Here’s my guide to visiting the Vatican Pinacoteca, which is the Vatican’s picture gallery. It’s one of the world’s best small museums. I identify 18 must see masterpieces in the Vatican Pinacoteca and give you tips for visiting the renowned, but largely secret, art gallery.
More than 7 million people visit the Vatican Museums each year. But very few realize that there’s much more to this extraordinary collection than the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican isn’t just a rat race to get to the Michelangelo frescos, mesmerizing as they are.
The Vatican Pinacoteca, or painting gallery, is one of the most important collections on planet Earth. The museum contains an often-overlooked, but truly amazing, collection of old master paintings.
The Pinacoteca has over 450 top tier paintings and other masterpieces. You’ll find stunning art works by Giotto, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Caravaggio, and Bernini. The Pinacoteca is effectively a mini-Louvre of Italian painting.
Overview of the Vatican Pinacoteca
The Pinacoteca opened in 1930 and contains the papal “easel collection,” meaning pantings that are mobile. It contains a historic overview of the development of Western painting. 18 rooms hold the Vatican’s most precious paintings.
The Pinacoteca is often skipped by visitors. It’s in a newer section of the Vatican and rarely covered on standard Vatican tours. It’s not in the direction of the signs pointing to the Sistine Chapel. You’ll have to get there on your own.
But the Pinacoteca is an essential detour for art lovers. It contains the hidden treasures of the Vatican and is one of the best hidden gems in Rome.
READ: 5 Day Itinerary for Rome
When you walk into the Pinacoteca, the first thing you see is a plaster copy of Michelangelo’s Pieta. The original is behind bullet proof glass in St. Peter’s Basilica.
It’s a didactic tool that helps you appreciate the real thing, which you may not be able to see well given the distance and the crowds. You can walk right up to the sculpture and study it closely.
The Pinacoteca’s art work is arranged chronologically, which I found appealing. You’ll get a tour of the history of Italian art.
The first two rooms are dedicated to Medieval Painting from the International Gothic Period. The next five rooms contain masterpieces of the early Renaissance beginning in the 15th century art. Room 8, dedicated to Raphael, is a major highlight.
The next six rooms contain 16th century masterpieces from the High Renaissance and 17th century works from the Baroque era. The penultimate room contains plaster models by Gianlorenzo Bernini. The final room contains a collection of icons.
Guide to the Best Art Works in the Vatican Pinacoteca
Here’s my list of the top 18 masterpieces you should see in the Vatican Pinacoteca.
1. Fra Angelico, The Virgin and the Child Enthroned, 1435
This ancient and delicate painting is by Fra Angelico, a Dominican monk with a gift for painting. He was one of the most important painters of the early Renaissance period.
This painting glitters like an exquisite jewel. The painting shows Mary playing with her child, a popular religious motif at the time. Fra Angelico was known posthumously as the “Angelic Painter.”
In the painting, there are three dominant colors — red, blue, and gold — all appearing on the Virgin Mary. The angels form a sort of tapestry around Mary, though in more muted colors. The background is studded with flowers.
A notable feature of the painting is Mary’s transparent veil, an artistic feat of the time. So too was the tender glance between Mary and son.
2. Giotto, Stefaneschi Polyptych, 1320
The Stefaneschi Polyptych is one of the Vatican’s most ancient works, and the first thing you’ll see when you walk into the Pinacoteca. It’s one of the most important paintings of the 14th century.
The altarpiece is a richly gilded double sided work created by the Florentine painter Giotto, around 1320. The altarpiece is a rare Gothic work in the Vatican.
Giotto was the greatest painter of the 14th century. He’s said to have “baptized the Renaissance.”
His paintings reveal acute observations of human behavior and emotions, unusual for the time. Most of Giotto’s life work consists of in situ frescos. The most famous are ones adorning the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. So the polyptych altarpiece is a rare chance to see Giotto’s work in a museum.
The polyptych originally sat on the high altar of the old St. Peter’s Basilica. When St. Peters was rebuilt, the polyptych was moved to the Pinacoteca.
The piece was commissioned by Cardinal Stefaneschi. It a triptych (or three part panel) that depicts St. Peter on a throne with an array of saints.
Cardinal Stefaneschi is at St. Peter’s feet, handing him a miniaturized version of the painting. The likeness is considered among the first realistic portraits ever made.
On the reverse side, in contrast to these stately images, there’s violence. Giotto depicts the crucifixion of St. Peter and the beheading and martyrdom of St. Paul.
3. Melozza de Forli, Sixtus IV Founding the Vatican Library, 1477
This beautiful detached fresco of Sixtus IV Founding the Vatican Library was painted by Melozzo degli Ambrozzi, better known as Melozzo da Forli, in 1477. The Vatican library had actually been founded by Pope Nicolas V in 1475. But Sixtus brought the project to fruition.
The fresco is almost a historical photograph. It shows all the major characters who controlled Italy at the end of the 15th century, placed between imposing architecture.
The gentleman on the throne is Pope Sixtus IV. His greatest legacy was the construction of the Sistine Chapel. He also invented the term “nepotism,” for trying to keep all the religious accolades in the family.
Some of his nephews are in the painting. The person kneeling is the Vatican’s first librarian.
The librarian points to the dedicatory inscription below. It lauds Sixtus IV as a builder of “temples, roads, squares, walls, bridges” and for reviving the library itself, which had formerly “languished in neglect.”
The two tonsured figures are Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Julius II, and Raffaello Riario. The two men standing on the left are Girolamo Riario and Giovanni della Rovere.
4. Benozzo Gozzoli, Madonna of the Girdle, 1450-52
Gozzoli was an Italian Renaissance painter from Florence. According to Giorgio Vasari, in the early part of his career he was a pupil and assistant of Fra Angelico.
This Gozzoli altarpiece is nearly perfectly preserved. It depicts an unusual subject — Mary presenting her girdle to St. Thomas. A girdle is not what you first think of. It’s a relic with knotted textiles used as a belt.
The painting is based on a legend concerning the doubting Thomas. Thomas wasn’t present at Mary’s funeral. To convince him that she’s ascended into heaven, Mary drops down her girdle from heaven.
In the painting, Mary floats on a throne of clouds surrounded by a semi circle of angels. Below her is her empty tomb planted with red and white roses, which were her symbol. The background is a rare use of gold in the Renaissance, meant to evoke the divine.
5. Fra Filippo Lippi, Coronation of the Virgin with Musical Angels and Saints, 1444
Fra Filippo Lippi was another of the talented 15th century painter monks. This Coronation was painted as an altarpiece for a chapel in Arezzo.
The Virgin is shown with a humbly bowed head receiving a crown from Christ. On either side are angels with halos watching the proceedings. They hold musical instruments.
The scene is a classic work of the Renaissance. Lippi follows the rules of perspective and proportion in the painting’s architecture. There’s a harmony and grace to his work.
6. Lucas Cranach the Elder, Pieta, undated
Cranach was the best known German Renaissance painter after Albrecht Durer. He was court painter to the Electors of Saxony for most of his career, and is known for his portraits.
Cranach’s Pieta is one of the few non-Italian works at the Vatican. It was acquired by the art loving Pope Pius IX.
Rather than being held by Mary, Christ is flanked by Mary and John the Baptist in a landscape format panel. The black background creates a portrait like presence.
Christ is shown seated on his sarcophagus. The aim of this Pieta, as others, is to elicit compassion for the suffering of Christ.
Christ’s wounds are on full display — a gushing slice, the stigmata from the cross, and a crown of thorns. He looks mournfully out at the viewer.
7. Raphael, Transfiguration, 1520
The beautiful Transfiguration is in Room 8 of the Pinacoteca. It was painted by Raphael, one of the greatest painters of the Renaissance period.
Transfiguration was Raphael’s final and (perhaps) greatest painting, before an early death at just 37. Legend holds that he contracted a fever after … too much sex. The charismatic artist was a bit of a ladies man.
The Transfiguration was commissioned by Cardinal Guilio de Medici, who later became Pope Clement VII. The dramatically lit painting was critically acclaimed, and carried at the head of Raphael’s funeral procession to the Pantheon. The chiaroscuro is the height of Raphael’s work.
The painting combined two biblical narratives. It tells the story of Christ leading his disciples up a mountain to show them his true form, a being of pure light. At the bottom, it also depicts a miracle — when Christ exorcized the demons of a young boy suffering from lunacy.
Why is the Transfiguration important? It bridges the period between the high Renaissance and the Baroque. It’s notable for its use of chiaroscuro (the effect of contrasted light and shadow), skill in composition, and expressiveness. It inspired legions of French painters.
In this extraordinary painting, Raphael synthesizes the influences of Michelangelo and Leonardo. If you don’t make it to the Pinacoteca, there’s a beautiful mosaic copy of The Transfiguration in St. Peter’s Basilica.
8. Caravaggio, The Entombment of Christ, 1603
Hidden away in a quiet corner of the Vatican, where almost no one ventures, is a Caravaggio masterpiece — The Entombment of Christ. It’s one of Caravaggio’s best paintings and one of the most famous pieces in the Pinacoteca.
Carravagio is famed for his naturalistic approach to Baroque art and daring composition. His work marked a seismic shift away from the Renaissance’s idealism that Raphael personified.
In this monumental painting, Caravaggio rejected the prevailing tendency to portray Christ as a hero. Instead, the viewer is confronted with a heavy corpse in a black tomb. Christ is very dead; his right hand has rigor mortis. The painting’s hyper realism sparked controversy.
Behind Christ, three women mourn and an elderly (not idealized) Virgin Mary stares at her son’s lifeless body. The painting sparked a trend, which became wildly popular, to make celestial subjects more plebeian and accessible.
The spot-lit figures are set against a dark space. This contrast was an example of the extreme “chiaroscuro” that made Caravaggio’s work so prized. It would go on to define the Baroque period.
READ: Caravaggio Trail in Rome
9. Leonardo da Vinci, St. Jerome in the Wilderness, 1482
Only 15 paintings by Leonardo da Vinci exist today, 16 if you count the hotly disputed Salvator Mundi painting. Believe it or not, one of them is at the Vatican, St. Jerome in the Wilderness.
It’s an unfinished and intimate masterpiece, typically Leonardo-esque, with masterful attention to human anatomy. St. Jerome is very enigmatic. We don’t know who commissioned it or why it was created. We don’t know why Leonardo didn’t finish it.
Possibly, St. Jerome didn’t meet with his patron’s approval. Or Leonardo abandoned it due to his well known perfectionism. It looks a lot like Leonardo’s unfinished painting The Adoration of the Magi in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery.
In the sophisticated painting, Leonardo depicts St. Jerome in prayer. Then a hermit in the desert, he looks emaciated, self-immolating, and contemplative. A profound sorrow emanates from the painting. It’s an emotional and devotional piece.
St. Jerome was almost lost to the world. After its execution, Leonardo’s painting vanished. Napoleon’s uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesch, discovered it by chance, in pieces, in two Roman shops. It was subsequently stiched back together, purchased for Pius IX, and installed in the Vatican.
Why is St. Jerome important? Aside from being a rare Leonardo, it shows his classic style and innovation. Leonardo builds the painting from the inside out.
Leonardo used his fingers to distribute the paint pigments (you can see the actual fingerprints). This created a soft-focus landscape called sfumato. As you can see, it’s also a painting of intense psychological power.
10. Raphael, The Annunciation, 1502-03
The Annunciation is one of Raphael’s earlier works. It’s on display in room 8 of the Pinacoteca. Originally, the Oddi family commissioned the painting for the family chapel in Perugia.
The paining depicts the classic annunciation scene, where the angel Gabriel tells Mary of the coming of Christ. But, in the background, two open arches look out onto a landscape.
This gives the painting a three dimensional perspective — highly unique for that day. In the upper left corner, God looks down, stealing the focus from Mary.
Always with an eye for great art and itchy fingers, Napoleon seized The Annunciation and displayed it in the Musee Napoleon, a one time name for the Louvre. The painting was returned to Italy in 1815 and placed in the Pinacoteca.
11. Raphael, Coronation of the Virgin, 1502-04
This is an early Raphael painting, rendered when he was just 19. It shows the influence of his teacher Perugino, with whom he’d just completed an apprenticeship. It’s a mix of imagery.
The panel has two zones. At the top, you see a coronation. Jesus puts a crown on the head of a beautiful figure of the Virgin Mary.
At the bottom, the apostles surround an empty tomb, which is rendered rather audaciously in a diagonal position. They glance up at the proceedings above. The faces are beautiful rendered and almost portrait like.
The colors are very subdued, in the style of Perugino. But, after this piece, Raphael goes to Florence to study the art work of Leonardo. Then, he goes to Rome. There, Raphael is exposed to the Michelangelo frescos in the Sistine Chapel. Later, he uses more vibrant colors.
You can see this in his later Madonna of Foligno, from 1511, also in the Vatican Museums. This work has Leonardo’s sfumato technique and Michelangelo’s bright colors and contraposto stance.
12. The Last Supper Tapestry
This precious Vatican tapestry is known as Last Supper in Amboise in the Castle of Clos Lucé. It was inspired by and faithfully reproduced Leonardo da Vinci’s famous fresco, The Last Supper (which is Milan). It’s a popular scene of Chrisitan iconography — where Christ predicts his own betrayal.
The tapestry was once hung inside the Sistine Chapel on the lower wall. It’s a Leonardo-esque assembly of apostles at the table.
It reproduces Leonardo’s fresco in full scale, capturing Leonardo’s nuances and sfumato technique. The only difference is that the scene is framed with architectural accents.
The tapestry is made of silk with gold and silver threads and a crimson velvet border. All of the gold color is, in fact, gold. The cost was astronomical, more than the cost of the Vatican palace.
The tapestry, which is protected by glass, was created in a Flemish workshop. Despite some hypotheses, it’s still not known exactly which artist created the work or even which factory it was woven in.
13. Giovanni Bellini, The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, 1473-76
Bellini’s Lamentation is one of the Pincacoteca’s most powerful pieces. It’s thought to have once been the top of an altarpiece.
The figures of Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathaea gather around a dead Christ. Mary Magdalene kneels at Christ’s feet anointing him.
Christ is depicted as a classical god with musculature and a handsome visage. The wounds, while present, are depicted with restraint.
The solemn subject matter of the painting is, of course, distressing. But it’s rendered in a beautiful and poetic way. Bellini skillfully handles the effects of light and the gradations of color.
14. Titian, Portrait of the Doge Niccolo Marcello, 1542
Titian is a master from the Venetian Renaissance. He was highly sought after as a portraitist.
In this painting, Titian was tasked with creating a realistic portrait of a man long dead. For inspiration, Titian used a portrait of the doge by Gentile Bellini.
Titian used a rather antiquated profile view and softened the doge’s features. The doge’s cloak is beautifully rendered. The detail of the gold buttons is exquisite.
The gold-red hue of the cloak would later be celebrated as a “Titian” color.
15. Paolo Veronese, The Vision of St. Helena, 1580
This is a beautiful piece by Veronese. Veronese was an Italian Renaissance painter based in Venice, a master along with Titian and Tintoretto. He’s known for extremely large history paintings of religion and mythology, such as The Wedding Feast at Cana in the Louvre.
This painting depicts a scene from the life of St. Helen. She was the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine.
In the painting, Helena is wrapped in shimmering and opulent garments with vibrant colors. She’s shown in a palace-like building. Veronese liked to combine religious motifs with worldly splendor. Helena is shown fast asleep, seated with her head resting on her hand.
In her sleep, she sees a vision of the location of the True Cross on which Christ was crucified. The cross from her vision is materialized and supported by a winged cherub.
The iconography is different than was traditionally used in Venetian art, where the Helena is typically shown standing beside the cross. The painting, which dates to about 1580, forms part of the later production of the great Venetian artist.
16. Guido Reni, St. Matthew and the Angel, 1635-40
This is an extremely beautiful portrait. It’s perhaps the Baroque master’s finest.
The picture is unusual, closely cropped to focus on St. Matthew. Like Caravaggio. Reni uses a diagonal position of the saint, chiaroscuro, and even highlights the hair.
St. Matthew stares intently at the angel with a hypnotic gaze, seemingly communicating through sight and not words. The painting seems to symbolize the mystic nature of Catholicism.
Reni made several copies of the portrait. The one you see in the Pinacoteca has a darker tone that the original.
17. Orazio Gentileschi, Judith and Her Handmaid With the Head of Holofernes, 1611-12
I just love a Judith and Holofernes themed painting. It’s the Old Testament story in which a heroic woman beheads the warlord who’s besieged her town in Israel.
Orazio Gentileschi was a “Caravaggista,” and one of the first artists to adopt Caravaggio’s dramatic style.
In this painting, Judith and her handmaiden hold the head of Holofernes. The beheading has already taken place. Judith’s red gown signals she’s the murderer. She looks upward as if to question whether she’s done the right thing.
Orazio’s painting is not nearly as grizzly as the arch-realist Caravaggio’s version of the painting in Rome’s Palazzo Barberini. Nor is it as expressive as the best version of the theme, a painting created by Orazio’s daughter Artemisia Gentileschi, in the Uffizi Gallery.
18. Bernini, Plaster Busts and Angels, 1657
Don’t miss the Bernini plaster casts, which he used to create the massive bronze sculpture of the Chair of St. Peter in St. Peter’s basilica. Bernini was the greatest sculptor of the Baroque period, with works all over Rome.
The busts are of St. John and St. Athanasius. They’re about 4 feet tall. The angels are 8 feet tall. They look massive in the museum and very small on the basilica sculpture.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting the Vatican Pinacoteca
Address: Viale Vaticano, 00165 Rome
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 9:00 am to 6:00 pm
Entry fee: € 17. € 21 if purchased online, which is recommended. On the last Sunday of each month, the Museums can be visited free of admission charge from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm. But it will likely be packed.
Pro Tips: Buy your ticket online and just suck up the extra 4 € fee. If you don’t splurge for skip the line access, you could wait hours in line to get inside. There are even waits in low season.
There’s also a strict dress code at the Vatican — no shorts, no hats, no bare shoulders. Be forewarned, if you’re there in the summer, there’s no air conditioning and it can feel suffocating.
If you’re taking a guided tour, you’ll end at St. Peter’s Basilica. Once inside the basilica, you cannot re-enter the Vatican Museums. So make sure you’ve seen everything you want to see in the museums before venturing in.
How to get to the Vatican Pinacoteca: The Vatican museums can be accessed by foot, metro, or bus. You can literally just walk right in. The metro stops are Ottaviano an Cipro. Or take bus #40 or 64. If you arrive at St. Peters’ first, it’s a 15 minute walk to get the Vatican entrance.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the hidden treasures of the Vatican Pinacoteca. If you want more information about must see art and museums in Rome, here are my guides:
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