The Papacy

Important Popes and historical events surrounding them

Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel

The homestretch of your visit to the Vatican Museum, and one of the most famous masterpieces in the world. This wing of the museum includes works by some of the greatest painters on your way to the Capella Sistina. This winding path takes some time and if the summertime crowds are present it may take even longer. Take a short break perhaps and if you’re traveling with kids make sure nobody needs to use the restroom.


Gallery of Maps and Tapestries

Longer than a football field the Gallery of Maps and Tapestries covers the distance between the main body of the Museum and the Apostolic Palace and St. Peter’s Basilica. To find it on a map will help you to better keep your bearings. Hung on the walls are forty maps completed by Ignazio Danti and commissioned in 1580 by Pope Gregory XIII. They act as a walking tour of Italian history. Just beyond, is the Gallery of Tapestries, a collection of tapestries from the 15th and 17th centuries.


Room of Constantine

Intended for use as a reception hall, the room is decorated with four events from the life of Constantine including, Vision of the Cross, Battle at Milvian Bridge, Baptism of Constantine and the Donation of Rome. Though this room was planned by Pope Julius II and Raphael it was not executed and completed before the two had died.


Raphael Rooms

Comprised of four stanzas (rooms) the Raphael Rooms were commissioned in 1508/1509 by Pope Julius II. Having secured the services of both Michelangelo and Raphael just down the hall from each other Julius set about decorating his papal apartments with the greatest of the High Renaissance. Although there are many individual pieces throughout the rooms that detail specific moments from the history of the papacy as well as theological iconography a few of the ones that shouldn’t be missed are Parnassus, Fire in the Borgo, Liberation of St. Peter, and the School of Athens seen above.


Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel was restored between 1477 and 1480 by Pope Sixtus IV from whom the Chapel is named. He recruited Renaissance greats such as Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Roselli to decorate the walls. His nephew Pope Julius II entrusted Michelangelo with the ceiling and lunettes in 1508. Michelangelo returned again in 1533 at the behest of Clement VII to paint the Last Judgement on the altar wall. Despite being one of the world’s most famous tourist sites, the Chapel is still very important in the Catholic Church. This is where the Cardinal’s meet during conclave to elect the next Bishop of Rome and Successor of Peter. Most won’t need directions to the ceiling and Last Judgement but if you can, find Perugino’s Handing over of the Keys and Botticelli’s Punishment of Korah.

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Vatican Museum: Courtyard and Garden

Visitors to the Vatican Museums are bound to notice a few odds and ends kept in the museum courtyard. There’s just a few but each one is worth mention. Come on out and see one of the world’s most exclusive backyards.


Base from the Column of Antoninus Pius

Located on a large deck between the Pinacoteca wing and the Pio-Clementine wing, is the base of the Column of Antoninus Pius. The column was originally erected by Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus to honor their predecessor. Though the column has not been preserved, the base serves as an excellent symbolic illustration of an emperor’s deification. The relief featured most prominently shows the Emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina being flown upward by a winged genius while personifications of the Campus Martius and Roma flank the figures. Two other sides illustrate a decursio, a cavalry salute during which they ride in a circle around the deified emperor.


Cortile della Pigna

Translated into English as the “Courtyard of the Pine” the courtyard of the Belvedere Palace is the home of a seemingly innocuous bronze pinecone. This pinecone, however, dates from the 1st century AD and was originally located near the pantheon. Used as a fountain, in ancient times the pinecone was moved to Old Saint Peter’s during the Middle Ages. It now sits in the exedra designed by Bramante. Flanking it are two replicas of peacocks that used to decorate the mausoleum of Hadrian. The originals are now kept in the Braccio Nuovo.


“Sphere within Sphere”

Most likely one of the youngest pieces in the Vatican, “Sphere within Sphere” was designed by Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro in the 1990’s. One of a few located around the world, the actual meaning behind the sculpture has been difficult to come by. Unquestionably thought provoking, the golden sphere sits in the center of the courtyard.

You may also be interested in a tour of the Vatican Gardens. Tickets are only offered as a guided tour which includes access to the museum, gardens, and an audio guide. The tour is tour two hours long and is available on every working day except Wednesday and Sunday (The days when the Pope holds audiences.) Find the link here.

Note: According to the Museum website, tours of the gardens have been suspended until further notice. I’m guessing it’s due to Pope Francis’s busy schedule. I’ll keep an eye on it and up date when it changes.

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The Laocoön

Laocoon and his Sons, Pio-Clementine wing of the Vatican Museum.

The Laocoön tells the story of the Trojan Priest Laocoön, who famously warned the Trojans not to trust the Greeks. Although you may not have heard of his name, you probably are familiar with his warning as the lines from Virgil have become synonymous with the Trojan War.

Detail from The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Domenico Tiepolo (1773) photo credit to

Detail from The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Domenico Tiepolo (1773) photo credit to

Then Laocoön rushes down eagerly from the heights of the citadel to confront them all, a large crowd with him, and shouts from far off: ‘O unhappy citizens, what madness? Do you think the enemy’s sailed away? Or do you think any Greek gift’s free of treachery? Is that Ulysses’s reputation? Either there are Greeks in hiding, concealed by the wood, or it’s been built as a machine to use against our walls, or spy on our homes, or fall on the city  from above, or it hides some other trick: Trojans, don’t trust this horse. Whatever it is, I’m afraid of Greeks even those bearing gifts.’

The priest then threw his spear into the wooden horse, a hollow sound ringing, but the Trojans ignored him. To silence his warnings, the God Poseidon (Or Neptune) sent two serpents to strangle Laocoön and his sons, the struggle that is the focus of the sculpture.

It’s estimated that the life size work was created in the second century BCE, about 180-170, although the date is difficult to pin down. Pliny the Elder makes note of the sculpture residing in the home of the Emperor Titus and credits three artists with it’s creation: Athenodorus, Agesander, and Polydorus. The piece was lost however until January of 1506, when it was rediscovered on the Oppian Hill, near the site of Nero’s Domus Aurea.

With a close up like this you can really see the precision and the detail

With a close up like this you can really see the precision and the detail

Pope Julius II got wind of the discovery and had the piece installed in the Belvedere Palace, part of the Vatican. The unearthing of the sculpture created a watershed movement through Italy. Artists gathered to study the movement and motion of the figures as well as the level of emotion in the expressions of Laocoön and his sons. Michelangelo was noted to be especially interested in the depiction of the human form and you can see it’s influence in late Renaissance art. When Peter Paul Rubens traveled to Italy in his early twenties, he made detailed sketches of Laocoön, as well as the Farnese Hercules, and the Belvedere Torso.

Sketch by Peter Paul Rubens, courtesy of

Sketch by Peter Paul Rubens, courtesy of

Laocoon Sketch by Baccio Bandinelli, Uffizi Gallery

Laocoon Sketch by Baccio Bandinelli, Uffizi Gallery

The perceived motion, open expression and dramatic rendering were all qualities of Hellenistic artwork, and would serve to transform Renaissance art into the Mannerist and Baroque stages. Artists just learning their craft took diligent notes, then returned to their studios to replicate the perfection of the Greeks in their own creations.

Today, you can see the Laocoön in the Pio-Clementine wing of the Vatican Museum.

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Pope Gregory VII

Pope Gregory VII, from

Pope Gregory VII, from

Pope Gregory VII was pontiff from 1073 till 1085. He earns a notable place in the Pope series for his involvement in the Investiture Controversy that was on going during the 11th and 12th centuries. As a Cardinal, he was an economic reformer, credited with a period of economic growth in Rome, but his actions as Pope came to define his lifetime.

The power of investiture was typically given to nobility and rulers. To “invest” someone essentially means to appoint he person to a position of power. For centuries, churches had been built by a King or ruler’s charity and remained under that ruler’s protection. Appointing lay officials naturally fell under their umbrellas as well. The kings took advantage of this right and invested loyal followers with powerful positions in return for continued support. In a similar fashion, the U.S. President has the power to appoint cabinet members and justices to high-ranking offices. The ability to “invest” was an therefore a crucial power in medieval Europe. However, allowing secular kings to appoint high ranking Church officials weakened the Church by comparison and the Pope especially.

In short, the Popes were not pleased with secular powers appointing some of God’s highest servants. They believed that power should rest in the hands of the Pope. And once the Pope had the power to appoint clerical leaders all over Europe, the Holy See then extends it’s own power through every kingdom in the land through it’s chosen representatives.

It turned out to be one of the most important power struggles in the Middle Ages and all the Church needed was an opportunity to take that power back. It came in 1056, when Henry IV became Holy Roman Emperor at six years old. Seizing the moment of weakness, the Church created the College of Cardinals to officially elect the Pope and cut ties with the Holy Roman Emperor that had been in place since the reign of Charlemagne.

Dictatus Papae, from

Dictatus Papae, from

Then in 1075 Pope Gregory VII laid down the law in the papal bull known as “Dictatus Papae” or Powers of the Pope. It claimed that the church in Rome had authority over all others, and officials from that church had authority as well. Important for this discussion is the flat out proclamation that the Pope can appoint and dispose Bishops, without holding a synod. The Church officially removed the power of investiture from the rulers of Europe and saved it for themselves.

The next year, Gregory deposes Henry IV, excommunicates him, and absolves and forbids all Christians from serving him. The Pope fired the King.

"Walk to Canossa," Wikipedia, Henry appears at the door of Pope Gregory

“Walk to Canossa,” Wikipedia, Henry appears at the door of Pope Gregory

But Gregory overplayed his power as the keeper of the keys to heaven. In 1077, at Canossa, Henry the deposed king, makes a brilliant move. He travels to the Pope’s residence seeking forgiveness. Barefoot, basically wearing a potato sack, Henry presents the perfect image of the penitent Christian. Playing on the Pope’s primary role of priest, Gregory has few choices except to restore the contrite ruler to his throne. In 1084, the empire strikes back. Henry returns and brings his army down into Italy and razes the city of Rome, forcing Gregory to flee into exile.

Henry establishes a pope that was more amenable, Anti-Pope Clement III. But Gregory was not without friends an supporters, and the supporters who manage to escape Rome meet and a place called Quedlinberg to elect Urban II and chase Clement out of town. If you’re ever in Rome, take a look at the fantastic walls that surround Vatican City and you’ll understand what it was like to be Pope back in the day. Pope Urban II would cause his own ripples throughout Europe as would the eventual compromise reached by the Popes and Emperors.

The long-term effects of the Investiture Controversy essentially weakened the kings and rulers in Germany and Italy as the Papacy gained strength and power into the 14th and 15th centuries. It separated the Church into it’s own entity and left behind a secular Europe with it’s own bureaucratic system. It consolidated the Church’s authority as a self-governing body and placed a series of representatives loyal to the Church and Pope across Europe.

The contest between the Church and secular rulers would appear again in the 15th century between Pope Boniface VIII and King Philip IV of France. Stay tuned!

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Pope Leo III


courtesy of wikipedia

Pope Leo III rose through the ranks of Roman society to succeed Adrian I in 795. Upon his appointment, Leo sent word to Charlemagne, who promised protection in return for prayers. That protection proved handy, as slighted Roman nobles remained hostile to Leo, and in 799 he was attack and disposed by a mob. Forcibly removed, he fled to Charlemagne who sent him back to the city with and escort. Leo’s greatest moment, in a historical context, came on Christmas Day 800 AD, when he crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor. From a Roman perspective, this caused a divide with the Eastern Empire, and disagreements as to who actually ruled what. From a European perspective, this invested Charlemagne with the authority of an Emperor and the blessing of the Pope.

Where you can find Leo today: Not much remains, but at the Lateran Basilica you can find the Leonian Triclinium, a copy of the mosaics that decorated the banquet hall built by Leo III. Also, as an indication of the status of Charlemagne within the Church, you can find the equestrian statue of Charlemagne directly across from Constantine’s in the Scala Regia.

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Pope Gregory I


Pope Gregory I, otherwise known as St. Gregory the Great, was elected Pope in 590 AD and served until 604 AD. Son of a prominent Roman family, Gregory was raised during a difficult time in Roman history. In the Fourth century, Rome had been abandoned for the wealth of eastern Byzantium, leaving Rome without an Emperor. In 476 AD, Rome finally fell to the Gothic invasions that had been plaguing the borders steadily for a century. It was during this time of wars and plague that Gregory grew up on the Caelian Hill, eventually become urban prefect when he was thirty-two.

In 574, Gregory chose to lead a life of contemplation and prayer, and promptly entered the Monastery of St. Andrew. His devoutness earned him the notice of the Pope, who appointed Gregory Deacon of Rome, and sent him as a delegate to Constantinople.

In 590, Gregory was brought back to the secular world as Pope Gregory I. He was to a great extent a civic protector of the abandoned city, and negotiated a series of peace treaties with the invading barbarians and Lombards. In religious matters, Gregory is credited with rejuvenating the Church’s missionary work, send Augustine to convert Britain. He revised the liturgy and the sacraments, harnessed the Churches resources towards helping the poor, and continued a monastic lifestyle. He is the patron Saint of musicians, singers, students, and teachers.

Where you can find Gregory today:

Gregory I is interred in St. Peter’s Basilica but walking around Rome you can still find allusions to his life. During Gregory’s time as Pope, Rome was hit by a terrible plague. In an effort to end it, Gregory led a march through the city. At Hadrian’s Tomb legend has it Gregory had a vision of the Archangel Michael on top of the tomb, sheathing his sword, signifying that Rome would be spared. The 18th century version can be seen atop the Castel St. Angelo today.

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Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Facade of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Facade of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Begun near the site of the ancient Temple of Minerva, the church is the only Gothic style church in Rome. The trademarks of Gothic architecture, pointed arches and ribbed vaults, are found inside along with the Carafa Chapel, Michelangelo’s Christ Bearing the Cross, and Bernini’s Monument to the Venerable Maria Raggi. Inside are also the tombs of the Medici Popes: Clement VII and Leo X.

Fun Fact: This is the church where the trials of Galileo and Martin Luther took place.


Don’t miss the Elephant outside in the square. The Egyptian obelisk was discovered in the garden and Alexander XII gave it to Bernini to erect it in the piazza. The elephant was a symbol of wisdom, and dedicates itself to the wisdom of the Romans and Egyptians.

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The Counter Reformation and Baroque Art

Remember Martin Luther and his 95 Theses? He’s responsible for kick-starting the Protestant Reformation throughout Europe. The movement quickly spread to most of Germany the Netherlands and parts of France, so much so that, Pope Paul V and other leaders of the Roman Church (aka Catholic Church) called a meeting known as the Council of Trent, in order to shore up and restore much of their influence in the wake of the Protestant movement.

A major area of contention for the two sides was the use of didactic images, images used to teach. Where Protestant churches were destroying their decorative artwork, Catholic churches amped up their decoration. The Council of Trent decided that art needed to teach and appeal to the audience emotionally. And it needed to be clear.

Church officials took a look at the Mannerist style coming out of Italy at the time. The subjects were ambiguous, overwrought and they needed to go. Artist whose works were caught in the middle of this, like Michelangelo, had to adjust or risk losing their patronage. Michelangelo was in the middle of his Last Judgment when it was decided all his subjects must be fully clothed.

Artists at the time had been moving away from mannerism, seeking forms with greater naturalism. Artists that lead the way into the Baroque Era are Titan, Michelangelo, and the Carracci Brothers.

 Examples of Mannerism

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