Blue Ceiling with Yellow Stars

“I have finished that chapel I was painting.  The Pope is quite satisfied.”  – Michelangelo

The Vatican

My friend Paula and I had set out to Italy to fulfill a nearly lifelong desire to see the great works of art in St. Peter’s Basilica and The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

The first day, we failed to reach our destination in time to make the last tour.  So the following day we arrived early and anxiously snaked through the beautiful Raphaels and Caravaggios until we reached the doors leading in the chapel where Michelangelo had painted this greatest of works.

I considered telling Paula that I might cry.  I felt as though I had been called to this moment since we were in high school and I had learned all about Michelangelo and how he painted over the dark blue ceiling with little yellow stars with his spectacular vision of Biblical interpretation.

As it turns out, she was thinking the same thing.

We knew we were close and would join the next group allowed in.  Moments away from seeing what I had been waiting to experience for nearly thirty years, my heart pounded.  Then it happened.

“I told Your Holiness that painting was not my art; what I have done is spoiled.” – Michelangelo

sistine chapel ceiling2

The doors opened and we were herded inside.  What?

Was this it?  Why was it lower than I expected?  Why didn’t it glow?  Where was the Ceiling of my imagination?

The crowd began to murmur and we were ordered to remain silent while an American was escorted away because he tried to sneak a picture, and then our time was up and I was crushed.

This was not the experience I expected.  Nor was it for Paula.  We stood outside of the Chapel and looked at each other with blank expressions.

It was a let down of enormous proportion.  We moved on, still looking for something that would strike the chord of ‘AWE’ in us.

One day as we traipsed around seeking the Pantheon, we saw an open door into a rather plain-looking structure of a Church.  Quietly, we slipped inside.

It was Basilica of Saint Mary Above Minerva or Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Italian.  Inside of its non-assuming door, I was immediately aware of a change in atmosphere.  It felt Holy and Divine.

The tombs of St. Catherine of Siena and Fra Angelico – a friar and artist whose artistic works include frescoes now part of The Niccoline Chapel in the Vatican including: Scenes from the life of St. Laurence where the vault in the painting is blue and is decorated with stars –  were encased near the altar.

I looked up, and amazingly, I found the right ceiling.  It was dark blue covered in little yellow stars.  Oh Michelangelo, what did you do to the little Chapel in Vatican City?

But he was here too.  Also near the Altar was a statue of Christ that he created.  Of course, sculpture was his true love, much more so than painting. 

“It is well with me only when I have a chisel in my hand.” -Michelangelo

Fra Angelico and Michelangelo both seemed to have pulled us to Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.  If you visit, I suggest you heed their calling and take time for this quaint, Holy space.

I recant this story to you because the new Pope, Pope Francis I, is known for his parsimony and simplicity.  I think he would like the chapel with the blue ceiling and yellow stars and find the beauty in how it might speak to souls in its presence.

He has a long journey ahead of him as the Head of the Catholic Church and I hope it is one that is successful and honorable – one not for show, but for substance; blue with yellow stars.



  1. What an extraordinarly lovely and timely post. As a “lapsed” Catholic, I felt all choked up seeing Pope Francisco early today. I’m sure he would love the modestly beautiful chapel with the extraordinary ceiling!

    1. Thank you Linda. I choked up a bit myself, especially when he began by asking everyone to pray and bless him. What a beautiful image for a Pope’s first moments.

    1. Thank you Wendy. It was an amazing experience to be present in those two spaces. I can feel the hairs on my arms rise at the memory of looking up to that ceiling and seeing something akin to what Michelangelo covered over.

  2. What a nice posting to align with the announcement today of the new pope: the cardinal from Argentina, the first South American to lead the church, Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

  3. Is Karma working from another lifetime? I shared a similar story today! Your personal reminiscence blessed my soul. Thank you. Shall we welcome the new Pope in person?

  4. The blue ceiling is wonderful. How nice to get to see them in person. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  5. Well, we wish the best for the Pope and hope that the cleansing the church has received is over. And we pray that and those who have the honor to serve God in spirit and in truth in the Catholic faith do it with reverence and Divine joy inspired by this new pope. Indeed if clergy cannot uphold the vows or the love of Christ, then would they leave and step down. The beauty that surrounds them daily at the Vatican, the glory of the place and the wealth of the Catholic churches across Europe and the US that you have written about eloquently in this smaller place of worship is not served by the taint of fleshly weakness from those who are supposed to show strength and self-discipline to the flock. Better all the legates resign and leave the churches to the very human worshippers, than to foul Catholocism with corruption, hatred and deception behind “venerable robes” and clerical garb..

    1. Well said Carole! The Catholic Church has been tainted lately by the actions of men – not of faith. I feel hopeful about Pope Francis I. He has gotten a beautiful start by refusing the bejeweled crosses of the Papacy for his own plain one. I hope this is a sign that he isn’t swayed by the riches of earth but of those in spirit.

  6. I just read in the newspaper about the announcement of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope and he is the first Latin American to be announced as pope.
    I enjoyed reading your memory about this holy place. Thanks for sharing Renee!!

    1. I can’t tell you how pleased I am that you read newspapers. Here in America I can’t think of the last time I actually saw one in the hands of a young man. Bravo!

      1. Really!! Most of us actually do so!! Specially young people like me who comes from small towns have the habit of starting of day with a news paper in one hand and a cup of tea in the other; as we did not have the luxury of using either computer or any other gadget during our childhood days. 🙂

  7. I thought the Sistine Chapel was incredible, but for me, going into a Italian church is always a personal pleasure. Famous of not, they are artistic treasures in so many ways.

    Meanwhile, I’m a nonCatholic, but I wish Pope Francis I well. After all, whether during good times or bad, the enormity of the position is daunting.

    1. Believe it or not, I’m not Catholic either. However, I have family who are and I have the utmost respect for them and their beautiful traditions. As you say, the Churches are all fantastic. I suppose this one was just hyped up too much.

  8. It is so disappointing when something with such a grandiose reputation turns out to feel small and insignificant.. I’m so glad you were able to find The Basilica of Saint Mary. The unexpected glories are the best in life.

  9. Simple is usually the most beautiful. I caught a little bit about the new Pope and they mentioned he was wearing a simple wooden cross. Also, when they all left, he refused to go in the limo but chose to go on with the others. Sounds like he knows what really counts in life. Great post, Renee. Loved the photos. I can only imagine seeing them in person!

  10. What a beautiful description of the chapel ceiling in the simple church, and to think you just happened to look inside! It’s nice to find something so inspiring…

  11. Renee, I love the last line: “He has a long journey ahead of him as the Head of the Catholic Church and I hope it is one that is successful and honorable – one not for show, but for substance; blue with yellow stars.”
    It’s so poetic, truly a thing of beauty! I was at the Vatican several years ago, but I wish I’d known about the Basilica. Looks stunning!

  12. It’s a shame about the initial let-down, but what a glorious recovery you had under the stars of the blue ceiling.
    I’m not Catholic, but I wish the new Pope well and hope he can bring comfort and peace to the flock.

  13. How great!
    I have also been disappointed when visiting a famous site…having that same: “This is it?” feeling. Your post is proof that the best things are sometimes off the beaten path.. and often off the itinerary & spontaneous. I love the “stumble upon” travel style.
    I found Pope Francis’s first words so humble and endearing…asking the crowd for prayers. Stunning to consider the work that lies ahead for a 76-year old man.

  14. Gosh Renee I cannot imagine being given only a few minutes in that holy of holies… I think the problem is there are too many people. Sorry folks 😀
    The first time I went to the Sistine Chapel was back in the olden days when I seventeen – a Sunday in January. We were allowed to stay as LONG AS WE WANTED. I got a crick in my neck from looking up so I lay down and fell in love with it. I didn’t realize until now how lucky I was. I should write a post on it.

    1. I’m so happy to have inspired you to share your experience. And I am glad that you were able to see it before the restoration. You probably got to see the golden ceiling whereas it is quite light and bright now. If you go back, check out St. Maria Sopra Minerva. I think you would like it.

  15. Hi Renee,

    Your travels are so exciting!! 🙂 Speaking of how you might cry, and the American being hearded away, and your disappointed – wow, an hones review! I doubt I will ever stand where you are, experience what you are experiencing, so I really value to read this.

    Love the quotes of Michelangelo – well with him only with a chisel in his hand. Ditto me with a ‘pen’. How torturous it would be for him to have to work in an office all day as I do, and chisel away only at night. I am not saying I am that great talent in comparison, I’m just saying I haaate my job!! But it pays the rent, pays the rent…

    Very very wonderful, sounds your travels. I wish you more “awe” 🙂

    1. Yes, we need a benefactor so that we can write full time. Until then, it is off to work for both of us. And I think you are strong enough and smart enough to find a way to get anywhere you desire.

  16. One of the things I learned on a tour of a famous cathedral in Sicily was how difficult it is to paint realistic images on a curved ceiling. The scenes have to look correct to people standing on the floor below, and that can’t be accomplished by painting as though the surface were flat. I can’t even begin to understand how they do it. Still, I think I would have been disappointed in the Sistine Chapel, too. Maybe we tend to exaggerate things in our minds, especially things we’ve been hearing about all our lives. I’m glad you finally found what you were looking for.

  17. I think your heart is in Italy (and Paris), Italy right now. I loved, loved reading this. You certainly had the privilege to visit a well kept secret. Some places feel just right. The poor Sistine Chapel may just be suffering from too much attention from too many visitors. Sad. I have visited many places that once were lovely and well cared for, only to suffer from too many people nowadays. Thank you for writing this and sharing your thoughts with us. I think your message has its fingers on the pulse of the new pope.

  18. Thank you Georgette. What a lovely comment. I think you have seen right through me and into the heart of two places I truly love and feel right at home in: Italy and France. Must have DNA that links me to them.

  19. Someday I’ll get there. The Sistine will be impressive because of the history (but the crowds are bound to detract), but like you, the chapel will probably be the most meaningful.
    Lovely post – and we do have hopes for this pope.

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