Bringing the Sistine Chapel to Life, with the Vatican’s Blessing


One of Italy’s most respected cultural critics, Tomaso Montanari, described the over-the-top effects as “visual Viagra,” wondering outright whether they were “more of a mirror of the present than a means to better understand the past.”

“It’s like all the buzz over virtual sex — but what’s wrong with the real thing?” said Mr. Montanari, who teaches art history at the University of Naples. “It’s based on the notion that Michelangelo no longer speaks to modern sensibilities.”

The Vatican followed the process step by step. While it did not interfere with the creative aspects of the production, Vatican officials kept tabs to make sure that the show’s content and references were historically accurate and did not stray too far from the righteous path.

“We have been very, very, very obedient and careful and precise because that was our insurance policy. To have them on board was to be sure that everything will be exact and appropriate,” Mr. Balich said of the Vatican’s support during a break in the rehearsal. “Obviously this comes with a price,” he said conceding that if he’d had his way, he would have “probably added more special effects.”

The musical merger between the Vatican Museums, the keepers of one of the greatest artistic troves of humanity, and Mr. Balich, best known as the designer of over-the-top spectacles — among them the closing ceremony of the Sochi Olympics in 2014, both ceremonies for the Turin Games in 2006 and the 550th anniversary celebration of Kazakhstan — wasn’t an obvious match.


The multimedia extravaganza features lasers and video projections. Credit Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times

Pope Francis is known for his casual, avuncular style, but the Vatican is not accustomed to sharing top billing with Sting, who wrote the main theme of the show, as they do on the playbill.

But Mr. Balich believes that his past experience with the Olympics played in his favor. “The Vatican understood that our work is always celebrating values,” he said. “In the Olympics, you don’t go in with a cynical approach.”

Mr. Balich said he wanted “to put the grammar of the big Olympics at the service of the Sistine Chapel, which is one of the milestones of humanity.” The Vatican, he added, understood “that we were well intentioned.”

It took some time. Mr. Balich first began discussing his idea with the Vatican in 2015. He laughed when it was pointed out that it took Michelangelo four years to paint the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, between 1508 and 1512, about the same time as it took to complete the project.

The Roman Catholic Church has a long history of embracing technological advancements, however. The Vatican was at the forefront of astronomical research for centuries. Pope Pius XI championed Guglielmo Marconi to establish Vatican Radio in 1931. Several popes were intrigued by photography in its nascent years, and Leo XIII was the first pope to be filmed giving a blessing in 1896.

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