Why you should visit the Cappella Paolina

While it may not be on every tourist itinerary, the Capella Paolina is definitely a must-see destination when visiting the Vatican City. Read on to find out why!

A beautiful chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the Capella Paolina is separated from the Sistine Chapel by the Sala Regia, a magnificent state hall. Being so close to Michelangelo’s more famous work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Capella Paolina is often overlooked. It fills the gap between the Basilica and the palace, being situated behind the portico of St. Peter’s Basilica. So when you’re finished admiring the Sistine Chapel, peel off from the crowds to see the Capella Paolina and see if you can spot Michelangelo’s self-portrait hidden within his work.

History of Cappella Paolina

Built by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger between 1538 and 1540, the chapel was commissioned by order of Pope Paul III as part of a major construction project focusing on the ceremonial rooms of the papal residence. The Capella Paolina and the papal palace are bound together to signify the dual seat of the papal power, to demonstrate the papal authority, ritual and ceremony. In other words, it served as both the Chapel of the Sacrament and the Chapel of the Conclave. Interestingly despite several changes and renovations that were done on the papal residence, no changes were made on the parts connecting the Cappella Paolina and the papal palace. This might be because there were already several other magnificent structures surrounding the area, include the Sistine Chapel, Sala Regia, Portone di Bronzo, Sala Ducale and St. Peter’s Basilica to name a few.

Pope Paull III dedicated the chapel to the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul, a festival to which he displayed particular devotion. Given the ceremonial and personal significance of the chapel, Paul III wanted to select great architects and artists to work on the building. With the need for much decoration, Michelangelo was chosen, who was at the height of his career at the time. Even before the unveiling of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, Paul III had already decided he was the right man for the job. This is demonstrated by a letter sent from Cardinal Alexander (Paul III’s nephew) to Bishop Marco Vigerio discussing the paintings to be carried out in the “new Chapel”, and is dated October 12, 1541. And so when the work went ahead, Michelangelo was there painting all the frescoes in the Cappella Paolina. Other artists were considered, such as Federico Zuccari and Lorenzo Sabbatini, but in the end, there was no greater man than Michelangelo.

What to see at the Cappella Paolina

The frescoes of Capella Paolina would end up being the last of Michelangelo’s paintings which other artists have noticed by his style and form, which had moved away from grace and aesthetic effect to a concern with accurately illustrating narrative. There are a number of reasons why this chapel is worth visiting. With astonishing history and rich culture alone being an excellent motive, the most appealing attraction is the artwork hidden inside. Michelangelo’s frescoes, most notably ‘The Conversion of Saul’ and ‘The Crucifixion of St Peter’ are an excellent credit to his artistic career. Both of these artworks were painted from 1542 to 1549, during the time Michelangelo was at the height of his fame. Sadly, the frescos did not live up to the hype and were seen as disappointments. Compared to his stunning pieces at the nearby Sistine Chapel, these frescoes were soon forgotten. Despite their past conflicts, these frescos are well worth the visit. Being restored in the early 2000s, their bright colours and glorious detail are better seen in person, with photos not doing them justice.

The Conclave’s Uses

The Capella Paolina has been used for several purposes. For instance, it was used for the papal conclave which led to the election of Pope Julius III. The structure is among the most impressive one in the Vatican City and a very special one at that. Before the opening of the conclave, the College of Cardinals assembled in the conclave to attend a sermon which reminded them of their obligation to serve the Church and God Almighty as ruler and guide. It is also the place where the cardinals sing “De Spiritu Santo”, which all members of the conclave must be present at. Since the 16th century, the Capella Paolina has also undergone certain renovations. One being in 2004, with the main purpose being to restore Michelangelo’s frescoes which had faded over time. In this time, dirt and grime was carefully removed from the paintings revealing its bright colours and hues once more. It has made this papal chapel the most preferred venue in which papal meetings are hosted. And slowly over time the right credit and admiration is being given to Michelangelo’s work which for a while was hugely underrated and criticised.

Related article: What is the best time of day to visit the Vatican?

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