Preserving the Sistine Chapel Is a Never-Ending Task. See Stunning Behind-the-Scenes Photos of What It Takes

“Preventative conservation” is the key to keeping the ceiling looking fresh.

Sarah Cascone, March 28, 2019

Artnet News

The Spider (the Multitel SMX 250) and the Sistine Chapel. Photo by Robert Polidori for WSJ Magazine.

In the 1980s, the Vatican famously began an extensive restoration of the Sistine Chapel, clearing away centuries of dirt and grime from Michelangelo’s famed frescos. When that project ended in 1994, a new one began: the careful monitoring and so-called “preventative conservation” of the works, which are now seen by close to seven million visitors each year. The name of the game? Constant vigilance.

In a special behind-the-scenes look, the Wall Street Journal Magazinevisited the chapel after hours to see how the delicate artworks are carefully monitored to make sure they are not threatened by contaminants brought in by hoards of visitors (more than 1,000 can crowd in at a time) who inadvertently track in dirt, dust, and leave behind traces of hair and skin.

To preserve the ceiling, the Vatican has installed LED lighting that doesn’t emit UV rays and won’t cause the paintings to fade. There is also a special HVAC system, donated in 2014 by the Carrier Corporation, that keeps the temperature constantly between 22 and 24 degrees Celsius (71.6 to 75.2 degrees Fahrenheit). To keep out impurities, four diffusers bring in and take out air. At night, staff members painstakingly dust and vacuum the entire museum. (All dust is analyzed to detect bacteria or fungi.)

“The humidity must never be more than 60 percent,” Vittoria Cimino, the director of the Conservator’s Office at the Vatican Museums, told the WSJ. “The carbon-dioxide level has to be kept lower than 800 parts per million. All these values have to be kept stable. But the number of people in the room makes that complicated. It can be one, or it can be a thousand. The human body produces heat. And it produces carbon dioxide. If we have to, we can completely change the air inside the chapel 60 times a day.”

The Annunciation, a 16th-century work by Marcello Venusti, inside the Vatican Museums’ Painting and Wood Materials Restoration Laboratory. Photo by Robert Polidori for WSJ Magazine.

Throughout the day, a Vatican conservation technician is monitoring sensors in the Sistine Chapel that track all of these variables.

But despite the Vatican’s best efforts, thin layers of contamination inevitably develop. Carbon dioxide reacts to the plaster of the frescos. Through the process of condensation and evaporation, bacteria accumulates. The result is an almost imperceptible whitish glaze of soluble salts above the surface of the painting. To prevent the work from being damaged, staff clean the frescos regularly and remove contaminants while they are still soluble, using a crane-like machine nicknamed the Spider—a Multitel SMX 250 self-propelled tracked platform—to access the high-up paintings.

The Sistine Chapel was commissioned in 1473. Michelangelo painted the ceiling between 1508 to 1512, and The Last Judgement from 1536 and 1541. The frescos on the side walls are by artists including Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo’s teacher. It’s an incredible amount of art per square inch in a space just 132 feet by 44 feet—and if all goes well, it will be preserved well into posterity.

See more photos below.

Members of the Vatican Museums’ conservation team, including (from left) Matteo Alessandrini, Alessandro Barbaresi, Vittoria Cimino, Francesca Persegati, Alessandra Zarelli, Matteo Mucciante and Marco Maggi. Photo by Robert Polidori for WSJ Magazine.
A master conservator demonstrating a technique for removing contaminants from a Botticelli fresco in the Sistine Chapel. Photo by Robert Polidori for WSJ Magazine.
The Spider (the Multitel SMX 250) and the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. Photo by Robert Polidori for WSJ Magazine.
Maestro di Fossa’s Histories of the Passion of Jesus, and part of Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished Saint Jerome in the Desert at the conservation lab at the Vatican Museums. Photo by Robert Polidori for WSJ Magazine.
The northern wall of the Sistine Chapel. Photo by Robert Polidori for WSJ Magazine.

Worn marble steps of Holy Stairs to be uncovered for public to climb

By Carol Glatz Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — For the first time in 300 years, the marble steps of the Holy Stairs will be free from the thick wooden panels installed in 1723 to protect the stairs and left uncovered for the public.

For at least 40 days, people will be able to touch and climb the bare stones that, according to tradition, are the ones Jesus climbed when Pontius Pilate brought him before the crowd and handed him over to be crucified.

Mei Wen of Perth, Australia, touches an area of the Holy Stairs where Jesus is believed to have fallen, during restoration work at the Pontifical Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs in Rome March 15, 2019. Wen is one of the major donors who contributed to the restoration of the sanctuary. Pilgrims will have the opportunity to climb the bare marble stairs for at least a month after an April 11 unveiling of the renovated sanctuary. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See HOLY-STAIRS-PILGRIMS March 15, 2019.

The soon-to-be cleaned steps and newly restored frescoed stairway will be unveiled April 11, the week before Holy Week, during a special blessing ceremony at the Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs. The marble steps were going to be left open to the public temporarily before the original and restored wooden panels would be put back on.

The decision was made during one of the final phases of the sanctuary’s restoration — a 20-year-long project overseen by the Vatican Museums and funded with the help of private donors, foundations and the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums.

Paolo Violini, the Vatican Museums’ head fresco restorer, and his team were so astonished and moved when they saw the degree to which the stone steps had been worn away, he felt this hidden testimony of faith had to be seen and experienced — even just temporarily — by today’s faithful.

A worker points to the Holy Stairs during restoration work at the Pontifical Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs in Rome March 15, 2019. Vatican restorers have removed the wood covering the stairs, which tradition maintains Jesus climbed when Pilate brought him before the crowd. Pilgrims will have the opportunity to climb the bare marble stairs for at least a month after an April 11 unveiling of the renovated sanctuary. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See HOLY-STAIRS-PILGRIMS March 15, 2019.

“It’s an extraordinary occasion to touch the same steps as Jesus and witness the faith of all the other people who came before us,” the sanctuary’s rector, Passionist Father Francesco Guerra, told Catholic News Service March 15.

“And it is a concrete way to become linked with those who came before us in history and the faith, who passed on the faith to us,” he said.

Tradition holds that St. Helen, mother of the Emperor Constantine, brought the stairs to Rome from Jerusalem in 326 A.D.

Notes from pilgrims are pictured after a wooden covering was removed over the Holy Stairs at the Pontifical Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs in Rome March 15, 2019. Pilgrims will have the opportunity to climb the bare marble stairs for at least a month after an April 11 unveiling of the renovated sanctuary. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See HOLY-STAIRS-PILGRIMS March 15, 2019.

The sanctuary, whose walls and ceilings are covered with newly restored decorative paintings and frescoes depicting Christ’s passion and events of the Old Testament, was built specifically for the stairs to be venerated by the public in the late 1580s, by order of Pope Sixtus V.

Since then, millions of people climbed the steps on their knees, slowly and unintentionally digging deep undulating ruts and furrows into the soft stone. One of the 28 steps was so worn away by people’s shoe tips, a hole had been bored straight through the thick slab of stone.

That happened, Violini said, because that was the step where pilgrims lingered longer, to lean down and kiss “the most important step” above, which is cracked down the middle and adorned with a metal cross and a raised metal grate. According to tradition, Jesus fell at the 11th step, cracking it with his knee. The cross marks the point of impact, Violini said, and the open grate covers what was said to have been a spatter of his blood.

A worker collects notes from pilgrims after wooden coverings over the Holy Stairs were removed during restoration work at the Pontifical Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs in Rome March 15, 2019. Pilgrims will have the opportunity to climb the bare marble stairs for at least a month after an April 11 unveiling of the renovated sanctuary. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See HOLY-STAIRS-PILGRIMS March 15, 2019.

A worker stuck his finger through the grate to scoop out some debris and show just how much stone had been rubbed away by centuries of people touching the spot. A cross also marks another step at the top of the staircase, indicating where, tradition said, had been another drop of blood.

Up until now, people had only been able to see — not touch — these areas through small glass panels in the wooden treads.

A few steps were still being uncovered March 15. Two workers chipped away some pieces of brick along the staircase walls to free the rusty metal hooks securing the 300-year-old walnut wood treads in place.

Notes from pilgrims are seen as workers remove a wooden covering over the Holy Stairs at the Pontifical Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs in Rome March 15, 2019. Pilgrims will have the opportunity to climb the bare marble stairs for at least a month after an April 11 unveiling of the renovated sanctuary. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See HOLY-STAIRS-PILGRIMS March 15, 2019.

Handwritten notes, holy cards, colored photographs, small coins, buttons and mounds of black dust spilled out from under the heavy plank, which was peppered with woodworm holes and stuck with wisps of spider silk.

Workers carefully bagged the written prayer requests and mementos, which had been stuck into the open slats in the stair risers. They were to be given to the Passionist Fathers in charge of the sanctuary for cataloging and study. The objects date back to no earlier than the 1950s, Violini said, which has led the restorers to believe the stairs had probably been cleaned for the Jubilee Year of 1950.

The Holy Stairs with concave indentations from years of wear from pilgrims are seen at the Pontifical Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs in Rome March 15, 2019. Vatican restorers have removed the wood covering the stairs, which tradition maintains Jesus climbed when Pilate brought him before the crowd. Pilgrims will have the opportunity to climb the bare marble stairs for at least a month after an April 11 unveiling of the renovated sanctuary. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See HOLY-STAIRS-PILGRIMS March 15, 2019.

Mei Wen, a member of the Vatican Museums’ Patrons of the Arts, came from her home in Perth, Australia, to see the steps being revealed.

She told CNS she became a major donor to the stairs’ restoration after she and her husband first climbed them in 2013.

“That year what we prayed for and reflected on sort of came true so, because of that, I made a commitment that I should donate to the restoration of this project, for the faithful who want to climb the stairs for whatever reasons, for spiritual or family reasons,” she said.

Restoring such “a special place,” she said, “is also for the art and the history of it.”

She said she was moved by seeing and touching the mementos and grooves in the marble “made by people climbing on their knees. It’s very real and it’s history made centuries ago, how could you not feel something?”

New look at the ancient

Two sarcophaguses of the Pius-Christian Museum from restoration and digitalization

Thursday 28 March 2019 | 04.00 p.m.
Conference Hall, Vatican Museums

New look at the ancient. Two sarcophaguses of the Pius-Christian Museum from restoration to digilitalization” is the title of the conference that will be held on Thursday 28 March, as part of the cycle of encounters of Thursdays in the Museums, in the Conference Hall of the Vatican Museums.

The key works will be two of the masterpieces of the Vatican collection ancient Christian art of the Pius-Christian Museum: the sarcophagus “of via Salaria” and the “great pastoral” sarcophagus, discovered in the nineteenth century near Rome. The conference – which will focus on the complex events in the conservation of these two ancient masterpieces but likewise on their modern public accessibility thanks to innovative technologies of restoration and representation – will be introduced by the Director of the Pope’s MuseumsBarbara Jatta.

The extraordinary moderator will be Giandomenico Spinola, and the speakers will be Umberto Utro, Alessandro Vella, Ulderico Santamaria, Stefano Spada, Marta Giommi and Daniele Nepi.


Leonardo

Il San Girolamo dei Musei Vaticani

22 March – 22 June 2019
Braccio di Carlo Magno

On the occasion of the celebrations for the five-hundredth anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, the Governorate of Vatican City State, along with the Vatican Museums, is celebrating the great Renaissance genius with an exhibition that, from22 March to 22 June 2019, will enable the public to admire, free of charge, Leonardo’s celebrated painting of Saint Jerome.

For the solemn anniversary, the work – the only one of the artist in the papal collections – will be specially transferred from the Vatican Pinacoteca to the Braccio di Carlo MagnoinSaint Peter’s Square, where it will be positioned in an exclusively arranged exhibition space.

A document from the Historical Archive of the Fabric of Saint Peter will also be displayed, attesting to Leonardo’s stay in an apartment specially arranged for him in the Vatican Belvedere. In addition, to support and supplement the visit experience, a rich educational accompaniment will illustrate the history of the painting and the diagnostic and restoration works it has undergone, and will also explore the life and the figure of the artist, in relation to the historical and cultural context in which he worked in the second decade of the sixteenth century.

Press Release

“The Life of Saint Jerome” by Benedict XVI (General Audience of 7 and 14 November 2007)

“Introduction to the exhibition” by Barbara Jatta, Director of the Vatican Museums

“The painting – Iconography” by Barbara Jatta, Director of the Vatican Museums

“The painting – Technique” by Barbara Jatta, Director of the Vatican Museums

“Its commission and history in collections” by Barbara Jatta, Director of the Vatican Museums

“Life of Leonardo” by Guido Cornini, Director of the Department of Arts of the Vatican Museums

“Scientific and diagnostic analyses” – Vatican Museums Diagnostic Laboratory for Conservation and Restoration

“The climate-controlled case” – Vatican Museums Conservator’s Office

Useful info

Exhibition: Leonardo. Il San Girolamo dei Musei Vaticani
Location: Braccio di Carlo Magno, St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City
Duration: 22 March – 22 June 2019
Opening hours:Monday-Tuesday-Thursday-Friday-Sunday 10.00 a.m. – 06.00 p.m. (last entry at 05.30 p.m.); Wednesday 01.30 p.m. – 06.00 p.m. (last entry at 05.30 p.m.). Closed: Sunday and religious holidays
Ticket: free

Museums at Work

Representing the Mistery of the Trinity The restoration of the Interlandi “Throne of Grace”

22 March – 8 June 2019
Room XVII, Pinacoteca

On 22 March, on the occasion of the Easter period, the Vatican Museums open to the public an exhibition dedicated to the iconography and to the recent restoration of the Interlandi Throne of Grace (1485-1495), the work of the Flemish painter Vrancke van der Stockt (c. 1420-1495), conserved in the diocesan museum of Caltagirone, in Sicily.

The painting, which will be specially exhibited until 8 June in the Vatican Pinacoteca – before returning to its display site at the Monumental Complex of the Friars Minor Conventual of Caltagirone – may be admired by all visitors to the Museums following the scientific analyses and the conservation intervention performed in the Vatican laboratories.

The exhibition, curated by Adele Breda, is intended to introduce and explain the complex iconographic theme of the Throne of Grace through a brief educational pathway which illustrates some representations of the Trinitarian Mystery from late antiquity up to the fourteenth century.

 The Interlandi “Throne of Grace”: Art, History and Iconography – Adele Breda

Scientific Analyses of the Interlandi “Throne of Grace”– Diagnostic Laboratory of Conservation and Restoration

The Restoration of the Interlandi “Throne of Grace” – Painting and Wood Materials Restoration Laboratory

Useful info

Exhibition: Representing the Mystery of the Trinity. The restoration of the Interlandi “Throne of Grace” by Vrancke van der Stockt, of the diocesan museum of Caltagirone
Location: Room XVII, Pinacoteca, Vatican Museums
Duration: 22 March – 8 June 2019
Ticket: free and included in the Museums entry ticket
Opening hours: those of the Museums (entry from 09.00 a.m. – 04.00 p.m., closing at 06.00 p.m.)

N.B.: Free entry to the Vatican Museums and the exhibition every last Sunday of the month.
Opening hours: 09.00 a.m. – 02.00 p.m., last entry at 12.30 p.m.