Ten years ago my mother and I visited the Sistine Chapel. We are Catholic and we both studied Michelangelo’s frescoes in college, so the experience was high on our bucket list.
The frescoes were breathtaking. The biblical characters appeared as if they were ready to leap down from the ceiling and into my pocketbook. However, most of the work looms 44-feet above the altar so even standing on my tippy toes, straining my neck and squinting, the details of the art were a blur. After standing in line for more than an hour at the Vatican, we were allowed 15 minutes to see the masterpieces.
“That’s it?” my mother asked as we left.
Fifteen years ago, Martin Biallas, CEO of Los Angeles-based SEE Global Entertainment, left the Sistine Chapel feeling some kind of way, too. But instead of muttering about it over red wine and pasta, he figured out a more user-friendly experience. He made a deal with New York-based Bridgeman Images — the Vatican turned him down — to license its images of Michelangelo’s 34 Sistine Chapel paintings. He cropped the photos to focus on the biblical characters, blew them up to over 10-feet-tall and 20-feet-wide, and printed them.
The billboard-size reproductions are the heart of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition. The traveling exhibit opened in The Fashion District Philadelphia in late January and will stay through March 18. Seeing the most important work of the Renaissance in a downtown mall is an educational blast. And I didn’t have to squint to see the paintings.
“We decided to bring the art down from the ceiling and present it true to life,” said Eric Leong, senior producer at SEE Global and La Salle University graduate. “We wanted to let people soak up the details, take their time, and have the experience we think this art deserves.”
Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel debuted in Montreal in 2015. Today there are 10 sets of reproductions: five travel the United States, two are in Europe. There is one set each in Canada, Asia, and Australia. The Philadelphia exhibit will head to Kansas City next.
Each set costs roughly $350,000 to produce, Leong said. The show draws tens of thousands of visitors to each city it visits. According to his projections, 28,000 people will visit the exhibit here.
A brief history of the ceiling
Pope Sixtus IV built the Sistine Chapel during the late 15th century (and named it after himself.) Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo in the early 1500s to paint over the ceiling’s original blue-with-golden-stars look with a more dynamic scene: The apostles gathered around Christ for the Last Supper.
But Michelangelo, known at the time as a sculptor, had different plans. He illustrated the three stories of Genesis that sit at the foundation of Christianity: God creating the world and man, the fall of Adam and Eve, and Noah’s Ark. He surrounded the nine panels with images of Old Testament prophets and seers — the sibyls — who spoke of the coming of Christ. He also nestled family portraits of Jesus’ ancestors in triangle frames, evoking The Holy Family.
In between the scenes, Michelangelo painted concrete molding and columns, artfully separating the images. It took Michelangelo four and a half years to complete the work.
Twenty-five years after Michelangelo finished the ceiling frescoes, Pope Clement VII asked him to paint “The Last Judgement.” The 45-foot-by-40-foot mural depicts Christ sending the damned to hell and the chosen to heaven. There are 390 figures in this fresco, including angels, saints, demons, two images of Christ, and Mary. The mural is meant to merge the teachings of the Old Testament and the New Testament, completing the story of the history of the Catholic Church.
Michelangelo in the millennium
Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is housed in the 12,000-square-foot space facing Market Street at the corner of Ninth Street. This is the former home of Candytopia.
Visitors can walk in, but it’s recommended that tickets be purchased in advance. Masks are required.
I suggest dropping $4 to rent the audio guide, available on your smartphone or via headphones and scanner.
Michelangelo painted his images along the ceiling’s complex set of curves, yet what we see in the exhibit has been flattened. The concrete molding is also cropped out. The result: a series of larger than life-size posters of biblical superheroes.
Floodlighting along the floor and ceiling make the images look like projections. The soft glow illuminates Michelangelo’s attention to detail: the veins in Jonah’s beefy calves, the folds in the Libyan Sibyl’s golden dress, the shadows in God’s flowing crimson robes, and the reflection of the sun and the moon in “The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Earth.” I sat down on benches to comfortably take it all in.
So much to see
The first floor features the Book of Genesis series in the order they would appear if you entered the Sistine Chapel through the east door. These are the most dramatic images. “The Creation of Adam” — the series’ most iconic work — shows a powerful God animating Adam. Adam has the strong body of an Olympian, but his face reveals a naivete and a determined willingness to serve God.
Adam stands in contrast to Eve in “The Fall of Man and Expulsion from Paradise.” This image is divided into two. On the left is a young Adam and Eve being tempted by the serpent. On the right, the Archangel Michael is kicking them out after they dared to taste the fruit. Yet it’s only Eve who appears haggard and old. The audio guide suggests Michelangelo is saying that women are only beautiful when they are “innocent” — an outdated idea we still can’t seem to shake.
Make sure to go upstairs to see the prophets and the sibyls. In “David and Goliath,” David swings his mighty scythe with such ferociousness, I cringed.
“The Last Judgement” is the true showstopper. Although the reprint is 20 feet, just half of the original, it’s still spectacular. And unlike the original, you can walk right up to it. Michelangelo paints the faces of the damned in agony. Those who make it to salvation appear confused, as if to say, “Surely you don’t mean me.” The details he added to the saints make them easily identifiable. He dressed John the Baptist in a furry cloak and gave St. Peter the keys to heaven.
Fun fact: Michelangelo, true to form, painted many of the figures naked. In the 16th century, the Vatican hired painters to add underwear, as seen in this reproduction.
That alone makes this exhibit a must-see.
“Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition” is on view at Fashion District Philadelphia through March 18 Wednesday – Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and Sundays 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tickets are available at sistinechapelexhibit.com/philadelphia and start at $19 for adults and $13.30 for youth. Discounts for seniors, students, military, and family bundles are available.