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Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition Review

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by dpm (subscribe)
dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
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View an artistic gem up close
Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel in Rome is an awe-inspiring piece of artwork. Arguably his most famous endeavour, it was certainly his most ambitious, taking four years to complete and covering the entire ceiling alongside his Last Judgement which sits over the altar. It made Michelangelo's reputation and it isn't difficult to see why – many of the images have become iconic and its use of colour, light and drama is legendary.

Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Exhibition
Replicating the Sistine Chapel


Visitors to the chapel usually see it from the perspective Michelangelo intended, standing below from a distance, but a touring exhibition, which has come to Birmingham this spring, enables us to see reproductions of the frescoes from another viewpoint, which is much closer.

Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition is brought by Los Angeles-based exhibition production company SEE Global Entertainment and live-entertainment discovery platform Fever to Secret Space in Digbeth during April and May.

The chapel ceiling is made up of a series of main scenes of Biblical figures and stories accompanied by lunettes and spandrels featuring Old Testament prophets and sybils. The images are separate but Michelangelo's genius is that they all come together to tell a more cosmic story of prophecy, promise, creation and redemption.

Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Exhibition
Michelangelo artwork up close


For the exhibition, high definition photos of each of the scenes have been printed onto fabric and then hung in the space, aiming to give viewers a never-before-seen perspective on the pictures. From the famous scenes such as the Creation of the Sun, Moon and Planets, the Creation of Adam and the Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden to the lesser-known prophets and sybils, we are able to learn more of Michelangelo's technique and impact.

It is not necessary to be an art expert to appreciate these pictures – there is an introductory film explaining the background to the Sistine Chapel and an audio guide taking you round the images.

Michelangelo was a master of the human form, determined that his figures would be based on real anatomy and that is so evident when you see so many of these figures up close. From knotted frowns to bulging biceps and perfectly formed hands and feet, these Biblical characters are portrayed as living people.

It is also intriguing to see the contrast between areas where Michelangelo gave so much attention to detail and others where faces or scenes are left sketchy. For example, with the prophet Jeremiah Michelangelo painted the words on a document he has been reading – a detail it would be hard to distinguish from the ground. And yet in that same image, the faces in the background are considerably less detailed.

There is also a reproduction of Michelangelo's Last Judgement in which visitors can see a bare-chested Jesus claiming souls for Heaven and casting others into the depths of Hell. Look closely and you can see how this exhibition is based on highly defined photography as you spot a few of the Sistine Chapel light fittings on either side.

It has to be said that the setting at the Secret Space is less than ideal. Firstly the images are not featured in any well-defined format. So, for example, the Creation of Adam sits in a separate room from the other narrative paintings and is situated on a wall while the others are hanging from Secret Space's roof. While this certainly helps with selfies in front of God's pointing finger, this picture is an integral part of the whole and removing it from that context isolates it so that it no longer sits as part of a larger and connected story.

Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Exhibition
The Last Judgement


Also, the lighting in the main room is poor – some of the images have lights right over them making it difficult to focus on the artwork and others are hanging in deep shadow.

The exhibition has toured internationally, having been seen in the USA, Europe and the UK, but it feels like it has been installed a little hastily and even haphazardly here in Birmingham. At the end of the main exhibition hall, just behind the artwork, it's possible to see piles of debris including signs for the exhibition and the signage in the room is random with some, but only some, having Spanish translations as if pulled last minute from another exhibition. It leaves the impression the Birmingham event has been somewhat thrown together rather than carefully curated which is a shame as this does detract from the overall visitor experience.

Having said that, it is worth putting that aside and focussing on the paintings because this is an opportunity to see Michelangelo's work in a way you'll not have elsewhere. Viewing these pictures in this much detail enables us to understand why he became and remains one of the world's greatest and most famous artists.

Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition is at Secret Space in Digbeth between 1 April-29 May, see https://sistinechapelexhibit.com/birmingham for more information and tickets. Note images are from previous exhibitions.
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Why? See Michelangelo's famous chapel paintings up close
When: 1 April to 29 May 2022
Where: Secret Space Digbeth
Cost: From £10
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