What To See at the Vatican: Must See Masterpieces in the Vatican Museums
Updated: Dec 30, 2020
Here's my guide to must see masterpieces in the Vatican Museums. The Vatican isn't just a walled city. It holds one of the world's greatest art collections. Some of the most famous art works on the planet are there. If you're an art or history lover, the Vatican is a must see site in Rome.
But the Vatican is a vast and intimidating place. You could easily stare in awe at the Raphael Rooms or the Map Rooms and forget that they are actual paintings on display in the Vatican Museums. Beautiful paintings, by the greatest masters of Italian art.
If you want to be dazzled by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and company, plan to spend a good few hours in the Vatican museums. If you want to see everything else in Vatican City, you should commit most of the day. To inspect every last thing, well, that would require days.
History of the Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums are the public art and sculpture museums in the Vatican City complex. They're housed in former wings of the Vatican Palace. The Vatican Museums are one of the world's most visited sites, attracting millions of visitors annually.
Much of the work was collected by Pope Julius II, who left a staggering legacy. Julius was the dashing and imperious "warrior pope" who led armies into combat. It was Julius who issued the dispensation permitting England's notorious Henry VIII to marry his brother's wife, Catherine of Aragon (the first of Henry's six wives).
But Julius' most significant contribution was as a patron of Renaissance art. Julius rebuilt St. Peters Basilica. He commissioned Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel and the Raphael Rooms. In 1506, he founded the Vatican Museums.
The works in the Vatican are invaluable crowning glories of Western art. They're a testament to history -- telling stories of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the history of the Catholic Church, and the birth of the Renaissance.
What To See Inside the Vatican: Highlights and Overview
But what should you see inside the Vatican Museums? There are over 54 galleries sprawled over 7 kilometers, after all. There's over 70,000 works of art (not all on display). That's a lot of ground to cover. You need to know in advance what you absolutely shouldn't miss at the Vatican.
The last time I was in Rome, I went to the Vatican Museums twice, the first time on a skip-the-line small group tour and the second on a DYI mission to see everything the tour left out (quite a lot as it turned out).
There's a museum path that takes you through the long corridors and wings of the Vatican Museums. Most of the fine art, as opposed to decorative art, is in the Vatican Pinacoteca, the Pio-Clementine Museum, the Raphael Rooms, the Borgia Apartments, and the Sistine Chapel.
The Vatican Pinacoteca is essentially a painting gallery within the Vatican museums. It opened in 1930 and contains the papal collection, with a historic overview of the development of Western painting. 18 rooms hold the Vatican's most precious paintings.
The Pinacoteca is often overlooked. 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 either. But it's an essential detour for art lovers.
Opened in 1932, the Pio-Clementine Museum is the oldest art collection in the Vatican Museums. It houses ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. It's named after the two popes who oversaw its foundation, Clement XIV and Pius VI. You'll stroll through parts of the museum on a standard tour.
I describe the Raphael Rooms, the Borgia Apartments, and the Sistine Chapel below. Unless you're on you own, you'll probably won't see the Raphael Rooms or the Borgia Apartments. They're not on the "short cut" route to the Sistine Chapel, which most tour guides use.
You can also take a virtual tour of sections of the Vatican Museums.
Guide to the Best Art Works in the Vatican Museums
In this culture vulture guide, I identify the top 17 masterpieces to see in the Vatican Museums and tell you exactly where to find them. If you're not just fast tracking the Sistine Chapel and don't want to miss these Vatican masterpieces, read on to study up before your visit.
I've tried not to make my guide too esoteric. But we're speaking of beautiful, groundbreaking works of art. The art history major in me can't help rhapsodizing.
1. Raphael, Transfiguration, 1520, Pinacoteca Room 8
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 his final 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 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. 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.
If you don't make it to the Pinacoteca, there's a beautiful mosaic copy of The Transfiguration in St. Peter's Basilica.
2. Laocoön and His Sons, the Octagonal Court of the Pio-Clementine Museum
Laocoön is one of the world's most ancient and valuable sculptures. It's a marble masterpiece from Greece's Hellenistic period. It likely dates back as far as 323 B.C. The sculpture was famously unearthed in the Esquiline Vineyard in 1506. Happily, Michelangelo recognized its significance and pressed for its restoration.
Laocoön is based on an ancient Greek myth. In it, the priest Laocoön and his sons are attacked by a serpent sent by either Poseidon or Athena. It's a tormented, action packed vignette. To no avail, three figures desperately try to untangle themselves from a serpent.
According to Greek mythology, Laocoön was being punished for a misdeed. He either got married when he was supposed to remain celibate or (more likely) exposed the Trojan Horse trick to his fellow Trojans, thereby angering the Greeks. Whichever tale is true, the sculpture Laocoön is revered for its technical mastery and emotionally evocative rendering.
3. Raphael, School of Athens, 1509-11, Room 1 of the Raphael Rooms
The Raphael Rooms are a world famous assemblage of Renaissance art. A precocious young Raphael and his assistants (particularly Giulio Romano) painted the frescos in the four rooms between 1508-24. The Raphael Rooms served as the private chambers of Julius II and subsequent popes.
The School of Athens is the undisputed star of the Raphael Rooms. It's a massive fresco in the first of the Raphael Rooms, the Room of the Signature. The Room of the Signature served as Julius II's study and library.
School of Athens is Raphael's most famous and most beloved painting. In it, an idealized throng of the great philosophers of the classical world are gathered together, despite living at different times. The viewer is fully engulfed in the painting, in theatrical style.
The two figures in the center are Plato (on the left) and Aristotle (on the right). Plato is given the face of Leonardo da Vinci, the famed Renaissance master, in tribute.
Plato points up because he believed in a true and eternal reality. Aristotle points down because he believed the only reality was the here and now. Each carry their most well known philosophical treatise.
Raphael and Michelangelo were arch rivals during the Renaissance. They worked simultaneously at the Vatican -- Raphael on the Raphael Rooms and Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel. Unlike Raphael, however, an introspective Michelangelo painted without assistants.
Legend holds that, as a dig, Raphael painted Michelangelo's face on the sad and wailing philosopher Heraclitus, seated in the foreground. Raphael painted his own self portrait in a black beret at the far bottom right of the painting.
School of Athens is important because it's a symbol of the Renaissance. It depicts the marriage of art, philosophy, and science -- a hallmark of the Italian Renaissance. And it shows Raphael's mastery of techniques like foreshortening and perspective.
4. Apollo Belvedere, the Octagonal Court of the Pio-Clementine Museum
Apollo Belvedere is a famous sculpture from antiquity, certainly the most famous sculpture in the Vatican. It's a Roman copy of Leochares' bronze original from the 2nd century. Critics recognized it as Roman because Apollo is wearing distinctively Roman sandals. The identity of the sculptor is unknown.
The larger than life marble sculpture shows the god Apollo in a martial pose, having just shot an arrow. He may originally have been carrying one. The work is anatomically realistic and brilliantly executed. Apollo Belvedere is considered the epitome of masculine beauty and athleticism.
Apollo Belvedere was discovered around 1485. It was later acquired by Giuliano della Rovere, a great art collector, who became -- you guessed it -- Julius II. Apollo Belvedere is praised as the "highest artistic ideal of all the works of antiquity."
In 1511, Apollo Belvedere was placed in the Octagonal Court, where Julius II displayed his classical statues. Except for a 20 year period when Napoleon swiped the statue and hauled it to Paris, Apollo Belvedere has always been in the Vatican.
5. Caravaggio, The Entombment of Christ, 1603, Pinacoteca, Room 12
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 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 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. As such, the painting sparked controversy.
Behind Christ, three women mourn and 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.
6. Leonard da Vinci, St. Jerome in the Wilderness, 1482, Pinacoteca Room 9
Only 15 paintings by Leonardo da Vinci exist today, 16 if you count the hotly disputed Salvator Mundi painting. 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.
And it's 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.
In the 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 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.
Right now, you won't see St. Jerome at the Vatican. When I couldn't find it, I asked a guard aobut its whereabouts. He said the painting was on loan at a temporary exhibit in Brazil.
7. Raphael, The Annunciation, 1502-03, Pinacoteca, Room 8
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 Vatican.
8. Pinturicchio, Annunciation, 1492, Borgia Apartments, Room of the Mysteries of Faith
The Borgia Apartments are a lavishly decorated suite of six rooms and side rooms in the Apostolic Palace, which is the official residence of the pope. The Borgia Apartments are now part of the Vatican Museums and boast some smashing Renaissance art.
They're one floor down from the Raphael Rooms. You've got to take the stairs. But it's worth it. The Borgia Apartments are ancient, without the benefit of the facelift given to the Raphael Rooms. There are divine gilded ceilings and tile weathered floors.
The Borgias were a powerful and wealthy Spanish dynasty. One member of the family, Rodrigo Borgia, became Pope Alexandre VI. He was a licentious pope, fathering 10 children and "living in sin" with one of his paramours. Alexandre had procured his election as pope through illicit means -- corruption, intrigue, and outright bribery.
In the late 15th century, he commissioned the Italian painter Bernardino Pinturicchio to decorate his private rooms. Pinturrichio was known for his delicate and refined frescos. At the time, Pinturrichio was busy at work on Oriveto Cathedral in Umbria. But the pope told Orvieto that their cathedral would have to wait.
The first room of the Borgia Apartments is the Room of the Mysteries of Faith. It's decorated with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. The Annunciation of the Birth of Christ is the first in the sequence and the prettiest of the paintings in the Borgia Apartments.
Pinturicchio painted it in a quasi Gothic and symmetrical style. It depicts a palatial Renaissance style interior backed by a triumphal arch. The annunciation itself takes place in the foreground. Mary offers a humble gesture of greeting to the angel, who holds a lily. Above, God sends down the Holy Spirit dove to Mary.
9. Room of the Sybils, 1494, Borgia Apartments
The last room in the Borgia Apartments is the beautiful Room of the Sibyls. The ceiling is a golden stucco with heraldic emblems. The sibyls are found inside the 12 lunettes, or arched apertures.
The sybils are silhouetted against a blue background, alternated with the prophets. They hold fluttering scrolls, announcing the coming of Christ. Typically, sybils are portrayed as wise older women. But, here, they're beautiful young women.
In contrast, the ceilings are grim, depicting scenes of ancient sacrifice. It's unclear what the connection is between the ceiling and the lunettes.
The Room of the Sybils has several different motifs. There are mythological creatures, elaborate flora and fauna, crowns, and astrological symbols. The Borgia family crest was a bull and Pinturicchio made sure the Taurus symbol was on the wall.
On a creepier note, the Room of the Sybils has a lurid backstory. Alfonso of Aragon was murdered in this room. Alfonso was married to Lucrezia Borgia, the pope's daughter. When family alliances shifted, Lucrezia's brother Cesare hired a team to assassinate Alfonso. He was strangled to death in the Room of Sybils.
When Pope Alexandre VI died, his rival and successor, Pope Julius II, refused to live in the rooms as a political statement. The Borgia Apartments were abandoned and sealed off, due to their scandalous association. They remained hidden away from the public for 300 years.
10. Giotto, Stefaneschi Polyptych, 1320, Pinacoteca, Room 11
The Stefaneschi Polyptych is one of the Vatican's most ancient works. It's a richly gilded double-sided work created by by Florentine painter Giotto di Bondone, around 1320. It's a rare Gothic medieval piece in the Vatican an one of the first things you'll see when you walk into the Pinacoteca.
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.
Intended for a high altar in St. Peter's Basilica, the polyptych was commissioned by Cardinal Stefaneschi. It depicts St. Peter on a throne with an array of saints and Cardinal Stefaneschi at his feet. 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 of St. Paul. When St. Peters was rebuilt, the polyptych was moved to the Pinacoteca.
11. The Last Supper Tapestry, Pinacoteca, Room 8
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 has the same Leonardo-esque assembly of apostles at the table. It reproduces the 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.
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.
12. Aldobrandini Wedding Fresco, Room of the Aldobrandini Wedding, side room off the main museum path
The Aldobrandini Wedding Fresco is a beautiful and enigmatic ancient Roman fresco. It's one of the most important paintings from the early Roman Empire.
The fresco is housed in the Aldobrandini Wedding Room at the Vatican. Lovers of all things from classical antiquity must affirmatively seek it out. It's hidden in a side room off the main museum path.
The wedding fresco dates to the age of Augustus, Rome's first emperor. It was found in 1610 in the ruins of a Roman home on the Esquiline Hill and detached.
In 1818, Pius VII acquired the fresco from the Aldobrandini family.
The fresco is generally thought to portray a wedding scene. Aphrodite is in the center, attempting to calm a distraught bride who fears her wedding night. A god, or perhaps the groom, is on the threshold.
But other scholars think the fresco depicts a scene from Hippolytus Stephanephoros, a Greek tragedy written by Euripides around 428 B.C. I prefer this literary interpretation.
In the play, the bride to be is Phaedra, a princess from Crete. She was in love with Hippolytus, the man shown to the right. But Phaedra is betrothed to Theseus, Hippolytus' father. Aphrodite comforts the lovelorn Phaedra.
Be sure to look down in the Aldobrandini Wedding Room. The floor is inlaid with ancient Roman mosaics. It depicts Achilles in his chariot dragging the corpse of the Trojan prince Hector, a notable event during the Trojan War.
13. Fra Angelico, The Virgin and the Child Enthroned 1435, Pinacoteca, Room 3
This ancient and delicate painting is by Fra Angelico, a Dominican monk with a gift for painting. It 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.
14. The Sistine Chapel Ceiling Frescos, 1508-12
Finally, we're here! Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescos are the undisputed highlight of a visit to the Vatican. They're among the most famous paintings in the history of art. 20,000 people visit daily to cast their eyes upward to the glorious ceiling.
Originally, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was azure blue with stars. But, in 1508, Pope Julius II summoned Michelangelo from Florence to paint the ceiling of his private chapel.
Michelangelo wasn't entirely enthusiastic. He was first and foremost a sculptor. But he had no choice in the matter. According to Julius II, it was "paint or hang." In any event, Michelangelo was insanely talented and up to the task at hand -- which the canny pope no doubt discerned.
Michelangelo spent 4 years toiling away on the 9 ceiling panels, which depict scenes from Genesis and seem to open up the chapel to heaven. And he did it standing up, not laying down as legend holds.
When the Sistine Chapel ceiling was unveiled in 1512, it was somewhat shocking. The frescos were revolutionary in their execution. Instead of staid figures, Michelangelo painted figures that looked like sculptures in almost acrobatic poses. They wear flowing brightly colored garments.
In the middle is Adam, the progenitor of the human race. The Creation of Adam is the most famous Sistine Chapel ceiling scene. God is depicted as a flying figure acccompanied by a host of angels.
Adam lies in the center of earth. He looks adoringly at God, waiting for the magic touch. Interpreted as the transmission of life, this touch is the most famous "hand of god" depiction in the world, appearing on coffee cups and fridge magnets.
15. Michelangelo, The Last Judgment, Altar Wall of the Sistine Chapel, 1533-38
In 1533, Michelangelo made a return visit to the Sistine Chapel. Pope Julius II summoned him to paint The Last Judgment on the altar wall. This time, Michelangelo worked entirely alone, taking 5 years to complete the project.
This fresco is rendered in a different style than Michelangelo's prior ceiling frescos. The figures are more monumental and the colors are largely monochromatic -- essentially sky and flesh tones.
In the middle, Christ is excessively youthful and floats on clouds. He's depicted more like Apollo than the suffering bearded savior one expects.
But The Last Judgment was a difficult task. Michelangelo was already 62 when he began work. Perhaps to depict his unhappiness at the enforced servitude, Michelangelo hid two dour self portraits in The Last Judgment. He painted his face on Holofernes’ severed head. And his face is on the shedded serpent skin held by Saint Bartholomew.
In 1980, a serious renovation of the Sistine Chapel began. It took 14 years to clean away the detritus of centuries. The result was a glowing and richly hued Sistine Chapel seen in natural (no longer artificial) light.
The vibrant restoration stunned most viewers. I know it did me. I could hardly believe the difference in the chapel between my youthful and subsequent visits.
If you want to know why "underpants" or draperies were later painted on The Last Judgment after Michelangelo's death, read my article.
16. Pietro Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter, on the north wall of the Sistine Chapel
Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful frescos in the Sistine Chapel. It's part of the New Testament narrative cycle (the Old Testament is on the south wall). Extremely large in scale, the painting is considered the perfect exemplar of Renaissance painting.
The painting shows the moment when Christ, standing in the center dressed in purple and blue, hands the keys of heaven to a kneeling St. Peter. This act symbolizes the direct link between Christ and all subsequent popes, lest you forget.
The painting is divided into a foreground, middle ground, and background -- lending it that prized Renaissance three dimensional perspective. Each figure is carefully drawn in repeating postures and colors. The figures are idealized. Some of their postures are based on statues from classical antiquity.
17. Francis Bacon, Study for Velazquez Pope, 1961
If you proceed past the Borgia Apartments, shortly thereafter you'll encounter this amazing Francis Bacon work in the Vatican's contemporary art section. It's part of a series aimed at recreating Velazquez' famous painting of Pope Innocent X, which Velazquez considered thought was one of the "world's greatest paintings."
If you want to see the Velazquez work itself, head to the Dorea Pamphlij museum. It's one of Rome's hidden gems -- a gorgeous palace stuffed with fantastic art.
18. Bonus: Recently Discovered Raphaels, Coming Soon in 2022
In 2017, the Vatican discovered two paintings by Raphael when a room was cleaned and restored. A significant find. They were hidden right under the Vatican's nose!
The paintings adorned the fourth of the Raphael Rooms, the banquet hall called the Hall of Constantine. But the paintings were completely obscured by the passage of time. The paintings depict two female figures, one Justice and one Friendship.
They were painted at the end of Raphael's life. Departing from tradition, Raphael used oil paint, not traditional fresco materials. He also used some unusual colors.
The Hall of Constantine is closed for restoration until 2022, so plan your trips for then if you want to see the new Raphaels for the first time. The Vatican describes the restoration of the recently found paintings as its "most important project in decades."
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting the Vatican Museums