From now until October 9, the people of Richmond have the unique opportunity to see “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition” at Stony Point Fashion Park. I was given the chance to explore the exhibit and speak with Noah Espinola, a representative of See Global Entertainment (the company that produced the exhibit) the night before it opened on September 2. As any sane person would be, I was excited at the prospect of being able to experience a masterpiece of human achievement without leaving the country, something I have never been able to do.
I arrived with my partner and parked close to Tiffany & Co. and Saks Fifth Avenue, the closest place to park for the exhibit. I had been given directions but recently cracked the screen on my phone, so I couldn’t access the information they had given me in the press packet, and have been too busy working three jobs to find the time to fix my phone. I learned through trial and error that the entrance to the exhibit is not next to Pandora, the store right next door to the exit.
We initially entered at the exit, where we were met with the diplomatic dismay of an exhibit employee. We then walked the red carpet from the merch area to the front of the exhibit, the pieces a regal blur as we were escorted to the greeting area. There, I was given a press sticker, and introduced to Noah Espinola.
GW: So, what to you is the importance of democratizing masterpieces?
NE: I think the way you put it is perfect, we are really trying to democratize access to this art. Vatican City is very far; it’s very expensive to get there for most people. To us the importance is the fact that this art deserves to have a wider audience than it really does.
NE: The frescoes are tucked away in the Sistine Chapel, 60 feet above the floor. When you do go there, you only have about fifteen minutes in there, or less, because the guards are rushing you out. So I think the importance is really allowing people to have the exposure that they wouldn’t be able to [get] without travel. I think regardless of income, regardless of your ability to travel, everyone should have the ability to appreciate great art.
GW: Excellent. What do you think the legacy of Michelangelo is, for the future and today?
NE: The legacy of Michelangelo is and will be one of greatness. He was primarily a sculptor, and was tasked by the Pope to create this work. He kind of questioned whether he would at first. Viewing himself more as a sculptor, he asked himself if he was able to paint it. To me, I find that admirable. He went out of his comfort zone. He also created the scaffolding that he was suspended on while he was painting. I think it’s a remarkable achievement of not only art and architecture, but perseverance and personal growth.
GW: In a way it’s a testament to passion, drive, and personal achievement.
NE: Yes, I agree. I think that’s exactly it.
The exhibit is displayed inside an empty store, one of many in Stony Point Fashion Park and every other mall in America. There is a red carpet that extends throughout the exhibit, doing a good job to liven the otherwise sterile and lifeless negative space. The images themselves are all high-fidelity large canvas prints that are placed alongside each other in various rooms, according to the theme and placement upon the chapel ceiling itself.
The Sistine Chapel frescoes tell the stories of God’s will and man’s created destiny, from Genesis to Revelation, according to the Bible and the Catholic church. The triangular outer frescoes contain the ancestors of Christ, the kings of the Old Testament. The top of each triangle is adorned by a ram skull, the symbol of God’s covenant to Abraham, their patriarch. Between these are the Prophets of the Old Testament and the Sibyls, or oracles of ancient Greece, who missed their honorable mention in the Bible. True to Papal form, the central frescoes focus on God’s creation of man, and his need for salvation and judgement due to the sin of Eve and man’s inherently corrupt nature.
The first room contains the prints of The Ancestors of Christ. To the left of each print in the exhibit, on a tripod, is a summary of the piece and a QR code you can scan for audio. I recommend bringing headphones for this, unless you want to be holding your phone to your ear the entire time. I was a bit miffed at the placement of the tripods throughout the exhibit. They were close enough to obscure the bottom left of some of the works. However, when you are close enough to scan the QR code, you become close enough to see the woven fiber of the canvas print. I used this perspective to create a tunnel of focus on a certain area, and then moved backwards from there until the entire image was in view. I was captured by the attention to detail, and the scope and grandeur of each individual fresco, regardless of the enormity of the completed work.
The Ancestors are the Old Testament kings, often portrayed as toddlers with their families. I found the humanist depiction of a child with their family a fitting wrinkle on the holy and regal subject matter. I think it also served to dampen the focus on the kings, and place it more on the divine right given to each by God.
We followed the red carpet into the next room, housing both the Prophets of the Bible and the Sibyls — later appropriated by the Catholic Church. Here Michelangelo depicts each subject as adults seated upon thrones in fine and flowing robes, which I believe is to emphasize their importance in the story of the coming Messiah. The fulfilled prophecies of the Old Testament lay the groundwork for the validity of the New, superseding royal succession in importance.
In this room I was struck by the painting of the Cumean Sibyl, who was said by Ovid to be 700 years old. Through time and erosion, the paint of her face and neck have cracked in a way that accentuate her features as an older woman. Her cracked skin and powerful arms serve to tell the story of the strength of the ancient world.
In the last room are the frescoes in the middle of the Sistine Chapel ceiling itself. There are many that focus on the early creation stories and the story of Noah during and after the flood. Some tell the story of heroes and villains of the Old Testament, most notably the painting of David standing over the vanquished form of Goliath, knife poised to sever his Philistine head.
Of all the famous frescoes, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention The Creation of Adam. There is something surreal about standing in front of a life-size print of one of the most well recognized images of my life, and of all time. Due to Michelangelo’s documented study of anatomy through dissection, there are some anatomists in more recent years that have posited that the image of God in this painting is resting in an image of a cross section of the human brain. With that in mind, it creates an implication that through consciousness, God created the form of man, then through the artist’s hand, the consciousness of man created the form of God.
The exhibit ends with the image of The Last Judgment. Michelangelo’s mastery of the human form is exhibited throughout this haunting piece, although the church later covered the nudity of the forms due to a shame the second coming of Christ would absolve. There is much to pay attention to as holy and unholy figures take their respective places atop, aside, or beneath the place of judgment. Michelangelo’s disquieting portrait of himself as St. Bartholomew holding his own flayed skin, and the macabre subjects of hell at the bottom, were arguably my favorite of the piece.
I highly recommend taking the time and money to pay the paltry price of entry to see “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition.” The reuse of empty mall space is worth showing up to support, regardless of content, but in this case the content is spectacular. I can honestly say that the only other times I have left exhibits imbued with the same wonder and awe was after seeing a Van Gogh, or a Picasso. Make your way down to Stony Point Fashion Park to see these great works and experience the majesty and mastery of these pieces yourself. Unless, of course, you have the money and time to be at the Vatican before then.
If you do, let me hold twenty bucks until you get back. I need to replace my phone screen.
“Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition” will be at the Stony Point Fashion Park until Sunday, October 9. The hours are from 10-6 Tuesday through Sunday, with an entry price of $22.20 for adults 13+ and $15.50 for children 4-12. Souvenir package for adults is $32.20. Senior, Student, and Military discounted to $18.90 for general admissions and $28.90 for Souvenir package. Tickets can be purchased at the exhibit’s website.
Images courtesy of See Global Entertainment