Behind the Scenes of Vatican Art and Architecture


The Vatican’s masterpieces are well known throughout the world – Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, the Apostolic Palace and the papal art galleries – although the details and their history often remain elusive. In this course, you will go on a behind the scenes visual excursion to unravel major historical and artistic moments in the history of the Vatican, from pre-Imperial times to the establishment of the Vatican City State in 1929. You will focus on the Necropolis and Old Saint Peter’s Basilica, the new Basilica of Saint Peter, the Sistine Chapel, papal art collections at the Vatican Museums, and the Apostolic Palace.

Target audience:
This course is for anyone interested in the history of art, history of religion, history of Rome and history of the papacy. It will also appeal to connoisseurs of Western culture.

Learning objectives:
By the end of this course, you will have:

  • increased your knowledge of major historical periods, artworks and architectural spaces in Vatican City
  • gained an appreciation for the papal patronage of culture
  • learnt how to associate popes and artists with each other and their respective historical periods.

Course outline:
Each session includes two one-hour lecture presentations and time for questions and discussion.

Session 1 – Introduction to the Vatican

  • Part 1 – History and relationship to Rome: Imperial–papal overlap
  • Part 2 – Origins: Nero’s Circus and the Necropolis; Constantine’s Basilica

Session 2 – New Saint Peter’s Basilica

  • Part 1 – Introduction to the history and architecture of the new Basilica: Julius II and Bramante
  • Part 2 – Artistic highlight: Masterworks of Michelangelo, Bernini, Canova

Session 3 – Sistine Chapel

  • Part 1 – Ceiling and altar wall: Michelangelo’s frescos as theology in painting
  • Part 2 – Side walls: The Tuscan and Umbrian masterworks; biblical stories in painting

Session 4 – Papal collections: Pagan art in new contexts

  • Part 1 – Julius II and the Octagonal Courtyard: Apollo Belvedere/Laocoön; Pio-Clementino Collection, the Belvedere Torso, Round Room and Room of the Greek Cross
  • Part 2 – Pius VII and Neoclassicism in Rome: Braccio Nuovo – Augustus of the Prima Porta

Session 5 – Papal commissions: Art for the propagation of religion

  • Part 1 – Pinacoteca Vaticana (Fine Art Gallery): Giotto, Raphael, Caravaggio
  • Part 2 – Gallery of Maps: Scientific contribution to culture – cosmography of Ignazio Danti (Venice)

Session 6 – Apostolic Palace

  • Part 1 – Introduction to the Apostolic Palace: Borgia Apartment – Room of the Mysteries of Faith
  • Part 2 – Raphael’s rooms: Stanza della Segnatura

There is a short break halfway through each session and you are welcome to bring your own refreshments if you wish.

Christopher Longhurst has a doctorate in theological aesthetics and worked in Rome for 17 years leading official visits to the papal art galleries, Sistine Chapel and Basilica of Saint Peter.

“I most enjoyed the tutor's knowledge and enthusiasm and although I knew a little beforehand, he had the ability to leave me open mouthed with different ideas and interpretations, which made me rethink a number of things”, Behind the Scenes of Vatican Art and Architecture participant (2016)

“An excellent course given by an enthusiastic and very well- informed lecturer. His enthusiasm for his subject was obvious”, Behind the Scenes of Vatican Art and Architecture participant (2016)

Relevant links:
School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies
Circolo Italiano di Wellington

For further information:
Continuing Education, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington 6140.
Phone 04 463 6556,  Email:

Please note: Courses need a minimum number of enrolments to go ahead. If your course doesn’t reach the number required, we’ll have to cancel it. If this happens, we’ll contact you by phone or email about a week before the scheduled start date and arrange a full refund. Please check your emails regularly.