VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict held evening vespers in the Sistine Chapel on Wenesday to mark the 500th anniversary of the room's famed frescoes.
Five centuries ago, Pope Julius II entered inside Capella Sistina to see the vault completely painted by Michelangelo ... the great work, the terrible work, was finished.
It was an act of almost unrivaled artistic creation. Michelangelo considered himself first and foremost a sculptor, and looked down on painters of frescos. But Pope Julius II's invitation to paint the 5,000-square-foot ceiling of the chapel was one Michelangelo, 33 years old at the time, could hardly refuse. In essence, he was learning on the job.
The Sistine Chapel is where cardinals meet for the conclave to choose the next pope, and popes conduct baptisms and special prayers.
In the last half millennium, it has survived wars, political upheavals, and inclement weather, with surprisingly little damage. Just one section of the fresco depicting the biblical flood is missing. In 1797 it fell to the floor following a massive explosion in the nearby Castel Sant'angelo.
Today, the greatest threat to this priceless art comes from those who flock to admire it. About five million people visit the Sistine Chapel every year. That means five million people with heat, with dust with sweat.
The number of visitors is expected only to grow in coming years.
The Vatican is planning to upgrade the current climate control system for the chapel, but officials are hesitant to turn tourists away.
Michelangelo returned in 1535 to paint the last judgement on the chapel's wall. It took five years to complete this work ... a work art lovers no doubt hope will remain intact until judgement day.