Sistine Chapel shut down ahead of conclave

VATICAN CITY - The Sistine Chapel was shut down on Tuesday ahead of the upcoming conclave to elect a new pope following Benedict XVI's resignation even though the date for the meeting is still not known.

Visitors will not be able to gaze up at Michelangelo's famous frescoes but other parts of the Vatican like the Borgia apartment or the priceless collection of religious art remain open.

The chapel will reopen after the pope's election.

The Apostolic Constitution, which sets the rules for conclaves, states that only cardinals meeting in a "general congregation" can order the Sistine Chapel's temporary closure to prepare for conclave.

A total of 115 "cardinal electors" - cardinals below the threshold age of 80 - are set to meet in the chapel to elect a new pope having sworn an oath of secrecy on pain of excommunication.

The conclave is set to start next week and the Vatican has said it expects a new pope in place by Easter, an important date in the Christian calendar which this year falls on March 31.

A special stove will be installed in the chapel to burn the cardinals' ballots following two daily rounds of voting - if the smoke is white, that means that a new pope has been elected.

The cardinals' pre-conclave meetings began on Monday and are expected to last much of the week.

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