Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel masterpieces frame papal vote

Tue Mar 12, 2013 7:34am EDT
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By Naomi O'Leary

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Cardinals voting to elect a new pope this week will take inspiration from some of the world's greatest and most famous works of art in the 500-year-old Sistine Chapel.

Shut off from the outside world, the 115 cardinals will cast their ballots in a chapel which has Michelangelo's soaring Last Judgment on one wall, and his depiction of the hand of God giving life to Adam above them.

Roman Catholics around the world will focus their attention on a humble chimney on the roof of the chapel which will tell of the progress in selecting a new pope - black smoke for deadlock, and white to tell the world that a new pontiff has been chosen.

The chapel, completed in the 16th century, sees 20,000 visitors pour through on an ordinary day, carefully watched by Vatican museum guards as they try to sneak banned photographs.

This week, the chapel will fall silent but for the prayers of the "princes of the church" and the quiet footsteps of their few assistants, sworn to secrecy about what they witness in a conclave expected to last a few days.

The chapel has been used to hold the conclave since 1484, after the death of the man from whom the church takes its name, Pope Sixtus IV, who helped begin the artistic renaissance of the following century by gathering craftsmen around him and supporting their works.

On that occasion, the cardinals elected Innocent VIII, a man remembered in the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a pope whose nepotism towards his two illegitimate children was "as lavish as it was shameless".

This was the era when Roman baronial families fought viciously to win the papacy and the vast access to wealth that came with it.   Continued...

The Sistine Chapel is seen prepared with tables where cardinals will sit when the conclave begins, in a picture released by Osservatore Romano at the Vatican March 12, 2013. REUTERS/ Osservatore Romano