• Leslie

Guide To the Vatican Museums: Must See Masterpieces and Tips For Visiting!

Updated: Sep 18

aerial View of St. Peter's Square, Vatican City, and Rome from the top of St. Peter's Basilica
aerial View of St. Peter's Square, Vatican City, and Rome from the top of St. Peter's Basilica

Here's my guide to visiting the Vatican Museums. I identify 20 must see masterpieces in the Vatican Museums and give you must know tips for visiting. It's important to know what to see in advance because there are 26 museums inside the Vatican and a wall space of 5 miles.

The Vatican isn't just a walled city. It a city-sized museum that 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 visit site in Rome.

Ultimate Guide to the Vatican Museums

But the Vatican is a vast and intimidating place, not for the faint of heart. 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.

view of St. Peter's Basilica
view of St. Peter's Basilica

visiting Vatican City on a blustery day in Rome
visiting Vatican City on a blustery day in Rome

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.

Julius II, 1511-12 -- one of Raphael's most famous and haunting paintings in the National Gallery in London
Raphael, Portrait of Julius II, 1511-12 -- one of Raphael's most famous paintings, in London's National Gallery

Overview of the Vatican Museums

But what should you see inside the Vatican Museums?

There's over 70,000 densely packed 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 or expressway that takes you through the long corridors and wings of the Vatican Museums to the Sistine Chapel. On the first floor, you'll find the Vatican Pinacoteca, the Pio-Clementine Museum, the Chiaramonte Museum, the Gregorian Egyptian Museum, and the Gregorian Etruscan Museum. The latter three are specialized museums that you can add to your Vatican itinerary if you're interested.

beautiful ceiling int he Vatican Museums
beautiful ceiling int he Vatican Museums

The Vatican Pinacoteca is essentially a small painting gallery within the Vatican museums. It opened in 1930 and contains the papal collection, with a historic and chronological 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.

READ: Guide To the Vatican Pinacoteca

Opened in 1932, the Pio-Clementine Museum is the oldest art collection in the Vatican Museums. It houses ancient Greek and Roman sculptures.

gilded bronze statue of Hercules in the Round Hall, circa 1st to 3rd century A.D.
gilded bronze statue of Hercules in the Round Hall, circa 1st to 3rd century A.D.

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. In the center of the museum is the 18th century Octagonal Courtyard, with fountains, trees, and benches.

On the second floor, you'll find the Tapestries Hall, the Gallery of Maps, and the Raphael Rooms. The Raphael Rooms are four rooms, which were the public rooms of the pope's personal apartments in the time of Julius II.

They were painted by the famous Raphael. The most famous fresco is The School of Athens.

Your last stop will be the stunning Sistine Chapel, with the world famous Michelangelo frescos. 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.

the Pine Cone Fountain, a landmark of the Vatican Museums
the Pine Cone Fountain, a landmark of the Vatican Museums

Guide to the 20 Best Art Works in the Vatican Museums

There are millions of things to see at the Vatican Museums. There are endless rooms and crowded display cases.

In this Vatican guide, I give you a list of the absolute highlights -- the top 20 masterpieces, paintings and sculptures, you need to see in the Vatican Museums. I also 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.

Raphael, Transfiguration, 1520
Raphael, Transfiguration, 1520

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. According to Renaissance art historian and artist Giorgio Vasari, Raphael 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.

detail of the Transfiguration
detail of the Transfiguration, were Christ appears like the sun

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.

READ: Guide To Famous Paintings By Raphael

Laocoön and His Sons, 3rd century B.C.
Roman artist after a Greek original, Laocoön and His Sons, 3rd century B.C.

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.

detail, Raphael, School of Athens, 1509-11
Raphael, School of Athens, 1509-11

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.

Raphael, School of Athens, 1509-11
Raphael, School of Athens, 1509-11

detail from School of Athens showing Raphael's portrait of Michelangelo
detail from School of Athens showing Raphael's somewhat mocking portrait of Michelangelo

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.

READ: Complete Guide To the Raphael Rooms

Apollo Belvedere at the Vatican
Roman artist, Apollo Belvedere, 2nd century

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.

Belvedere Torso
Belvedere Torso

5. Belvedere Torso, Pio-Clementine Museum

This celebrated fragment of a damaged male nude statue was hugely influential to Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael. It's said to have inspired Michelangelo's Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. What inspired these 16th and 17th century artists most was the twisted, convoluted quality of the statue.

Discovered in the 15th century, the marble sculpture itself dates back to the 1st century BC. It's thought to be a Greek copy of an older bronze Roman original. The statue is signed on the base by "Apollonius, son of Nestor, Athenian."

The man depicted? The most favored hypothesis is that it's the Greek hero and demigod Hercules. But other theories say the sculpture is Ajax, possibly contemplating suicide.

Augustus of Prima Porta
Augustus of Prima Porta

6. Augustus of Prima Porta, Chiaramonte Museum | Braccio Nuovo

Augustus of Prima Porta is a 2 meter high marble statue of Emperor Augustus. It was discovered on April 20, 1863 during excavation of the ruins of the Villa of Livia (Augustus' wife) near Rome. She retired there after his death.

The statue has been dated to the 1st century. It's likely a copy of an earlier sculpture from 20 B.C., which celebrated Augustus' victory over the Parthians.

Arguably one of the most important statues of Emperor Augustus, the Augustus of Prima Porta is certainly one of the best preserved extant portraits of him. This sculpture is beautifully decorated and expertly carved in marble from the Greek island of Paros.

Likely a propaganda piece, the statue exudes power. A young Augustus is in full military dress, with a highly decorated breastplate and contrapposto pose. A cloak is draped around his hips. He carries a baton, raised in his right hand, as if he's addressing troops Augustus is shown barefoot, typical of the depiction of a god.

Despite a few breaks the statue is virtually fully intact. It's now one of the most iconic images of the Roman Empire’s first emperor.

Caravaggio, The Entombment of Christ, 1603
Caravaggio, The Entombment of Christ, 1603

7. 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.

READ: Caravaggio Trail in Rome

Leonard da Vinci, St. Jerome in the Wilderness, begun circa 1482
Leonard da Vinci, St. Jerome in the Wilderness, begun circa 1482

8. 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.

READ: Guide To All of Leonardo da Vinci's Paintings

Raphael, The Annunciation, 1502-03
Raphael, The Annunciation, 1502-03

9. 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.

Gallery of Maps
Gallery of Maps

10. Gallery of Maps

Most visitors go crazy for the Gallery of Maps, perhaps because it's so unusual. The gallery houses the largest cycle of geographical pictures ever painted. It consists of 16 panels that were commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII.

They were completed in 1580-81. They depict the history of Italy and the papal states. The vaulted ceilings have scenes from the history of Rome, beginning with Constantine. There are also scenes form the Old Testament and mythology.

The maps were based on full sized cartoons (i.e., preparatory drawings) by the Dominican monk Ignazio Danti and executed by his large workshop.

You'll find a juxtaposition of antique and contemporary maps. These areas are followed by maps of the Italian province and maps of the Italian islands. Each map has uses a bird's eye view perspective and is based on an identifying cartouche.

Pinturicchio, Annunciation, 1492
Pinturicchio, Annunciation, 1492

11. 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.

Room of the Mysteries of Faith in the Borgia Apartments
Room of the Mysteries of Faith in the Borgia Apartments

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.

When the Pinturicchio frescos were cleaned, restorers discovered a scene in Resurrection the included Native Americans. It was completed 2 years after Christopher Columbus' voyages in the New World. It's believed to be the earliest known European painting of Native Americans.

Room of the Sybils in the Borgia Apartments
Room of the Sybils in the Borgia Apartments

12. 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.

Moses and the Delphic Sybil, with scrolls announcing Christ's coming
Moses and the Delphic Sybil, with scrolls announcing Christ's coming

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.

Giotto, Stefaneschi Polyptych, 1320
Giotto, Stefaneschi Polyptych, 1320

13. 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.

the Last Supper Tapestry in the Pinacoteca
detail of the Last Supper Tapestry in the Pinacoteca

14. 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.

READ: Leonardo's The Last Supper and How To Visit It in Milan

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.

READ: Guide To all the Last Supper Paintings of Renaissance Italy

detail, Aldobrandini Wedding Fresco
detail, Aldobrandini Wedding Fresco

15. 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. From this room, there's a spectacular view of St. Peter's dome.

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.