Credit to Gregorio Borgia

10 Larger-than-Life Examples of Vatican Art

With over 20,000 pieces of artwork on display at the Vatican Museums, you might have difficulty deciding what to see first. Why not start with the biggest, longest, tallest and widest paintings and sculptures in the Vatican Museums? 

Size isn’t the only thing that matters when it comes to art, of course, but it’s undeniably impressive to see a fresco extending longer than a football field across a wall or look up at a sculpture more than twice your size. Just imagine the planning and dedication required to complete such a project, and all without the help of modern technology.

That’s why we have compiled a list of 10 larger-than-life examples of Vatican Art that you can find in one of the many galleries of the Vatican Museums. From gargantuan bronze and marble statues to enormous wall-to-wall frescoes, the Vatican Museums has plenty of artwork that’ll keep you gazing at the heavens and in need of a good set of binoculars.

1 - Mastai Hercules

None other than Hercules is the subject of the tallest sculpture in the Vatican Museums, which stands at a whopping 383 centimeters, or more than 12 and a half feet tall. To put that in perspective, if you put this statue on a professional basketball court, its head would go well beyond the rim and almost touch the top of the backboard!

Although this gilded bronze statue dates back to at least the 3rd century AD, archaeologists only discovered it again in the 19th century buried under the courtyard of the Palazzo Pio Righetti. Following Roman tradition, it was buried after being damaged by lightning. Today, you can find this gigantic Herculian sculpture in the Sala Rotunda of the Museo Pio-Clementino. 

2 - Braschi Antinous

This is the tallest marble sculpture in the Vatican Museums and stands at 330 centimeters, which is nearly 11 feet tall. Although this sculpture is shorter than the Mastai Hercules, it is still tall enough to tower well above a basketball rim.

Modeled after the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s lover, this sculpture represents one of the grandest and saddest romantic gestures of antiquity. The work was commissioned shortly after Antinous tragically drowned in the Nile River in 130 AD. You can see this larger-than-life act of love in the Sala Rotunda of the Museo Pio-Clementino.

3 - Nile 

As this sculpture represents one of the longest rivers in the world, it’s appropriate that it’s also the longest, or widest, sculpture you can find in the Vatican Museums. The Nile River is anthropomorphized as a venerable old man — the Greek god Nilus, who lays languidly on his side and measures out to 310 centimeters, or more than 10 feet.

This recreation dates back to the 1st century AD and was based on a well-known masterpiece of Alexandrian Greek sculpture. Pay attention to the metaphorical meanings of the smaller details, such as the 16 children representing how much the Nile would flood each year — 16 cubits of water. You can find this monumental example of Vatican art in the New Wing of the Museo Chiaramonti.

4 - Laocoön and his Sons

Although this sculpture isn’t as tall or as wide as those previously mentioned, it deserves a spot on the list for being one of the heaviest pieces on display at the Vatican Musuems. This massive slab of marble, which includes both the sculptured section and its pedestal, weighs in at a hefty 2,300 kilograms (over 5,000 pounds). For comparison, that’s about the same weight as five grand pianos or one adult rhinoceros.

According to the official Vatican Art online catalog, this sculpture of Lacoön and his Sons dates back to the year 40 BC and was the very first sculpture in the Vatican collection. Pope Julius II purchased this piece in 1506 after it was discovered in a vineyard near the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Today, you can find it firmly planted in the Belvedere Room of the Museo Pio-Clementino.

5 - The Entombment of Christ

Caravaggio’s oil painting, The Entombment of Christ, is one of the largest Vatican artworks that you’ll find painted on canvas, as the walls and ceilings of chapels and churches gave a much bigger surface area for artists to work with. However, even if smaller than the frescoes, this is still a massive painting at 3 meters high by 2 meters wide (about 10 feet high by more than 6 and a half feet wide).

Dating back to the beginning of the 17th century, this painting has traveled around more than most. It was originally intended for the Santa Maria in Vallicella Church in Rome, but later spent a couple of decades in the Louvre during Napolean’s reign until making its way to the Vatican Museums, where it is now housed in Room XII of the Pinacoteca.

6 - Madonna with Child and Saints

Titian’s oil painting, Madonna with Child and Saints, is an even larger work on canvas at nearly 4 meters high by almost 3 meters wide (roughly 12 feet by 9 feet). See if you can spot Saint Nicholas, who, out of the six saints in the painting, is undoubtedly the most well-known in modern times.

Like Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ, Titian’s Madonna with Child and Saints was originally intended for a church in Italy but eventually spent some time with Napolean in France before finding its way to the Vatican Museums. Today, you can find this huge oil painting in Room X of the Pinacoteca.

7 - The Transfiguration

The Transfiguration is Raphael’s final painting, which he worked on during the four years preceding his untimely death in 1520 at the age of 37. From then up until the early 20th century, Raphael’s Transfiguration was probably the most famous and celebrated painting in the Western world, better known than even the Last Supper and the Mona Lisa.

One reason for its popularity was most likely the sheer scale of the painting. Raphael’s Transfiguration is 410 by 279 centimeters (13 feet 5 inches by 9 feet 1 inch). It is also one of the most reproduced paintings, with at least 68 high-quality copies around the world. In fact, in the Vatican itself, you can see the original in the Pinacoteca and a life-size copy adorning the altar at St. Peter’s Basilica.

8 - The Creation of Adam

In the time it took Raphael to complete the Transfiguration, Michelangelo painted the entire ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The most well-known panel in this series of frescoes, which you surely recognize, is called The Creation of Adam and measures 280 by 570 centimeters (9 feet 2 inches by 18 feet 8 inches).

There are intriguing theories about the possible hidden meanings in some of the details of these frescoes, particularly in The Creation of Adam. Does the shape of the red cloth enveloping God look like something to you? Does it represent a human brain or uterus? What do you think the 12 figures around God represent? Concerning these questions, there’s no clear consensus among art critics and historians.

9 - The School of Athens

Half a meter wider and more than double the height of a regulation soccer goal at 5 by 7.7 meters (16 feet 8 inches by 25 feet), The School of Athens is one of Raphael’s largest frescoes, which you can see among many more of his frescoes in the Raphael Rooms of the Vatican Museums.

Dating back to the early 16th century, many consider The School of Athens to be Raphael’s true masterpiece. If you do a little research ahead of time, this fresco does provide an opportunity to play a Where’s Waldo style image search. See if you can find which figures were based on Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and even Raphael himself.

10 - The Last Judgment

Last, but certainly not least, is Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, which is the fresco that gives all the other frescoes an inferiority complex. This enormous fresco covers the entire altar wall of the Sistine Chapel and measures in at 13.7 by 12 meters (44 feet 11 inches by 39 feet 4 inches). That’s about as tall as three giraffes stacked one on top of the other and as wide as a standard shipping container.

Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment took a year longer to complete than the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and was only started 25 years after the ceiling was completed. This work was one of Michelangelo’s most controversial due to its nudity and racy themes. So much so, that it was later censored by painting fig leaves and clothing over many of the figures. You could say that the size of this fresco wasn’t the only thing about it that’s larger than life.

What about the Sistine Chapel's ceiling?

You may be thinking, “Wait. What about the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?” For the purpose of this list, Michelangelo’s frescoes were considered individually. In that case, The Creation of Adam, the most famous and largest fresco on the ceiling, is the only one listed above. If you want to discover more, here’s all you need to know about the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.


So, there you have it. Ten larger-than-life examples of Vatican Art. Although it’s interesting to read about such paintings and sculptures, you can only truly appreciate the grand scale of these artworks by visiting the Vatican Museums in person. When you’re ready to finally explore its many galleries, make sure not to miss these 10 larger-than-life examples of Vatican Art. Don’t forget your binoculars!