Sistine Chapel for rent: Is nothing sacred?

Do we have the right attitude towards places of worship?

The Sistine Chapel is one of the greatest masterpieces of European art, writes Walsh [Getty]

Is the Pope a Catholic? After the recent synod of the bishops of Pope Francis’ church, there would seem to be some prelates around the world who doubt it. Whether the pope is a Roman Catholic is an even more problematic question.

“Are you aware that I don’t know Rome?” he recently told a journalist from the Italian newspaper Il Messagero. “Just consider that I saw the Sistine Chapel for the first time when I took part in the conclave that elected Benedict XVI.”

Six million visitors a year jostle their way into the Sistine Chapel to enjoy, if that be possible within such a scrum, a 20-minute glimpse of Michelangelo’s masterpiece. So the fact that the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, despite frequent trips to Rome as a member of the College of Cardinals, had never been one of those millions, is a little surprising.

Frescoes lit up in Sistine Chapel makeover

There were not always so many. From 1980 to 1994, the frescoes in the world’s most famous chapel were painstakingly restored – not always, it has to be said, with the approval of art historians, some of whom think the paint now to be too garish. Before 1980, there were about 1.5 million visitors annually. By 2011, the number had reached some 5 million plus. Now, with Pope Francis apparently attracting even more visitors to Rome, there are 20,000 per day. On the last Sunday of the month when entrance to the Chapel (and the Vatican’s museums) is free, the number rises to 30,000.

They are, particularly in the summer months, a sweaty lot. The Sistine Chapel is an airless place, the only entrance being through the Vatican Palace. There is no door, no window, which opens onto the outside world, thus making it the perfect place to isolate the Cardinal electors when they set about, in conditions of greatest secrecy, the business of choosing a new Pope.

But if spies (in the past) and journalists (in modern times) cannot find a way in, nor can fresh air. New lighting, the better to display the frescoes, and new controls of temperature and humidity, the better to preserve them against the environmental threat posed by the crowds, have been installed very recently. It was an expensive operation, half the cost being borne by the Vatican and half by the European Union. Rightly so. The Sistine Chapel is one of the greatest masterpieces of European art.

Everything is saleable

And that is the problem. While Pope Francis urges his followers and the world’s governments to take more care of the poor, he presides over the world’s most valuable collection of treasures. If sold, the money could lift millions out of destitution. Pope Paul VI, whom Francis has just beatified, was so conscious of this paradox that he sold the papal tiara – the triple-tiered crown used in his coronation – to raise alms for the poor. It was bought by an American cardinal, and there has never been a papal “coronation” since. But not everything is saleable. Certainly not the Sistine Chapel. The next best thing is to allow its use as a money-making enterprise with the profits going to the poor.

It has long been possible to secure privileged after-hours access to the Vatican museums: the Canadian singer Justin Bieber was reported to have spent over $30,000 on an exclusive tour – only to be rebuked by Vatican officials for turning up unsuitably dressed (shorts and baseball cap) and kicking a football about in a Vatican courtyard. Money earned this way has gone to support the museums.

Now Porsche, or rather its Travel Club, has arranged a $8,000-a-head five-day trip to Rome, complete with an exclusive concert in the Sistine Chapel for its 40 paying customers. In return, Porsche is to make a donation to the Vatican – one hopes a substantial one. The money will go to the poor. As someone who, at the expense of one company or another, has sipped wine among the British Museum’s Elgin Marbles and eaten canapes while being gazed upon by portraits by Titian and Rembrandt in London’s National Gallery, I am in no position to ask whether nothing is sacred any more. Quite the contrary: As it is impossible for the Pope to sell the Sistine Chapel, then at least it can be used to raise funds for the alleviation of poverty.

In any case, I sometimes wonder whether we have the right attitude regarding places of worship. Are we treating them too reverently? The Sistine Chapel is known now as the place cardinals meet to elect a new pope, but when first built, it was one of the gathering places of the papal court, with its flamboyant dress and even more flamboyant intrigues and assignations. Compared to that, or to Mr Bieber, a group of greying German worthies gathered for a concert appears positively reverential.

Michael Walsh is an historian of the Catholic Church, and a regular commentator on Catholic affairs for Al Jazeera and the BBC. He is currently re-editing The Oxford Dictionary of Popes.