Few works are as universally recognized or as globally revered as Michelangelo’s masterful works in the Sistine Chapel. Created in the early 16th century, these works depict scenes from the Bible’s Book of Genesis, biblical prophets, and the ancestors of Jesus. Among its most recognizable images are the Great Flood, the battle between David and Goliath, and the iconic Creation of Adam. For devout Christians, historians, and art critics alike, the Sistine Chapel is a place to revel in the glory of both. And now it’s here in Montreal.
Entering the exhibit is a perfect escape. Despite other viewers drifting through the room, it is near silent apart for the faint background of choral music, lending itself to the ambience. The audio tour is succinct, informative, and given in a relaxed and soothing voice. Viewers are guided through the exhibit viewing the paintings in the order they were intended, in the same layout as they are presented on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, so that visitors may truly appreciate the stories the images tell. Both the Biblical inspiration and the histories of the paintings themselves are told through the audio player, providing patrons with a rich background. Far from a dull lecture, the narration provides succinct versions of age-old stories, historical context, amusing anecdotes, and insight into the artist’s psyche.
The images of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling have been captured with state-of-the-art photography taken by the world-renowned Erich Lessing, and are currently on display at the Palais des Congrès. Taken just after a recent restoration, the reproductions portray the paintings in vibrant colour and precise detail. All 33 ceiling frescoes have been reproduced in life-size, along with a scaled-down reproduction of The Last Judgment, which depicts the second coming of Christ and the separation of the chosen and the damned.
The black, steely, industrial surroundings can’t possibly compare to being physically present in the Sistine Chapel itself. Particularly for the frescoes originally painted in the corners or on curved portions of the chapel’s ceiling, it’s harder to appreciate their true genius when they must be viewed two dimensionally rather than on the special surfaces for which their geometry was constructed.
These minor details are a small price to pay for the chance to see the finer aspects of the paintings in a way that’s impossible to experience outside of Vatican City. In the chapel itself, the paintings can only be viewed from a distance, but in the exhibit, they’re 10 feet away. It allows viewers to get up close and personal with the old masterpieces, to examine the expressions on the faces of the prophets, and to marvel at the play of light on folds of silken robes. Being so close to the works creates an intimate experience with the subjects of the paintings, as the viewer is finally able to see every detail and brushstroke.
While it’s not exactly like being in the Vatican, it’s a comparable experience. The reproductions are beautiful, the guided tour is enlightening, and the images are overwhelming and awe-inspiring. The biggest drawback is craning your neck to see the works hung from the ceiling—just like the real experience.
Michealangelo’s Sistene Chapel: The Exhibition will be at Espace 1001 (1001 Jean-Paul Riopelle Place) until Oct. 12. Tickets are between $12 and $19.50.