Sean and I are not religious people but we were told over and over again that while in Rome you HAVE to see The Vatican. So we did.
This is our tour guide giving us a pre-screening of the various frescoes we'd be viewing in the Sistine Chapel. She made it very clear that we would not be permitted to speak in the chapel, hence the explanation before we went in.
This long hallway is enroute to the Sistine Chapel and is filled with ancient Roman statues, mosaics and other treasures 'collected' over the years (many places in Rome, including the Colosseum, were looted in order to fill the Vatican).
Our guide told us that most Roman marble statues had once been painted - eyes, flesh, clothing - with colour. Throughout time, paint on most statues has worn away however, a few pieces still have remnants, like the somewhat unsettling eyes below.
Next we were led through the 'Hallway of Centuries' where beautiful tapestries dating as far back as the 16th century hang.
The 'carved' ceiling in the Hallway of Centuries is actually not carved at all - it's a flat painting.
As we were heading through the final hallway before entering the Chapel, our guide said something to another guide in Italian then seemed distressed. 'Hurry, we must hurry', she said. 'They are going to close the Sistine Chapel!!' So we ran.
You see, the Vatican does whatever it wants, whenever it wants - including closing the Sistine Chapel when hundreds of tourists have paid entry to see it. Just before we walked through the door, our guide once again stressed the importance of silence in the Chapel - '... and NO photographs!!'.
The first thing that struck me when we entered was the low murmur of voices - hundreds of voices. In fact, the entire floor space was full of people. Every few minutes a guard would yell 'Silenzio - SILENZIO!!' and the murmur would quiet down for a moment. I buried myself in the middle of another tour group, pointed my camera up and clicked the shutter, hoping for the best (and hoping that the guards would not notice or hear me). It took three shots to get the photo you see above which luckily includes Michel Angelo's masterpiece 'The Last Judgement' as well as one of the most famous frescoes in the world - 'The Creation of Adam'.
Upon leaving The Sistine Chapel, we walked down a long flight of marble stairs outside into a small courtyard.
Through the courtyard, we crossed over to another building into the tomb of popes beneath Saint Peter's Basilica. As we walked slowly through the crypt, we passed the grave of Pope John Paul II. There was a tiny old nun kneeling and praying in front of it with sombre-looking security guards standing to either side. There is a time and place for photos, and I felt this wasn't one of them.
At then end of the line of tombs, we climbed up a small spiral staircase and emerged into this:
Saint Peter's Basilica. One of the most opulent and massive places I have ever been.
The bloated display of wealth juxtaposed with the 'Offerte' boxes that are EVERYWHERE was fascinating to me.
The canopy under which the Pope gives mass is constructed of bronze taken from the original roof of the Pantheon.
In the photo below, I was trying to balance the light to showcase the beautiful sunburst and dove window. It was only later that Sean told me the Pope's throne was directly beneath the stained glass - I hadn't even noticed.
The 'painting' below looks like a painting but it's actually a ceramic mosaic - in fact, everything in the Basilica that looks like a painting is made of mosaic. The Vatican is actually famous for their mosaics - they even have a school for artists to learn to create them. Sunlight fills the church (and photographs are permitted) because the light doesn't damage the mosaics the way it would damage paintings and frescoes.
This statue of sorrowful Mary holding the body of her dead son is the only piece of work that Michel Angelo ever signed.
Sean basking in the glow of St. Peter's.
We left the inner sanctum of St. Peter's into the main piazza of the Vatican - there were already hundreds of people lined up waiting to get in. Our guide led us across the piazza and into a mosaic store across the street. Sean and I had a peek inside but we both knew we weren't going to buy a religious mosaic to take home so instead we sat outside on a marble bench getting some fresh air while we waited for our group.
A small ragged woman approached us begging for money. As I watched her, Saint Peter's silhouetted behind, I couldn't help but feel contempt at the irony before me.
Everyone was right.
When in Rome you SHOULD visit the Vatican.
It will put everything into perspective.