After 500 years, the Sistine Chapel Finally Let a Woman Into Its Choir

Michelangelos frescos provide the backdrop for the Sistine Chapel Choir
Michelangelo's frescos provide the backdrop for the Sistine Chapel Choir | © BriYYZ/Flickr

The Catholic Church isn’t exactly well known for breaking gender taboos but, with the help of a Grammy-winning artist, that’s exactly what it’s just done. After 500 years of male-only choirs performing under Michelangelo’s ceiling, mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli has become to the first woman to sing with the Sistine Chapel Choir.

Bartoli, a five-time Grammy award-winner who has sold over 10 million records worldwide, joined the Sistine Chapel Choir to sing Beata Viscera by Renaissance composer Pérotin.

Cecilia Bartoli during a 2007 press event

‘Being the first woman to sing with the choir, and to record in the Sistine Chapel, is an immense privilege, I am at a loss for words. I am in seventh heaven, may I say that?’ Bartoli said following the historic collaboration.

In an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Bartoli also praised the acoustics of the chapel, describing it as ‘generous, and ideal for this type of repertoire, the voice travels naturally’. Her recording is part of the choir’s Christmas CD, Veni Domine, that features previously long-forgotten music unearthed from the Vatican Library archives.

The works, some of which hadn’t been heard for 400 years, were found by Massimo Palombella – an Italian Salesian priest and the director of music of the Sistine Chapel Choir. They were recorded in the chapel not just for the ancient acoustics but also because three of the songs had been written specifically to be sung there for papal celebrations but had never been performed in modern times.

Mark Spyropoulos, the first British full-time member of the Sistine Chapel Choir told the Observer: ‘She’s [Bartoli’s] well known for her interpretations of early music and it was great for us to be recording with someone like that. Women sing with a different timbre to men, so to hear that sound, the wonderful richness that women sing with on that piece, is very unusual in the Sistine Chapel…because, of course, it’s an all-male choir.’

The choir can trace its roots back to 1471 so perhaps it’s no surprise change has been slow – it is the Vatican after all. However the director of music, Massimo Palombella, is credited with shaking off the group’s unfortunate ‘Sistine Screamers’ nickname – penned by critics who thought the choir had lost their traditional way of singing.

These days, men no longer have to be ordained, unmarried or even Italian to join the choir. Bartoli’s performance with them though seems to be a one off, at least for now. Talking about the lack of women in orchestras, she noted ‘there is a long way to go’.

landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Winter Sale Offers on Our Trips

Incredible Savings

Edit article