See the Sistine Chapel as You’ve Never Seen It Before—Inside the Oculus at the World Trade Center
Your chance to see Italy's famed Renaissance masterpiece here in New York.
If you haven’t made it yet to New York City’s newest landmark, the nearly $4 billion Santiago Calatrava-designed Oculus at the World Trade Center—it’s the world’s most expensive train station—here’s an added incentive to head downtown: For one month only, the soaring, light-filled space will play host to nearly full-size replicas of Michelangelo’s famed Sistine Chapel frescoes.
“I’ve been to the Sistine Chapel every year for at least 20 years,” said art historian Lynn Catterson at a press preview of the exhibition, titled “Up Close: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.” “This is fabulous, this is fun, and I’ve seen things that I’ve never noticed.”
Walking journalists through the show, she pointed to details in the giant images that you might even miss in the original. For instance, there are staples attempting to repair cracks in the chapel ceilings, and, among the crowds of generic figures, individualized-looking faces that are undoubtedly the artist’s attempts to slip portraits of people he knew into the massive work surreptitiously.
“It can never replace the work, but photographic documentation is critical,” especially when the original is as old and fragile as the Sistine Chapel, Catterson added. The massive images currently on view are the work of Austrian photographer Erich Lessing.
Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling between 1508 and 1512, returning to complete The Last Judgment fresco on the sanctuary wall between 1536 and 1541. Even at the time, the artist was aware that this was his ticket to lasting fame.
“He knows he can be a celebrity in his lifetime, because Dante was a celebrity in his lifetime,” said Catterson, claiming that Michelangelo essentially “put out his own press release” by insisting he completed the work without assistance.
The new exhibition features massive photographs reproduced on cloth using “state-of-the-art technology.” There are 34 reproductions in total, including the renowned The Creation of Adam. The ceiling paintings top out at 11 feet wide, but the showstopper will undoubtedly be the 40-foot-tall Last Judgement, only slightly smaller than the 45-foot-tall original.
“At the Vatican, you’re not allowed to stand in front of this for more than two second, because it’s right at the entrance,” said Catterson. “It’s a horrible experience.”
The painting has a storied history, having fallen victim to censorship during the Counter-Reformation. “Two years after Michelangelo died [in 1564], they called in a younger artist to cover up all the butt cracks and the penises,” said Catterson. “And there were a lot of butt cracks and penises!”
Over 500 years after its completion, the Sistine Chapel ceiling continues to captivate the imagination. “We don’t have a lot of interior spaces with frescoes of this scale and quality,” said Catterson, who also credits the Vatican’s mysterious nature as part of their appeal. “This is the corporate statement from the Catholic church at the height of the Renaissance, and this is corporate headquarters.”
At the Oculus, the Renaissance masterpieces will sit in the center of a giant train station/shopping mall—a far cry from the hallowed halls of the Vatican. The display, which aims to incorporate the Old Master paintings into the sleek, modern white hall of Calatrava’s building, is the work of Brooklyn-based design team Susan Holland & Company.
What the exhibit lacks in authenticity, it hopes to make up in pure Instagram appeal—because while the real frescoes may be over in Italy, the Pope has a pretty strict no-photography policy inside the Sistine Chapel. And the ceiling is 44 feet high, which means that you are necessarily viewing Michelangelo’s masterpiece from a distance. At the Oculus, you can walk right up to the artwork, as close as if you were the artist himself. (We’re guessing you also won’t have to compete with the Vatican’s 25,000 visitors a day.)
“This is air conditioned, and there are no security guards yelling at you,” added Catterson. It’s also accessible for Americans who can’t afford a trip to Italy, and an educational opportunity for the public. “People walking by don’t necessarily know that this is Michelangelo… but they are stopping and looking.”
This isn’t the first time that the Sistine Chapel has been reproduced in North America. A full-size replica was on view in Mexico City in 2016, made from photographs taken under the oversight of Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums, over 170 nights. Earlier this year, the Vatican announced the completion of a five-year project that took 270,000 digital images of the chapel, allowing it to be examined in the closest detail.
“When Santiago Calatrava designed the architectural wonder that is the Oculus at World Trade Center, he envisioned a people’s cathedral,” said Scott Sanders, Westfield’s creative head of global entertainment, at the press preview. “When Westfield decided it wanted to start bringing immersive experiential art exhibits into the Oculus, we thought who better than Michelangelo and his iconic Sistine Chapel frescoes?”
“The overwhelming impression for the observer will be the dimensions of the art, the closeness to the picture, and the modern style of the exhibit,” notes website for the Westfield Corporation, which organized the exhibition with Los Angeles’s SEE Global Entertainment. “‘Up Close: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel’ recreates the awe and wonder of one of mankind’s greatest artistic achievements, while allowing its visitors to experience this art from a new perspective.”
Tickets are available online for $20, or $15 for seniors and students. (Children under 12 are free.) To cut the line at any point during the exhibition’s run, you can buy VIP tickets, which include the $3 audio guide, for $25. The website encourages would-be visitors to “buy tickets early to avoid disappointment!” and promises “the Sistine Chapel like you’ve never seen before.”
“Up Close: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel” is on view in the Oculus at Westfield World Trade Center, 185 Greenwich Street, New York, June 23–July 23; Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–9 p.m.; and Sunday 10 a.m.–7 p.m.
It will travel to Westfield Garden State Plaza, 1 Garden State Plaza, Paramus, New Jersey, September 1–October 15; and to Westfield centers in Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Chicago, and Annapolis, Maryland.
Follow artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.