By Ellis Nassour
Breathtaking photos featuring sections of Michelangelo’s ceiling and wall frescoes from the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel are on display through July 23rd in Up Close: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel at the World Trade Center Oculus—Westfield’s shopping and transit hub at 186 Greenwich Street, one block South of Cortlandt Street. (The venue is also accessible via the Fulton Street complex.)
The 34 giant reproductions, captured by Viennese photographer Erich Lessing, include the three-story high The Last Judgment, which adorns the Sistine Chapel’s sanctuary behind the main altar. These images allow visitors to experience the amazing colors and sense of depth of one of the world’s greatest artistic achievements. Among other reproductions are one of the artist’s best known and most powerful works, The Creation of Adam, with God’s hand outstretched to his first human. The Fall and Expulsion from Garden of Eden and one of Michelangelo’s most violent works, The Great Flood, which depicts people trying in vain to board the ark while others swim in a futile attempt to reach higher ground, are also on display.
On hand at the exhibit was Columbia University’s Art History and Archaeology Lecturer, Dr. Lynn Catterson, who provided insight into the sweeping grandeur of Michelangelo’s four-year creation. “This wasn’t an assignment Michelangelo sought, but when commissioned by Pope Julius II [for whom he was creating sculptures for his tomb], it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. The [Sistine] Chapel frescoes proved to be a challenge because he had to invent many different human figures and faces.”
There are examples of the changes in the artist’s style throughout the execution of the ceiling and The Last Judgment, which wasn’t begun until 25 years after the Sistine Chapel, when Michelangelo was 67.
Using 300 mostly male nudes, Michelangelo depicts the end of time, with angels blowing their trumpets to wake the dead. With his right hand, God raises the good; with his left, he casts sinners into hell. At about center-right is Michelangelo’s self-portrait as the flayed skin held by St. Bartholomew, who sits among God’s elect. The reproductions depict stories from Genesis, Kings, and other books of the Old Testament. They include: God Separates Water from the Heavens, The Creation of Eve, The Prophets, and David and Goliath.
“There are few artists as beloved as Michelangelo and no more astounding example of his incredible artistic achievement than his Sistine Chapel ceiling and wall frescoes,” says Scott Sanders, Westfield’s creative head of global entertainment. “It’s awe-inspiring to see this artwork in an up close and intimate setting.”
Sanders is a two-time Tony Award-winning producer (The Color Purple revival, Elaine Stritch at Liberty) and a producer of the much-anticipated film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Tony Award-winning Best Musical In the Heights. He states, “The exhibit is designed for art lovers or those who may never have the opportunity to experience a visit to the Vatican, and those wishing to relive their visit.”
The exhibit is the next best thing to being flat on your back on scaffolding at the top of the Sistine Chapel. Only through Lessing’s photos can you see where Michelangelo would take a break from work on a subject and where he would return; deteriorating sections that have been patched, stapled, or show cracks; and work following Michelangelo’s death to drape genitals. You’ll see human figures in the close-up that would be lost to you so high up on the ceiling. Amazingly, the eye-popping colors of the pigments Michelangelo chose for the frescoes are still quite vivid.
Each reproduction carries a detailed legend, but the audio guide, with narrative accompaniment in four languages (a $3.00 rental), will prove to be an invaluable asset.
Tickets at $15.00 each are on sale at Westfield’s World Trade Center Oculus and on the website: westfield.com/upclose. There are discounts for students, seniors, and groups of 10 or more.