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Sistine Chapel exhibition brings heavenly Michelangelo masterpiece down to Earth

It may just be the most intimate, up-close-and-personal, no-scaffolding-required way to experience the ceiling masterpiece by the Italian artist-sculptor Michelangelo Buonarroti.

You can walk among life-sized reproductions of a fresco masterpiece when you visit “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition” in Oakbrook Center.
You can walk among life-sized reproductions of a fresco masterpiece when you visit “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition” in Oakbrook Center.
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If a trip to Italy to see the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel frescoes is not on the horizon, no worries. The Sistine Chapel frescoes are headed our way.

And it may just be the most intimate, up-close-and-personal, no-scaffolding-required way to experience the ceiling masterpiece by the Italian artist-sculptor Michelangelo Buonarroti.

“Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition” opens Wednesday in Oakbrook Center, bringing with it massive, life-sized reproductions of 33 frescoes in the iconic ceiling, the most famous being the nine scenes from the Bible’s book of Genesis, painted by the Italian artist over a four-year period in the early 16th century through a commission by Pope Julius II. Also on display will be life-sized reproductions of Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment,” a separate, five-year fresco project, which covers the entire altar wall of the chapel and was begun some 25 years after the ceiling was completed.

Before you can say “just another art exhibit,” it’s important to note the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel exhibition were crafted via special technology — hi-res prints on special fabric — to recreate the look and texture of a fresco, according to Martin Biallas, the founder and CEO of Special Entertainment Events (SEE), which created and is producing the traveling exhibition. Every brushstroke is visible, giving added depth and breadth to the scope of the paintings, he said. The exhibit puts into perspective the enormous proportions of each of the figures in the frescoes, which make them clearly discernible to Vatican visitors 44 feet below. It is a vastly different experience from the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit, currently on display in Chicago, Biallas stressed.

“The Van Gogh exhibit is images projected onto a screen. Our exhibit features life-sized [floor-to-ceiling] re-creations of the frescoes, making them almost look like we peeled the frescoes off the ceiling walls and are now taking them on a worldwide tour,” he said.

“It took us almost two years to find the right design, high-res images and the best fabric for printing the images so it would provide the right look and feel of a fresco. That wasn’t easy. A fresco is when the artist paints on wet plaster and when it dries it absorbs the color and paint. An oil painting looks completely different.”

It will take visitors roughly 60 to 90 minutes to walk among all the massive panels in the exhibit, which is housed inside the former site of the Sears store in the west suburban mall. Masks must be worn at all times and social distancing will be adhered to. And unlike most museum-quality exhibits, photos are encouraged.

Biallas discussed more details of the unique exhibit via email with the Sun-Times:

Q. What was the genesis of making the Sistine Chapel an immersive experience?

A. The idea came from a visit when I was at the Sistine Chapel back in 2012 and had to go through the nerve-wracking experience of standing in line for hours. And once I got in (together with 2,000 other visitors in a 10,000 square-foot space) I was given 15 minutes to “experience” these magnificent masterpieces that were 60 feet high under the ceiling and looked like a [postage] stamp. The ... security guards were ready at all times to intervene and take your camera or phone if you were even thinking about taking a photo; photography is strictly forbidden. That’s when I had the idea to get a license to recreate these frescoes in the original size for people to see up-close and take all the time they want and take as many photos they want. Our visitors will be able to see these frescoes from a perspective like no pope has ever seen them before. You would need a scaffolding structure to elevate yourself that close. People just don’t realize how big these frescoes are.

“Our exhibit features life-sized [floor-to-ceiling] re-creations of the frescoes, making them almost look like we peeled the frescoes off the ceiling walls and are now taking them on a worldwide tour,” says Martin Biallas, the founder and CEO of Special Entertainment Events, of what to expect at “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition.”
“Our exhibit features life-sized [floor-to-ceiling] re-creations of the frescoes, making them almost look like we peeled the frescoes off the ceiling walls and are now taking them on a worldwide tour,” says Martin Biallas, the founder and CEO of Special Entertainment Events, of what to expect at “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition.”
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Q. Were [you] allowed to photograph the chapel specifically for this project?

A. No. We have an exclusive license from Bridgeman (which represents the Vatican photographers) for life-size reproductions, and only Bridgeman has high-resolution images that were taken post-restoration.

Q. Can you talk about the music used throughout the experience?

A. That’s Martin’s “top 40” of sacred choir music. I chose these tracks to get the visitor in the right festive mood. The music is not from Michelangelo’s era — the music of that era sounded very plain and not at all festive, so I chose music from 200-300 years later.

Extensive audio tracks written by a German university scholar guide visitors throughout “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition.”
Extensive audio tracks written by a German university scholar guide visitors throughout “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition.”
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Q. What can visitors learn about the artwork from this experience?

A. You learn to appreciate even more what an extraordinary talent Michelangelo was. ... How can a single man paint all these alone with just one assistant and literally lived on the scaffolding for almost five years without ever leaving that workspace? And the detail and the “secret” messages he was including in the frescoes. Our extensive audio guide tracks written by a German university scholar tell you all about it.