Architectural Details of the Sistine Chapel

Interior view of Sistine Chapel in Vatican City

Luis Davilla / The Image Bank / Getty Images

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

The Early Beginnings

Architect Giovannino de Dolci was assigned the task of recreating the original Sistine Chapel in its exact spot, known as the Cappella Maggiore, in 1473. The architect's initial design, however, was more than 120 feet long and seven stories high.

A unique pavement simulating medieval floors was also designed, featuring multicolored mosaics forming geometric patterns and concentric circles. Some excavations done for nearby buildings during the 1500s affected the Sistine Chapel, causing an enormous crack in its vaulted ceiling. The problem 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 because 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 an exterior court. The vaulted ceiling rises more than 65 feet, and a third story forming the upper level of the Chapel sits above the ceiling.

The Chapel was built with six-foot-high arched windows on each side, but some of those have been blocked over the years. Some major maintenance corrections to the open gangway have also been done, 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. The vault is cut transversely by smaller vaults over the 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 a combination of 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 by a marble screen and a pattern of floor mosaics. One area was for the laity and the other was a presbytery for the clergy. Then the screen was moved to make the nave smaller and the presbytery much larger.

The Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Pope Julius II asked Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in 1508. 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 12 Biblical figures as well as classical men and women painted on the large pendentives. They each prophesy the salvation of mankind through Jesus Christ. Also depicted along the upper windows are the ancestors of Jesus.