It’s a teeny, tiny country that is home to a big, big institution. Thanks to its portrayal in literature and film, frankly, I arrive expecting a Dan Brown adventure or two. Maybe I’ll decipher a centuries old code hidden in one of the endless statues and paintings. See that hand pointing? Follow the trajectory and there is a clue that I will instantly understand, which will lead me to a vast and undiscovered fortune hidden in a crypt. Or something like that.
It’s hard not to get swept up in the intrigue of the Vatican.
The home of the Roman Catholic Church certainly has a long and foreboding history, the kind that is most on display in the form of periodic papal addresses and the infrequent naming of a new pope.
When you approach the Vatican, surreptitiously leaving Rome and entering a small legally distinct enclave, St. Peter’s Basilica dominates the view. It surrounds on all sides and as one of the world’s largest temples, the façade, massive dome and its colonnade envelop all who enter. Tradition holds that St. Peter is buried here, and it is the burial place for many popes (including the first). There has been a church on the site since Roman times, and the current one has been in place since the early 1600s.
As a regular church visitor in my travels, I am rarely blown away by the average centuries-old cathedral. I mean, by design, they all kind of look the same. And the symbolism, decoration and intricate carving, while impressive, tend to blend together to me.
But St. Peter’s is on a different scale, in every sense of the word. St. Paul’s Cathedral, here in London, could easily fit inside it. Measuring at 600+ feet long, and almost 400 feet up to the dome from the floor, it can hold up to 60,000 people, basically the entire population of my hometown. The carved bronze canopy over the main altar, by Bernini, looks downright tiny as it sits under the dome, but it’s nearly 10 stories tall. The baby-sized cherubs that adorn the pools of holy water are each nearly six feet tall.
The other main reason to visit the Vatican, other than cleverly adding another check to the ‘countries I’ve visited’ list, is to see the Sistine Chapel. The chapel is part of the Vatican Museum which is one of the biggest museums I’ve ever been to, and the one way path through the space ends at the Sistine Chapel.
I didn’t do a ton of research before arriving, and hindsight being what it is, a little research may have been useful. As it was, we arrived at our scheduled entrance time, and thinking that we would just waltz into see Michelangelo’s masterpiece, we were feeling pretty good about how much time we had before the museum closed. But as we followed the path of rooms, we kept telling ourselves that it must be coming soon, the crowds are getting more dense, only to turn down yet another endless corridor.
When we finally, FINALLY, reached the Sistine Chapel, it was stunning, grandiose, breath taking, inspiring…fill in another adjective here that doesn’t quite do it justice. I wondered as we made our way through the Vatican Museum if the Sistine Chapel would be that much more beautiful than the rest of the stunning painted and carved ceilings. Would the masterpiece of all masterpieces be all it is cracked up to be?
Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes.
No cameras are allowed inside the chapel, and all of these photos are of the museum ceilings as we walked toward the Sistine Chapel. It gets much, much better! Hopefully the beauty of these photos gives some indication of how spectacular the whole place is.