What are the top 10 Vatican Museum Must Sees?
With over 7 kilometers of art galleries, the Vatican Museums are among the largest in the world. Find out what not to miss!
There is so much to see in the Vatican Museums, if I listed it all here, this page would be way too long to follow. And, frankly, as often as I have visited the Vatican museums, I always see something new!
Whether it's your first time visiting the Vatican Museums, or you have limited time and just want to make sure you see the highlights, there are some important works in the Vatican Museums you should not miss.
Some of these are things you will see no matter how you visit the museums.
For example, everyone ends up at the Sistine Chapel, so there is no chance of missing that! But there are some other things you will have to make a decision to include. And, some of the things on this list are entire rooms, so I'll let you know the most important thing(s) to see there.
In order of how you walk through the museums, these Vatican Museum Must Sees include, but are not limited to:
There is a very special staircase you cannot normally visit in the Vatican museums, designed by Bramante. And in 1932, architect Giuseppe Momo designed another one, which was inspired by the original Bramante Staircase.
His staircase, like Bramante's, is a double helix (like DNA!) It is composed of two staircases which theoretically allow people to go up and down without crossing each other. I say theoretical because this staircase is now intended ONLY as the exit from The Vatican Museums.
If you are visiting the Vatican museums with a tour, you will usually not exit the museums via this staircase, as you typically go from the Sistine Chapel into St. Peter's Basilica. Depending on the tour company, the guide might show you this staircase. But if you go on your own, here's what you need to know in order not to miss this iconic staircase:
As soon as you come up the escalators, you will see to your right a large gift-shop. Go into that gift-shop. There is no need to buy anything here (there are plenty more gift-shops as you go through the museums, trust me. Why weigh yourself down before you begin this long visit?)
No, the reason to go into the gift shop is because that is where the staircase is!
So go and check it out, take lots of pix but DO NOT go down the staircase, because once you exit the museums, you are out, and there is no re-entry. After taking your pix, head back towards the escalators where you arrived, and towards the rest of the museums.
Why this is in my list of Vatican Museum Must Sees: I don't think this was the intention when it was created, but it has become one of the most photographed things in the Vatican museums. It really is lovely, and easy to see without taking too much time, so go check it out.
The Vatican Pinacoteca is essentially a paintings gallery.
It is often overlooked and under-visited. To me this is a shame, because there are several masterpieces in there that in my opinion are absolutely Vatican Museum Must Sees.
To visit the Pinacoteca, either book a tour that includes this, or, if going on your own, visit this first. Once you come up the big escalators at the entry, and into the museums, the Pinacoteca will be on your right.
There are so many works by artists I love, including Caravaggio's Deposition, but the jewel in the crown so to speak, is Raphael's last work right before he died: the Transfiguration.
The Transfiguration relates to stories of the Gospel of Matthew, and depicts the dual human and divine nature of Jesus Christ. The top half is painted in light colors and shows Jesus flanked by the prophets Elijah and Moses. He seems to be the only serene one in the painting.
The bottom half is dark, because it's an earthly painting with a human, dark scene. On the right side we see a boy who is apparently possessed (he has epilepsy.) His parents are anguished, and the apostles are shown with a look of wonder on their faces, as they realize that Jesus Christ not only lives on, but that faith can cure the sick boy. Their outstretched arms link the bottom with the top of the painting.
It was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de' Medici, who was to become Pope Clement VII. Raphael had not quite finished it when he died prematurely in 1520 (that is another story.)
The painting was originally meant to be an altarpiece for a church in France, but the pope decided to keep it in Rome. Later, it did make its way to France when Napoleon got his hands on it for a while. But the painting finally wound up in the Pinacoteca of the Vatican Museums. Lucky for us!
Why is this painting so significant and why is it on my list of Vatican Museum Must Sees? The Transfiguration is seen as the bridge between what is called "High Renaissance" painting (early 1500's), and "Baroque style" painting (early 1600's.)
Raphael used chiaroscuro ("light on dark", a technique made even more famous by Caravaggio), to highlight the darkness of the sick boy on earth (at the bottom of the painting), and the lightness of Jesus's body in heaven (at the top of the painting).
And unlike so many of Raphael's previous paintings, including in the Raphael rooms in the Vatican Museums, the figures in this painting portray extreme and very human emotions: awe, disbelief, anguish.
This painting inspired Michelangelo's "The Last Judgement", on the wall of the Sistine Chapel.
So the painting is not only amazing to look at, but it's a very important piece as far as art history and art appreciation go. (If you'd like to read a more detailed analysis of this painting, visit the Encyclopedia of Art website.)
The Pinecone Courtyard, or Cortile della Pigna, is named for the nearly 13-foot high pinecone sitting at one end. The giant pinecone is made of bronze and dates to the 1st century BCE. It was originally found in the Campus Martius (Campo Marzio) area of Rome, which is near the Pantheon.
The two bronze peacocks on either side of the pine cone are copies of ancient sculptures that flanked an entrance to Hadrian's Mausoleum (today Castel Sant'Angelo.) The originals can be seen in the Braccio Nuovo wing of the Vatican Museums.
The Pinecone Courtyard is part of what was once a much longer space, designed in 1506 by Donato Bramante (the first guy to design the cuppola of Saint Peter's Basilica, before Michelangelo finished the job. He also built that staircase I told you about above.)
That courtyard, called the Belvedere Courtyard, was meant to link the Vatican Palace (where the pope lived) with the Villa Belvedere (a sort of pleasure resort with a nice view of Rome, hence its name "Belvedere.") Today the Villa Belvedere has been turned into part of the Vatican Museums.
The Belvedere Courtyard was a first in its design and became the inspiration for courtyard design around the world for centuries to come. Later, a library was built across the middle of it, making this courtyard smaller (the one you see today.) Neither the library nor the other half of the courtyard are open to visitors.
So what about that pinecone? It was found near the Pantheon around the Baths of Agrippa (the guy who first built the Pantheon, and who was also Emperor Augustus' right-hand man.) The pinecone was once a giant fountain, with water coming out of the top and scales and running down the sides. Can you just imagine how lovely that must have been?
Since these were pre-Christian times, the pinecone was (probably) part of a pagan temple, dedicated to Isis. In mystic or occult circles, the pine cone also represents the pineal gland, which is responsible for our perception of light. The pineal gland (and so the pine cone), are symbols of the "third eye", which is the so-called “Epicenter of Enlightenment." I do not mean to go off on an existential tangent here, but I do think that having a symbol like this, flanked by two peacocks, in the middle of the Vatican Museums, is an interesting juxtaposition.
Why is the Pinecone courtyard on my list of Vatican Museum Must Sees?
First of all, I think the pinecone in itself is fascinating, since it is from ancient Rome, but also has hidden meaning.
Second, because, like the spiral staircase, the strange modern art globe in the center is another of the most photographed things in the Vatican Museums (despite it being pooh-poohed for being...too modern? too weird? And yet, people seem to love it!)
Third, because it does give you what I think is a needed moment of fresh air and open space to rest, gather your thoughts and impressions, and re-group for the rest of the museums.
It's hard to miss seeing this courtyard but I suppose you could you if you were on a fast-track to the Sistine Chapel. To see it, either stop by after visiting the Pinacoteca, or after a visit to the Pio-Clementine museums. The visit could take you anywhere from 10 minutes and up, depending on how much time you spend resting, taking pix or even grabbing a bite at the cafe there.
The Pio-Clementine museum houses some of the best examples of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures found anywhere in the world. The museum is named for the two popes who oversaw its foundation in the late 1700's: Clement XIV and Pius VI.
This museum is pretty large and houses many different rooms, each fascinating and chock full of things to see in its own right.
It's easy to skip this museum if you are on a fast-track to the Sistine Chapel, so if you want to see these Vatican Museum must sees, you will need to make a decision to include this museum.
As you start making your way through the Pio-Clementine museums, you will come upon an open-air courtyard, called the Octagonal Courtyard (for its shape.)
It would be easy to simply walk through it to the other side and keep going. By this time, you will have already come across lots of sculptures. I know how one can get overwhelmed by all these ancient Greek and Roman statues ... and start getting sculpture fatigue.
But while to me, it is worth really soaking up all the art in here, there are at least two Vatican Museum Must Sees right in this courtyard.
The Laocoön is a sculpture group, found in 1506 on the Esquiline Hill in Rome. The sculpture, from around 30 BCE, depicts the Trojan priest Laocoön and his two sons losing a battle to the death with two sea serpents.
Pliny the Elder had described a statue just like this, as being a masterpiece made by three sculptors from Rhodes, and residing in the palace of the Roman Emperor Titus (part of the Flavian Dynasty, who built the Colosseum.) It's pretty well accepted that this is the statue Pliny was referring to, although this statue may have been a copy from a 2nd century BCE original.
The Laocoön sculpture depicts a moment from Virgil's Aeneid, which recounts the Trojan War. You may remember a scene in which the Greeks leave a giant wooden horse outside the gates of Troy. The Trojans naïvely bring in the horse, and subsequently the Greeks who'd been hiding in the horse jump out and destroy Troy. Laocoön, a Trojan priest, had warned the Trojans not to bring in the horse. The gods Athena and Poseidon, who sided of course with the Greeks, sent two sea serpents to kill the priest.
Aeneas heeded the priest's warning and fled Troy, bound for Italian shores. And for Romans, this is a big deal, since Aeneas was one of the forefathers of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome.
Why is the Laocoön sculpture on my list of top 10 Vatican Museum Must Sees? Well first of all, as I said, the story itself is important to the founding legend of Rome. And, second of all, this sculpture is pretty special, considering that it depicts real human agony, with dignity, and without any redemptive qualities that later Christian art shows of saints and martyrs. It is considered by many to be one of the highest-quality sculptures in the world.
The Apollo Belvedere is a marble Greek sculpture from around the 1st century BCE (although it was probably a Roman copy of an earlier bronze statue made by the Greek sculptor Leochares.) It was once considered one of the greatest ancient sculptures ever made.
The statue was found in the 15th century, and belonged to Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere. Once he was elected as Pope Julius II, he had the statue moved to the Vatican, into the Belvedere Courtyard (hence its nickname.) It was the first piece in the art collection of the Vatican, before there were Vatican Museums.
The sculpture portrays the god Apollo, (who existed in both Greek and Roman mythology), as an archer who just shot an arrow. His face is serene, and even the relaxed body portrays a god who is at ease, and unchallenged by the effort of shooting his arrow. The sculpture shows the "ideal" male body, without a single flaw.
In the 18th century, the height of neo-classicism, the German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann said, "of all the works of antiquity that have escaped destruction, the statue of Apollo represents the highest ideal of art."
During the Romantic movement, around the late 1800's, the Apollo Belvedere started to lose its appeal and today is no longer considered the height of artistic beauty.
So why is the Apollo Belvedere in my list of Vatican Museum Must Sees?
First, because it was once considered to be the ideal of classical male beauty. Second, because this is the piece that began the entire collection in the Vatican Museums. Third, it was said to be Napolean's favorite piece of art that he took from the Vatican to the Louvre (of course after Napolean's fall, this statue and most of the rest of the art he took was returned to Rome and in this case, to the Vatican.)
The Sala Rotonda, or Rotunda Room, of the Vatican Museums has a lot going for it.
First of all, it is modelled after the Pantheon, right down to oculus in the ceiling, and to the decorative rosettes in each of the little niches in the dome. It is smaller in scale than the pantheon but still impressive.
Second, the floor is also not to be missed: It is made up of tiny, intricately designed mosaics from around the 2nd century and is simply stunning. These mosaics used to decorate an ancient Roman villa and are incredibly intact and colorful. There are other ancient black and white mosaics in the room that you can even walk on ... something I find shocking, but you can!
Third, but definitely not least, is the giant (about 40-feet in diameter) porphyry basin in the center of the room. What is porphyry you ask?
There are two answers to this: The first answer is that it is a type of igneous rock (which means it was created from cooled lava), that is full of large pieces of crystal. The rock is extremely hard, and difficult to cut. And unbelievable heavy.
So imagine about 2000 years ago, the emperor Nero ordering a bath for his Domus Aurea (Golden House), and having someone get this giant rock out of Egypt (there is one quarry in Ancient Egypt where all the porphyry rock came from) ... and then carve it into a single piece like this and get it to Rome?
The second answer as to what is porphyry is that it is a color. The word comes from the Greek word for purple, and in ancient Rome, purple was for royalty. This particular basin is a reddish purple. Basically, when you see porphyry marble around Rome, just know it was hauled over here from Egypt, and it must have been for a pretty special person.
So do I need to tell you why this room and the basin are in my Top 10 List of Vatican Museum Must Sees? The shape of the room, the exquisite, detailed mosaics on the floor, and this giant, amazing porphyry bathtub. It's truly awesome.
It's impossible to miss a visit to the Galleria degli Arazzi, or the Tapestry Hall, as you literally have to walk through it to get to the Sistine Chapel.
But it could be easy to breeze past these special works of art, and not really know what exactly you should look at. Most tours cover at least some of the tapestries room, but in case you are on your own, take some time to notice these things:
First of all, look up. The ceiling looks like a plaster 3-dimensional design. It's actually painted!
As for the tapestries, they are from two different periods and regions. The ones on the right were made in the 17th century in Rome for Pope Urban VIII (Barberini), depicting scenes from his life. These are nice but the most amazing tapestries are along the left wall.
Here you have tapestries woven in Brussels by Pieter van Aelst’s School, from the 1500's. They made the tapestries based on drawings by Raphael’s pupils, during the pontificate of Clement VII. These tapestries depict the life of Jesus.
Each tapestry took years to make. They were finely woven by the best weavers of the day (who were in Flanders, or Belgium), out of wool but also silk, and gold and silver thread. Notice in particular the tapestry of The Resurrection of Christ (below.)
My photo cannot do this tapestry justice. You have to really look closely to see how amazing this weaving is. Notice all the shading and even how the weavers were able to depict human emotion...using thread!
But the most amazing part of this particular tapestry? As you approach it from the left, keep your eyes on Jesus's eyes ... keep walking and watch his eyes. By the time you pass the tapestry, the eyes are still with you! It's a wonderful example of "moving perspective", a technique you find sometimes in paintings (like the Mona Lisa.) But to do this with a tapestry takes a lot more mastery and talent, and requires some very fancy stitching indeed!
Why is the Tapestry Gallery in my Top Ten list of Vatican Museum Must Sees? Because even though you will visit it anyway, you should pay attention to some of the detail in here, on the ceiling and on these amazing tapestries, in particular the Resurrection tapestry. Besides the fact that I always love seeing people's faces when they realize the eyes have followed them, I think this level of work and craftsmanship deserves some attention.
After you go through the Tapestries Gallery, you will inevitably pass through the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche (Maps Gallery.) As with the Tapestries Hall, it would be easy to just coast through here, beelining for the Sistine Chapel.
In the case of the Maps Gallery, it's pretty hard not to notice the ceiling, a must-see all by itself (and one of the most photographed ceilings in the museums besides Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel!)
The Gallery of Maps contains the largest collection of geographical paintings ever created. These wall-sized maps depict Italy and Italian provinces, and were commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century.
These maps, based on drawings by the Dominican Monk Ignazio Danti, are amazingly accurate for being made in the 1500's! The maps are really well-detailed, showing mountain ranges and even boats in the water, but they are also somewhat whimsical, containing fantastic sea creatures and even Neptune, the Roman god of the sea.
Why is the Maps Room on my Top Ten List of Vatican Museum Must Sees? As with the Tapestries Gallery, it's too easy to walk through here without really looking at the art. But the maps are really genius, and even fun to look at. See if you can find the depictions of Neptune in some of the maps!
At one time, popes lived inside what is now the Vatican Museums. This collection of residences is generally called "The Papal Apartments" (and does not have anything to do with where the current pope resides!)
The two most spectacular of these are the Borgia apartments and the Raphael rooms. These are easily missed/skipped if you want to shortcut to the Sistine Chapel. But as this page is about what I consider Vatican Museum Must Sees, I am telling you not to miss them!
The Borgia apartments, frescoed by Pinturicchio, a contemporary of Raphael, actually come after the Raphael rooms. I just wanted to show you what else you would get to see if you include the Raphael Rooms. It's all wonderful and a feast for the eyes!
While there is a lot to see in the Papal Apartments, we are focusing this page on Vatican Museum Must Sees.
So let's talk about The School of Athens by Raphael. I think this painting actually makes the top ten list for a lot of people! It's one of the most famous paintings in the Vatican Museums besides Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel.
Renaissance Popes Julius II and Leo X had the best artists of the day decorate their sumptuous homes. And that meant hiring Raphael. In 1508 Pope Julius II hired Raphael to paint a room called the Stanza della Segnatura. This was right after he commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel! Can you imagine living in the time and just being able to hire these guys?
In the Stanza della Segnatura, there are actually four paintings by Raphael, one on each wall. They represent the themes: Theology, Poetry, Philosophy, and Justice.
So enjoy all the Raphael paintings in these rooms but in particular, stop and take note of the School of Athens (philosophy.)
The painting is a fantasy gathering of the greatest philosophers, mathematicians and thinkers from classical antiquity. They are all together in this one painting even though they came from different places and different moments in time. That's already whimsical in itself.
But what Raphael did was even more fun.
He put the faces of his buddies in there: Plato, in the center talking to Aristotle, has Leonardo Da Vinci's face. Another Renaissance master, Donato Bramante (who designed the Belvedere Courtyard we talked about above, and was the first one to design the dome for St. Peter's Basilica), appears on Euclid's body (he's the one drawing on a chalkboard.) Raphael himself is also in there, on the bottom right corner, looking out at us. And, while Raphael was painting this extraordinary masterpiece, he popped into the Sistine Chapel and saw what Michelangelo was doing ... and put Michelangelo front and center of The School of Athens, in the form of the Greek philosopher Heracleitus (he is the one resting his head on his arm, and with boots on, sitting on the steps.)
What is so special about Raphael's School of Athens and why is it in my Top Ten List of Vatican Museum Must Sees? Many art historians and experts consider Raphael's School of Athens one of the greatest paintings of the High Renaissance. His use of the Renaissance color palette, and mix of ancient and contemporary Roman architectural elements to create unity in the painting, and the theme itself (a coming together of earthly and godly elements), all turn this painting into one of the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance.
And of course, no visit to the Vatican Museums would be complete without the Sistine Chapel.
In fact, it's usually the only reason people come to the Vatican Museums. And since it is at the very end of the museums, you won't miss it.
When you have a tour of the Vatican Museums, they will give you an explanation of the chapel before you go in, since you are supposed to be quiet in there.
If you go in on your own, here is what to look for once you are inside the Sistine Chapel:
I think the most famous part of the Sistine Chapel is the series of paintings by Michelangelo on the ceiling. These are 9 scenes from the book of Genesis. And the most famous painting in this series, perhaps one of the most iconic paintings in the world, is the Creation of Adam.
But take the time to look at the rest of the panels on the ceiling too.
Every time I visit the Sistine Chapel, I notice everyone looking straight up.
Yes, the star attraction is Michelangelo's ceiling, in particular, the Creation of Adam. And with good reason. It's spectacular. And one of the world's most famous pieces of art. So get a good look and enjoy.
But also, take the time to enjoy some other things in here as well, especially Michelangelo's other great masterpiece in this room: The Last Judgement.
This painting was done later, between 1535 and 1541. And by this time, Michelangelo was in his sixties. He'd thought he was done with painting ... he'd thought of himself primarily as a sculptor. But the new Pope Paul III (Farnese), convinced Michelangelo he had more in him, as a painter but also as an architect. So he had Michelangelo finish St. Peter's Basilica. And the Pope had Michelangelo paint Il Giudizio Universale, The Last Judgement.
The painting shows the second coming of Christ on the Day of Judgment (Revelation of John.) Notice Jesus' position in the center, he is neither standing nor sitting, but almost in motion. On the bottom left are the souls selected for passage to heaven, and on the bottom right, are the damned souls being transported to hell by Charon on the river Styx.
Michelangelo painted The Last Judgement after the Sack of Rome in 1527. Also, he'd become much more devout as he'd gotten older, and had a lot of inner conflict about his younger, more pagan days. So the painting has a considerably darker feeling about it than the ceiling panels. And, if you look closely at the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew, just below Jesus and to our right, you can see that is Michelangelo's face. It was his way of atoning.
This painting is for me one of THE Vatican Museum Must Sees, as it shows a transition for Michelangelo, and so much drama and raw human emotion than many of his previous paintings.
And speaking of looking not only up and around, look down, too. This beautiful floor has a pattern called "Cosmatesque", so named for the Cosmati family that created this style and decorated churches around Italy, and particularly in Rome, in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Finally, in the last of my list of Vatican Museum Must Sees inside the Sistine Chapel, don't miss the wall panels underneath the ceiling.
Before Michelangelo came along and eclipsed their fame with his paintings, Pope Sixtus IV (for whom the Sistine Chapel is named), had the walls painted by Renaissance masters including: Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio, and Domenico Ghirlandaio (one of Michelangelo's mentors.) These frescos depict the Life of Moses and the Life of Christ, and truly are Vatican Museum Must Sees in their own right.
Of course you already know by now that the Sistine Chapel is at the top of everyone's list of Vatican Museum must sees.
In fact, it may be the ONLY thing people want to see when they visit these museums. But since it's not possible to see only the Sistine Chapel, I hope you will enjoy some of the other masterpieces there too.
Click here to visit the Vatican Museums website to view a map of the museums.
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