The Chapel built at the behest of Sixtus IV (Francesco Della Rovere, 1471-1484) in the heart of the Vatican Palaces is located on the base of a previous medieval chapel, indicated in the toponymy of the age simply as capella magna (or maior). The internal configuration of the walls – where the windows, drawn upwards, leave great space for ornamental developments – adopts a structure of overlapping bands, with a repeated motif of false tapestries – originally present along the entire perimeter – corresponding to the lower of the three. Each tapestry was conceived as a draped cloth, suspended with hooks from the frame above and simulating, through refined chiaroscuro, the embroidery and thickness of brocade. Each square is framed, above and at the sides, by borders embroidered with arabesques, following repertoires derived from antiquity; the dominant colours of the series, gathered in alternate shapes in groups of three, are gold and silver, against the blue of the background and the coats of arms. All the curtains attached to the walls, with the exception of those towards the entrance, are marked with the Della Rovere emblems (an oak inside a shield, under the tiara with the crossed keys), repeated along the folds of the drapery; the heraldic motif of the oak, alluding to the pontiff’s lineage, reappears in the design of the fabric, with the duo of the leaf and acorn, interspersed with floral elements. The folds flow elegantly, arranged in waves, and are gathered in small bands bearing the inscription sixt [vs] / papa / IIII.
The custom of decorating monumental or ceremonial rooms with false drapes derives from late-antique models, and was revived in medieval tradition. The ornamental form in the Sistine Chapel, possibly developed from precedents in Avignon, is noteworthy for the realism of the description and the insistence on the heraldic element, linked to the prestige of the commission. The painting work was entrusted to the same workshops which had been responsible for the decoration above, with the Stories of Christ and of Moses, narrated according to the concordance between the two Testaments (middle register) and the theory of the Holy Pontiffs in the niches between the windows, according to the succession established by Platina (upper register). From around 1520, the register corresponding to the false drapes was intended for the display of real tapestries, such as those woven in Brussels based on Raphael’s cartoons, depicting episodes from the Acts of the Apostles and known, in their entirely, as the “Old School” tapestries (1515-19).