Inside The People’s Cathedral

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Get up close to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

Up Close: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel exhibit is on display at The Oculus through July 23 (Photos by Kimberly Dijkstra)

From now until July 23, The Oculus at Westfield World Trade Center is home to a series of near-life size reproductions of Michelangelo’s magnificent frescoes found inside the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. The exhibit makes one of the world’s greatest artistic achievements accessible to the general public and allows viewers to get closer to the artwork than could ever be possible in Rome.

“Santiago Calatrava, the architect of The Oculus, envisioned this building as a people’s cathedral,” said Scott Sanders, Westfield’s creative head of global entertainment, “so we at Westfield decided to begin bringing a series of experiential art exhibits in. We thought who better than Michelangelo to kick things off with these iconic Sistine Chapel frescoes.”

Westfield collaborated with Austrian photographer Erich Lessing and Brooklyn-based design team Susan Holland & Company to bring this inaugural installation to fruition. More than 30 scenes from the epic ceiling are displayed individually, depicting scenes from the Book of Genesis. Standing tall, towering above it all is an almost-to-scale reproduction of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, which covers the whole altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. The massive work had to be created in Germany and assembled in the United States.

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The Oculus itself is a work of art. It is a natural fit for the sculptural building to house extraordinary art in the wide-open, brightly lit gallery space on the main floor.

Art historian and researcher Lynn Catterson has visited the Sistine Chapel at least once every year for the past 20 years and she considers this exhibit a breath of fresh air. “Despite the fact that they are photographs and they are dislocated, there’s something very special about it.”

Taking photographs is not allowed inside the Sistine Chapel, which can see as many as 25,000 visitors per day, moved through very quickly. Seeing the art up close is an entirely different experience. Even Catterson, who is intimately familiar with the frescoes, has seen things at this exhibit that she has never noticed before.

Lynn Catterson points out a staple—an attempt to stop the cracking of the fresco ceiling.

“The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Earth” depicts God, in a colossal burst of cosmic energy, creating the sun. “I’ve looked at this hundreds of times and [today I saw] the lady under God’s arm—she’s blinded by the light,” said Catterson.

Catterson also pointed out the cracks and staples visible in the large-scale photographs. The cracks are structural and it is a problem the Vatican needs to address. Much like Michelangelo’s David in Florence, the number of tourists passing through the room cause the floor to vibrate resulting in a crack in the statue’s leg.

“There’s some strange stuff you can’t see from the floor of the chapel,” Catterson explained, such as a portrait-like face peering from behind two generic figures in the Noah’s Ark scene, or amorphous “whale” in the Jonah and the Whale scene that Michelangelo painted from his imagination.

A visit to Up Close: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is only a train ride—or two—away.

The Last Judgment is so full of metaphor, volumes could be written on the subject. One such detail is the realization that Michelangelo painted his face onto the skin of St. Bartholomew, likening his relationship with the current pope to being flayed alive.

These and many other hidden elements are brought into the forefront through this exhibit.

Michelangelo’s frescoes have remained intact for centuries. “Even if it gets old and cruddy,” Catterson said, “it’s spectacular no matter what.”

A visit to Up Close: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel will not replace a visit to the Vatican, but it will afford viewers the time to experience the beauty and the opportunity to form a more intimate relationship with the art.

The exhibit is open daily through July 23 between 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. in The Oculus at Westfield World Trade Center, 186 Greenwich St., in Manhattan. Ticket prices start at $15. Audio guides are available for $3. Visit www.westfield.com/upclose for tickets.

After NYC, the exhibit will travel to other Westfield locations in Paramus, NJ, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Chicago and Annapolis, MD.

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