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Perspective: The secret to enjoying the traveling Sistine Chapel exhibit? Low expectations

The show brings Michelangelo’s masterpieces to eye-level — perfect if all you want from them is a selfie

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Illustration by Michelle Budge, Deseret News

The frescoes of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel are among Michelangelo’s most celebrated works, but most Americans will never see them other than in a book.

Beyond the expense of traveling to Rome, making your way through the crowds of the Vatican Museums to Cappella Sistina can be a physical ordeal for anyone who is frail or in poor health. Once there, you’re likely to be standing shoulder to shoulder in a crowd, contorting your neck in ways God never intended.

It seems wonderful, then, to have a chance see the frescoes up close and in person, in your own city. That’s the opportunity presented by a traveling exhibition that opened in Salt Lake City this week. “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition” is at The Gateway through Father’s Day, and is also in Sacramento and Tampa Bay, and coming soon to other cities including Boston, Detroit and Albuquerque.

The organizers say the exhibit offers “an incredible chance for inspiration as well as reflection on the purpose and meaning of the work.” It includes reproductions of 34 frescoes that were created from high-definition photographs. Visitors can walk right up to them, while listening to audiotapes that explain what they’re seeing and tell stories behind each image. With sessions lasting between an hour and 90 minutes, the experience is a go-at-your-own-pace class from which you’ll emerge smarter than you came in.

So what’s the problem?

Having seen both the actual Sistine Chapel in Rome and the traveling exhibit, I can tell you that both experiences have the potential to disappoint. As mentioned before, unless you score a private visit, the crowds at the Vatican, coupled with the physical demands of staring at a ceiling for an extended time, conspire to diminish awe. And no traveling exhibit can convey the scale of the work, which contributes to its grandeur; much is lost when the frescoes come closer to earth.

But another question worth asking is whether works such as “The Last Judgment” and  “Creation of Adam” should ever be seen as entertainment. And make no mistake, that’s what they are in this setting.

Visitors look at reproductions of Michelangelo paintings at “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition.”

Visitors look at reproductions of Michelangelo paintings at “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition.”

SEE Attractions and Bridgeman Images

For starters, the exhibit is managed by a Los Angeles company called SEE Global Entertainment. OK, somebody’s got to move it around.

But should it really be the same company that is simultaneously putting on “The Museum of Failure” and whose previous exhibits include “The Disgusting Food Museum” and “The ‘I Love Lucy’ 50th Anniversary Tour”? Is that the company a portable Sistine Chapel should keep?

The promotional material provides the answer. It presents the God of “The Creation of Adam” looking much like a character from the musical “Hamilton” about to burst into song.

Moreover, there is something profoundly disturbing about people who looked like they just stepped out of bar jauntily posing in front of these 500-year-old paintings as though they were no more important than the latest viral meme. Or last year’s sweepstakes in which a couple could win the opportunity to be married in front of one of the paintings. Then there were the private igloos you could reserve for a meal in Omaha after seeing the exhibit (you could have saved 25% by using the checkout code SISTINE).

To be fair, the experience of the traveling show, like the experience of the Sistine Chapel itself, will be different for every person, based on the mindset, reverence and knowledge that viewers bring to the chambers. It will also be affected by the general atmosphere, which is to say the people you’re with, most of whom will be strangers. I saw the traveling exhibit in Charleston, South Carolina, last year, and for the most part, the crowd was quiet and reverential (despite the availability of wine), though in this day and age, there’s nothing much to be done about people taking selfies to post on social media.

The Vatican tries. Photography and mobile phone use is prohibited in the Sistine Chapel, although allowed in other parts of the Vatican Museum. The Vatican also forbids selfie sticks everywhere and does not allow eating or drinking outside of designated areas. The Vatican also has dress requirements that prohibit low-cut garments, miniskirts and visible offensive tattoos. While these restrictions may offend the anything-goes tourist who considers the Sistine Chapel entertainment, it helps to protect the experience for those seeking something more meaningful and profound.

Which brings us to worst possible place to see the Sistine Chapel on wheels — a state fair. It’s hard to envision, but the exhibit debuted in the U.S. in 2016 at the Texas State Fair. (What goes better with “The Sacrifice of Noah” than a corndog and elephant ear?)

In this age of increasing secularization and Bible illiteracy, I suppose that people of faith should rejoice that large numbers of people want to see reproductions of paintings that depict scenes from the Torah and New Testament. Maybe some will be moved to read the stories that inspired them.

So despite my reluctance to endorse holy art as entertainment, I still recommend that people see it. There are far worse things to do with your leisure (e.g., “The Disgusting Food Museum.”) That said, the secret to enjoying the exhibit may be to keep your expectations low.