by Michelangelo when he painted The Last Judgment
Last Judgment, The (Michelangelo) . The last two on the entrance wall collapsed in 1522 and were later repainted, presumably with some resemblance to the original ones, by Matteo da Lecce (1547-1600).

The scenes selected as subjects from the Bible are a combination of well-known episodes, such as Moses and the burning bush and Moses upon the Sinai, and much less familiar stories, for which the theological erudition of the pope was most likely an inspiration. The first extant fresco is The Circumcision of the Son of Moses
Circumcision of the Son of Moses, The (Perugino and Pinturicchio) , attributed to Perugino and Pinturicchio; the latter is also responsible for the elegant decorations around the pictures. The second, Moses in Egypt
Moses in Egypt (Botticelli) , and the fifth, The Punishment of Corah
Punishment of Corah, The (Botticelli) , are attributed to Botticelli. In the latter, the background is an Arch of Constantine on which one reads the warning for the rebels against divine authority. Some historians have thought it to be a reference to the archbishop of Krain, Andrea Zamometić, whose appeal for a general council to depose the pope did in fact follow the completion of the cycles in the summer of 1482. A more plausible hypothesis, however, is that the inscription refers to the recent violent outbreak with the Florentines. It is perhaps not a coincidence that as the painter most involved with the Medici family—who had executed a fresco representing the Pazzi plotters hung to the windows of the Palazzo della Signoria and a posthumous portrait of Giuliano (now at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.)—Botticelli was chosen for this task.

To Rosselli are attributed The Crossing of the Red Sea
Crossing of the Red Sea, The (Rosselli) , The Punishment of the Idolaters
Punishment of the Idolaters, The (Rosselli) , The Sermon of the Mount
Sermon of the Mount, The (Rosselli) , and The Institution of the Eucharist
Institution of the Eucharist, The (Rosselli) , and to Ghirlandaio, The Calling of the First Apostles
Calling of the First Apostles, The (Ghirlandaio) . The last two episodes of the Moses cycle, The Appointment of Joshua
Appointment of Joshua, The (Signorelli) and The Archangel Michael Defending the Body of Moses
Archangel Michael Defending the Body of Moses, The (Signorelli) , were given to Luca Signorelli, the young and promising assistant of Perugino.

Botticelli probably left Rome by May, 1482. He had not been paid. On October 5, Perugino, Ghirlandaio, and Botticelli were commissioned to paint the Sala dei Gigli in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence—a sort of anti-Sistine project. On December 31, Perugino’s commission was revoked and given to Filippo Lippi (1406?-1469) instead. There were rumors that he did not get along with the other Tuscan masters, which may be indirect evidence of the ongoing Florentine feud.

Perugino was the uncontested leader of the enterprise: He painted The Baptism of Christ
Baptism of Christ, The (Perugino) and the thematically most significant fresco of the Christ cycle: The Charge to St. Peter
Charge to St. Peter, The (Perugino)[Charge to Saint Peter, The (Perugino)] . Facing The Punishment of Corah, it contains two arches modeled after the Arch of Constantine. They commemorate Sixtus as the builder of the palace chapel. Perugino also painted The Assumption on the Altar
Assumption on the Altar, The (Perugino) , with the portrait of Sixtus IV. In 1479, he had decorated the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica with a fresco of the Virgin and saints, which also includes the kneeling figure of the pope.

The pontiff—who, more than half a century later, ordered the destruction of the paintings of the altar wall and specifically of the portrait of Sixtus IV—was Clement VII (1478-1534), born Giulio de’ Medici, the posthumous son of Giuliano, who had been killed during the Pazzi uprising, in which the role of Pope Sixtus IV had been instrumental. In the light of this event, Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment also appears, at least indirectly, as a late papal vendetta.


The two fresco cycles by the four Italian masters represent a unique achievement in quattrocento Italian painting. The complexity of themes and the variety of styles exhibited by the four masters and the young Signorelli are witness to an extraordinary artistic enterprise, to be matched and surpassed only by the singlehanded effort of Michelangelo’s ceiling and altar wall a few years later. The political (and possibly polemical) context in which they were executed only adds interest to their layered composition.

Further Reading

  • Ettlinger, L. D. The Sistine Chapel Before Michelangelo. Religious Imagery an Papal Primacy. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1965. The most extensive study of the topic to date, providing a more theological than historical interpretation of the whole cycle.
  • Goffen, Rona. “Friar Sixtus IV and the Sistine Chapel.” Renaissance Quarterly 39, no. 2 (Summer, 1986): 218-262. A theological reading of the cycle in “Franciscan terms,” based on the newly discovered tituli, the original Latin inscriptions of the frescoes.
  • King, Ross. Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. London: Chatto & Windus, 2002. Extremely detailed narrative of the creation of the Sistine Chapel fresco, from the political intrigues behind Michelangelo’s receipt of the commission through its completion. Details both the artist’s daily life and rivalries of the period, and the technical details of the creation itself, as well as emphasizing the importance of Michelangelo’s work to the history of art. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Monfasani, John. “A Description of the Sistine Chapel Under Pope Sixtus IV.” Artibus and Historiae 7 (1983): 9-16. Publishes and summarizes a very important document, the description of the decorated Chapel by Andrea Trapeziuntius, dated May, 1482.
  • Pagliara, Pier Nicola. “La costruzione della cappella sistina.” In Michelangelo: La cappella Sistina. Novara: Istituto Geografico De Agostini, 1994. Gives an architectural history of the building and confirms the attribution of the plan to Giovanni de’ Dolci. In Italian.
  • Shearman, John. “La storia della cappella Sistina.” In Michelangelo e la Sistina. Rome: Palombi Editori, 1990. An overview after the Vatican restorations. In Italian.

1469-1492: Rule of Lorenzo de’ Medici

c. 1478-1519: Leonardo da Vinci Compiles His Notebooks

Apr. 26, 1478: Pazzi Conspiracy

c. 1500: Netherlandish School of Painting

1500: Roman Jubilee

1508-1520: Raphael Paints His Frescoes

1508-1512 and 1534-1541: Michelangelo Paints the Sistine Chapel

Nov. 3, 1522-Nov. 17, 1530: Correggio Paints the Assumption of the Virgin

May 6, 1527-Feb., 1528: Sack of Rome

1532: Holbein Settles in London

Dec. 23, 1534-1540: Parmigianino Paints Madonna with the Long Neck

1563-1584: Construction of the Escorial

June, 1564: Tintoretto Paints for the Scuola di San Rocco