The Sistine Chapel goes on display in all its glory in April after restorers remove the scaffold shrouding Michelangelo's "The Last Judgment."
Pope John Paul II will say Mass in the chapel April 8 to mark completion of the four-year restoration of the 60-foot-tall Renaissance fresco that is one of the masterpieces of Western art.
Thereafter, for the first time in 14 years, visitors to the chapel where Popes are elected will be able to view both the ceiling, which took a decade to restore, and the powerful depiction of a righteous God welcoming the faithful to heaven and consigning tormented sinners to hell.
As the final step of their restoration, Vatican specialists have confronted the "modesty breeches" added over the centuries to cover up figures--of which Michelangelo painted more than succeeding Popes thought wholesome. Many of the breeches are gone but a few of the most strategic ones remain.
Shorn of four centuries of soot, "The Last Judgment" contrasts sharply in both style and color from the ceiling. Painted by an aging Michelangelo between 1536 and 1541, the wall fresco demonstrates Venetian influences and his maturity as a painter. It is dominated by a rich blue absent from the ceiling he began three decades before.
The Sistine Chapel is part of the Vatican Museum, which also includes 12 museums, miles of galleries, the Stanze of Raphael (where Raphael painted "The School of Athens") and the Borgia Apartment, which was frescoed for Alexander VI by Pinturicchio.
Hours are 8:45 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. Monday through Saturday and the last Sunday of the month (when admission is free). During the Easter period and July-August, the museum remains open until 4:45. Entrance costs about $8; about $5 for students. Once inside, there are express signs to the chapel for those who are short on time. Otherwise, four tours are available and one--the yellow--covers all the important sights.