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Peek into the secrets of the Sistine Chapel

Who did Michelangelo really paint on the ceiling of the world's most famous house of prayer? "Today" host Katie Couric reports.
/ Source: TODAY

The Sistine Chapel is one of the most popular attractions at the Vatican, visited by about 15,000 people a day. But as the cardinals gather to pick the next pope, those doors will be closed to the public. It's a process shrouded in secrecy, happening in a place where the walls hold mysteries of their own. “Today” host Katie Couric took a look at some of the secrets housed in the Sistine Chapel.

Where the hands of God and man come to touch, the cardinals will gather to elect the "Successor of St. Peter."

They are determined that there be no inside observers other than the cardinals themselves.  But hundreds of pairs of eyes will be watching from the majestic frescoes of Michelangelo.

“The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, along with Leonardo's ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Last Supper’ are the great icons of Western art,” said James Beck, founder of ArtWatch International, a nonprofit organization that works to protect and conserve works of art.

During the 1500's, when Michelangelo was working on the ceiling, Pope Julius II took great interest in his progress. Historians say the pope even climbed up the scaffolding to examine the details of the painting.

“The pope said, ‘I want you to finish the rest of this in due time.’ And Michelangelo said, ‘I'm going to do it in any time I want.’ The pope was very angry and threatened to throw him off the ceiling scaffolding if he didn’t finish quickly,” said Beck.

But Michelangelo found a creative way to get back at Pope Julius.

“According to some analysis, Michelangelo painted the pope himself at least once,” said Beck. “He paints the pope as the beheaded Syrian general Holofernes — kind of a friendly inside joke.”

More than two decades later, Michelangelo returned to the Sistine Chapel to paint "The Last Judgment" above the altar. And again he took some artistic license.

“ 'The Last Judgment’ has heaven and hell. Michelangelo is said to have placed some of his enemies in hell,” said Beck.

“Michelangelo included his own face in the skin of Saint Bartholomew. I think he didn't do it obviously, because it would have been presumptuous for him to have just placed himself either in heaven or in hell,” he said.

It seems appropriate that walls full of mysteries from the 16th century will be the only witness to the coming conclave.

"Conclave" comes from the Latin word meaning "locked up with a key."  And there is a reason the cardinals keep themselves isolated from the outside world for this process.

“Some of the conclaves dragged on for a long, long time,” said Monsignor Raymond Kupke of New Jersey’s Seton Hall University. “After a conclave in the 13th century lasted for more than two years, the next pope set up very definite rules. It included locking the cardinals away and actually withholding food after a certain period if they didn't reach a decision.”

Extreme measures are also taken to keep the proceedings secret from the public.

“Traditionally, any of the windows that faced outside were blackened over and locked,” said Kupke. “There have been instances when people have tried to sneak in messages or sneak out messages.”

The voting process itself is carefully guarded.

“The ballot is folded and you're supposed to put the name of your candidate and disguise your handwriting so that no one will know who voted for whom,” he said.

The ballots are strung together so no one can slip any in or take any out.

“Almost like you string popcorn together at Christmas to make a garland for a Christmas tree,” said Kupke.

The ballots are burned, and the black or white smoke rising from the chimney signals whether a pope has been elected. Traditionally, the burning of wet or dry straw determined the color of the smoke, but in recent years, that changed.

“The Italian Army, I believe it is, provided chemicals that would help to ensure the texture and color of the smoke. Apparently that did not work well and gray smoke came out most times, confusing everyone endlessly,” Kupke said.

This time, when the cardinals are ready to announce a name that only the 500-year-old frescoes know in advance, the bells of St. Peter's Basilica will ring loud and clear.