This week our New Testament in the Eternal City class visited the famous Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums. Little did we know that we were some of the first visitors to experience the new lighting and climate control that had just been inaugurated in the Chapel.
The Chapel takes its name from the Pope who commissioned its construction in 1475. Pope Sixtus IV wanted a newer and grander space for papal ceremonies and for the conclaves of Cardinals which elect new popes. The design and dimensions of the Sistine Chapel are thought to come from the biblical description in I Kings 6 of King Solomon’s great Temple in Jerusalem.
It was the 450th anniversary of the death of Michelangelo, who painted the Genesis story of creation on the ceiling and the Last Judgement behind the papal altar, which marked the occasion for the Vatican Museum to install a brand new air conditioning system and 7,000 new LED lights which will hopefully preserve the Renaissance artist’s masterpiece for generations to come.
When the old lighting and air filtering and conditioning systems were installed two decades ago,the annual number of visitors to the museums and chapel was under 2 million. Today it hosts almost 6 million visitors a year, with more than 20,000 people a day entering during the peak pilgrim and tourist season.
The Vatican says the Sistine Chapel’s precious frescoes were starting to turn white from the air pollution caused by so many visitors passing through each day. Officials first noticed the whitening patina in 2010 and immediately launched an investigation. While the exact origin still unknown, it seems that the powdery patina — which covers some frescoes like cracked sugar icing — was believed to be calcium carbonate and calcium bicarbonate deposits. It was easily removed during the installation of the new climate control system. The hope is that this new technology would prevent potential damage from rising levels of carbon dioxide and humidity brought on by crowds.
The purpose of our site visit to the Sistine Chapel was, in part, to explore connections between the frescoes and the theology of the New Testament that we have been studying. We compared the various ways that Jesus is depicted in the Chapel. These “Christologies” included Jesus as the new Adam, Jesus as the new Jonah, Jesus as Judge, and Jesus as the new Moses.
And since we have devoted a good part of our study to the legacy of Peter and Paul in Rome, it was fitting to visit where the “successor of Peter and Paul”, the pope, is elected. The papal conclaves are held in the Chapel and the new pope makes his first appearance there before he comes out onto the balcony to greet the people.
Viva il Papa!