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Calgary’s mini-Vatican: Looking into the world of Michelangelo

By Malea Nguyen, April 26 2022—

A life-size, up-close, never-before-seen perspective, inspiring experience at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition. 

I walked into the BMO centre where the exhibition was taking place, full of excitement with no idea of what to expect. I’m not an artist and I’m not that knowledgeable about the Renaissance era and its history. However, Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel are some of the most monumental works of art to have ever been created — art that even someone like me would be familiar with. 

Without even looking into the details of the exhibition, I immediately got tickets and was ready to experience the art in person because, in my head, I kept thinking: You get to finally see Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and it’s only a few train stops away. 

The Sistine Chapel was created by Michelangelo about 500 years ago. The frescoes, which are essentially mural paintings, were commissioned by Pope Julius II, with the painted architecture presenting depictions from the Bible. 

There were portraits of ancient sibyls, Old Testament prophets and the ancestors of Christ. Michelangelo painted these frescoes between 1508 and 1512, then painted “The Last Judgement” west of the chapel between 1536 and 1541.

From the Vatican to before my very own eyes, I saw 33 beautiful ceiling frescoes and “The Last Judgement” blown up on giant canvases. They were arranged in the same rows reflected in the true ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, with the frescoes in the top row being arranged side-by-side at the left of the room, the middle row in the middle and the bottom row at the right of the room. As you walk through the aisles, you’ll be entranced by not only the art itself but the physical storybook that it’s relaying. 

Experiencing the masterpiece in this “new perspective” was brilliant, as you are being guided through the narrative, from the creation of the world and mankind by God, to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise. 

There was the option of renting out an audio guide that would describe each painting as you made your way through the exhibition. Alternatively, there were signs at each painting that relayed the written description, as well as an image of where that specific painting was located on the true ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. 

The image was one of my favourite touches to the exhibition since I love to picture what it would be like if I were truly in the Sistine Chapel. Being able to visualize where each painting was located helped with the immersion, as well as with following the narrative. 

Adding to the immersive experience, Renaissance music was played and echoed throughout the exhibition. This was especially great, as the source of music was placed specifically at “The Erythraean Sibyl,” meaning the music was loudest for this painting which amplified its significance.

And finally, my favourite piece of the exhibition was Michelangelo’s infamous and visionary, “The Last Judgement.” This piece took up the entire back wall of the exhibition, which gave it a sense of grandeur. I spent most of my time at the exhibition admiring this great wall. I wanted to truly take in the 390 individual figures presented before me and how seamlessly every story was painted to fit next to one another on the canvas. Although it was one of Michelangelo’s most impressive works, it was also one of his most controversial at the time due to his contemporaries taking offence at the naked figures. 

Overall, I learned a lot about Renaissance culture and history at the exhibition and was left with a lingering impression of reflection and inspiration from the obvious passion and talent that Michelangelo put into the extraordinary paintings. The experience was pleasant, as the atmosphere was well-established and there was plenty of room to walk around and admire the art without feeling suffocated. 

Although the Michelangelo exhibition is over now, there is a possibility that more exhibits will be coming to Calgary in the future. After Van Gogh and Michelangelo, there’s talk that Monet will be coming sometime. Here’s to hoping the rumours are true.

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