You’ve seen them a thousand times before you even get there. Michelangelo’s ceiling and wall frescoes of the Sistine Chapel are perhaps the most recognizable pieces of art in the world, reproduced so much that they’ve become part of the visual furniture of our lives. Getting to this enormous work isn’t easy; indeed, it’s almost an act of penance in itself, waiting in endless queues and battling flag-following tour groups. But none of that, nor the simple entrance to the chapel, can prepare you for the magnificence of what lies beyond.
Despite the crowds, the noise and the periodic chiding of the guards, seeing these luminous paintings in the flesh for the first time is a moving experience. The ceiling frescoes get the most attention, although staring at them for long in the high, barrel-vaulted chapel isn’t great for the neck muscles. Commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508, they depict scenes from the Old Testament, from the Creation of Light at the altar end to the Drunkenness of Noah at the other, interspersed with pagan sybils and biblical prophets, who peer out spookily from between the vivid main scenes. Look out for the hag-like Cumean sybil, and the prophet Jeremiah, a self-portrait of an exhausted-looking Michelangelo. Or just gaze in wonder at the whole decorative scheme – not bad for someone who considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter.
Once you’ve feasted on the ceiling, turn your attention to the altar wall, which was decorated by an elderly Michelangelo over twenty years later, depicting in graphic and vivid detail the Last Judgement. The painting took him five years, a single-handed effort that is probably the most inspired large-scale work you’re ever likely to see. Its depiction of Christ, turning angrily as he condemns the damned to hell while the blessed levitate to heaven, might strike you as familiar. But standing in front of it, even surrounded by crocodiles of people, still feels like an enormous privilege.