Vatican City, Dec 16, 2017 / 03:20 am (CNA/EWTN News).- “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus told St. Peter, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.

Gianni Crea, as the ‘clavigero’ – or key keeper – of the Vatican Museums, has a slightly different job. Beginning at 5:30 every morning, he traverses the dark and quiet halls of the Vatican, opening the more than 300 doors in the “Museums of the Pope.”

As the senior key keeper, Crea oversees nine other key keepers and is responsible for managing 2,797 keys. These keys unlock the 300-some gates and doors of the public spaces of the museums – passed through by thousands of people per day – as well as other various maintenance rooms, closets and personnel spaces.

The most important key of all – that of the Sistine Chapel – is kept not on the ring with the others, but in a white envelope.

“For me this is a unique and extraordinary privilege,” Crea told EWTN. “I have the opportunity to open these doors to all the tourists that come from all over the world to the museums of the Pope, but especially the Sistine Chapel, the seat of the conclave since 1492.”

Possibly the most famous chapel in the world, the Sistine Chapel is where the College of Cardinals convenes to cast their ballots during a papal election. The room’s ceiling frescoes, painted by Michelangelo, depict the story of creation, the Last Judgement, and other Old and New Testament stories.

In the “the Museum of Museums,” each of the more than 300 doors has its own unique key, which the key keepers learn by heart. Some doors themselves are impressive, such as door “401,” whose key is from the 1700s, the oldest on Crea’s keyring.   

Starting every morning at the “Atrium of the Four Gates,” Crea meets his colleague Alessio, selects the right set of keys, and the two proceed with their course.

Five key keepers turn on the lights and unlock the doors of the museums every morning, walking over two miles of the total nearly 5-mile length of the Vatican Museums.

The route “is unique and extraordinary because each door and each key has its charm and its secret that it reveals to the world,” Crea said. “The Vatican Museums are so fascinating and so beautiful that in each corner you discover something, each corner has its own peculiarity.”

His path takes him past many famous works and galleries, including the ‘Laocoön,’ which was the first statue acquired by the Museums in 1506, and Caravaggio’s ‘The Entombment of Christ.’

Passing through the Gallery of Statues, Crea said that “each statue ‘speaks’ about history; each statue has something different and fascinating (to tell).”

He also opens the Niccoline Chapel, which is found in the oldest part of the Apostolic Palace. It is covered in frescoes depicting scenes from the lives of St. Stephen and St. Laurence, painted by Fra Angelico and his assistants. It was used as the private chapel of Pope Nicholas V and is not usually open to the public.

In the “Raphael Rooms,” which used to be the private apartments of Pope Julius II, Crea uses one of the smallest keys on the ring to turn on the lights, illuminating the famous painting of the “School of Athens” by Raphael.

He ends his daily journey at the original “Scala del Bramante,” or “Bramante Staircase,” built in 1505, which Crea considers “one of the most beautiful spots of the Vatican Museums.” From the top you can find a beautiful view of Rome.

The modern Bramante staircase, inspired from the original, was built in 1932 and designed by Giuseppe Momo. The double helix design allows people to ascend and descend without crossing each other.

The Vatican Museums were founded in 1506 by Pope Julius II. The museums are made up of 54 galleries, including the Sistine Chapel, which is the last stop on a visitor’s route through the roughly 20,000 works on display.

The Vatican Museums are among the largest and most visited museums in the world, with more than 6 million visitors annually.


Alexey Gotovsky contributed to this article.