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Five Must See Masterpieces at the Vatican Museums


Welcome to the Accessible Art History blog! Today, we are going to explore five must see masterpieces from the Vatican Museums. This is one of my personal favorite museums and it was especially hard to narrow down which works to feature in this post! So, without further ado, let’s get started. 

Background Information

In 1503, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere was elected Pope. He chose the name Julius as his papal moniker, in honor of the Roman dictator Julius Caesar. History remembers Julius II as the “warrior pope” because he was always seeking ways to expand the Papacy’s borders. However, he was also a great patron of the arts. 

Three years after becoming Pope, Julius II was informed of a monumental find. Workers were digging at the site of Emperor Nero’s Golden House when they came across a huge sculpture. The Pope dispatched two artists, Giuliano da Sangallo and Michelangelo, to the site, where they quickly recognized the importance of the statue. Julius bought the work and founded the Vatican Museums. It was a way to showcase the wealth and success of the Church, while still glorifying God. 

Lacoön and His Sons

The sculpture that was found in 1506 was this one, Lacoӧn and His Sons. Historians widely agree that it is of Greek origin from Pergamon and dates from around 200 BCE. This work shows a part of the story from the Trojan War saga. Lacoön was a priest from Troy. He was one of the few people who spoke out against accepting the gift of a giant wooden horse from the Greeks. Poseidon, god of the sea, was on the side of the Greeks. So, he sent sea snakes to kill Lacoӧn and his sons to keep them quiet. 

Since ancient times, this statue has been lauded for its use of drama and emotion. The viewer can feel Lacoön’s pain as he writhes, trying to get away from the snakes. His sons look up at their father in terror, trying to understand what is happening to them. The artist even sculpted contracting muscles, communicating the pain even more. No work in recent memory had this level of emotional resonance. In fact, it was something that hadn’t been since ancient times! 

This statue caused quite a stir when it was found. It reawakened the idea of the classical, heroic nude. Lacoön and His Sons, despite their suffering, are clearly strong. Each and every muscle is carefully defined. This would have a major influence on Renaissance art, especially in the works of Michelangelo. 

Apollo Belvedere

The discovery of the Apollo Belvedere was another archaeological stroke of luck. It was found in the late 15th century about 30 miles north of Rome. This sculpture is believed to be a Roman copy of a Greek original, most likely created between 120-140 CE. Historians believe that it is a copy because Apollo’s shoes are Roman in style, something that would have not been added if it were an original. Standing at just over 7 feet tall, this piece shows the moment right after Apollo fired his arrow. He was attacking the Python that stood guard outside of Delphi. We see Apollo in his moment of triumph. 

Since its discovery, the Apollo Belvedere has been considered to be the ideal of beauty in art. His features emanate strength and masculinity, while still remaining beautiful. The folds of his cloak and the definition in his muscles have been carefully carved. Apollo stands with a contrapposto pose, his weight shifted to his back foot. All of the details combine to give us a statue that highlights the strength and beauty of the human form. 

Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel is one of the most famous parts of the Vatican Museum. Although numerous artists worked on the paintings, this video is going to focus on the two parts painted by Michelangelo. The ceiling, which was decorated between 1508-1512, and the Last Judgement Wall, which was painted later, between 1536-1541. 

Although Michelangelo considered himself to be a sculptor, Pope Julius II convinced him to take on the commission of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Using special constructed scaffolding, Michelangelo painted a wide variety of Biblical scenes. The center features 9 stories from Genesis grouped into three categories: God’s Creation of the Universe, Adam and Eve, and Noah. Surrounding these paintings are works depicting ancestors of Jesus, female and male prophets, and scenes of Israel’s salvations and shame. These paintings cover over 5,000 square feet of space! 

For a man that insisted he wasn’t a painter, Michelangelo created an incredible array of work on the ceiling. He used iconography, deep, rich colors, and ancient inspiration to help create the pieces. Although the ceiling is quite high, many of the details can still be seen from the ground. These works provided inspiration for generations of artists.

The Last Judgment

About 25 years after he painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo was commissioned to paint a Last Judgment scene on the altar wall. Christ and his mother Mary are in the center of the piece. They are surrounded by saints. On the left side, are saved, while the people on the right are damned. The dynamic movement and sense of drama are what make this work an amazing example of Renaissance art. 

This fresco caused quite a stir when it was released. The most controversial aspect was the sheer amount of nudity. Michelangelo was inspired by classical sculptures at the Vatican, including Laocoon and His Sons. However, the Church felt it was highly inappropriate to have so many holy figures in the nude, especially while the Reformation was going on. Notice that strategically placed clothes have been added. In addition, a beardless Christ was something that hadn’t been seen in centuries. Michelangelo pushed buttons, but he left us with a masterpiece. 

The School of Athens

Michelangelo was not the only Renaissance master that the Papacy employed to decorate the Vatican. In 1509, Pope Julius II commissioned Raphael to decorate the Apostolic Apartments. (These are now a part of the Vatican Museums). One of the most famous frescos is the School of Athens. The theme of this work is the pillars of scholarship. Raphael painted a few dozen ancient thinkers, using the faces of many contemporaries as models. (The architect Bramante is used to represent the ancient mathematician Eucleid). There is a clear vanishing point above the heads of the most important figures: Plato and Aristotle. Everything about the work is balanced from this point. 

But why would Raphael paint pagan scholars in the apartments of the Pope? It seems like a contradiction. However, there was a good reason. Raphael wanted to show the relationship between pagan scholarship and Christian ideology. These great thinkers of the past came before Christ, but they still helped to shape the Western world in their own way. 


Originally intended as an altarpiece for a cathedral in France, The Transfiguration is Raphael’s last work. He died the same year it was completed. Unusually for this type of painting, Raphael chose to paint two separate scenes. The top scene illustrates the Transfiguration of Christ. According to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus, Peter, John, and James went up a mountain to pray. When they reached the top, Jesus was illuminated and Moses and Elijah appeared. God spoke, identifying Jesus as his son. The bottom half of the painting shows a boy in the middle of a demonic possession. The disciples are trying to help him, but realize they must wait for Christ to expel the demon. 

Unlike the School of Athens, where everything is balanced, this work has a more dynamic motion. All the lines of the work thrust upwards towards the ascending Christ. Even the spectators lose their focus on the possessed boy and look up towards Jesus. These details were meant to show the viewer of the power of Christ and his identity as the Son of God. 


These works are only a few examples of the amazing works held at the Vatican museums. If you plan on visiting, you should block out at least a day to explore them all!



  1. Pope Julius II by Raphael. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  2. Lacoön and His Sons, CC 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  3. Apollo Belvedere, CC 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  4. Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo, CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  5. The Last Judgment, Michelangelo, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  6. The School of Athens, Raphael, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  7. The Transfiguration, Raphael, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


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