From the Vatican to Vancouver: Exhibition features images of Michelangelo's frescoes from the Sistine Chapel

According to See Attractions Special Entertainment Events CEO Martin Biallas, it took several years to obtain the exclusive licensing rights

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      The Sistine Chapel at the Vatican is home to one of the greatest artistic accomplishments in history. It was there in the 16th century that Michelangelo created 33 brilliant religious frescoes on the ceiling. The Italian artist also painted The Last Judgement on the altar wall, depicting the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

      These spectacular works of art have attracted millions of viewers over the centuries and been the subject of countless books, movies, essays, and art-history classes. But when Martin Biallas, CEO of See Attractions Special Entertainment Events, paid a visit 10 years ago, he came away a little disappointed. And it wasn’t only due to the long lineups.

      “Once you’re inside, you have 2,000 people screaming and yelling,” Biallas told the Straight by phone from Los Angeles. “You’ve got these massive pieces—60 feet high—and you cannot take photos. They’re very militant about that. Then after 15 minutes, you have to leave.”

      He emphasized that people should still see Michelangelo’s original frescoes because they’re so magnificent. But he thought that if his company could obtain the licensing rights, it could re-create all 34 masterpieces in their original size.

      This would enable people to see them up close in a leisurely manner without security guards ordering them to put away their cameras.

      On November 19, Biallas’s company opened a show at Vancouver Convention Centre East offering this opportunity. Called Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition, it features high-resolution images of the 34 paintings created nearly five centuries ago.

      “We actually had the world premiere six years ago, in 2015, at the Palais des congrès in Montreal,” Biallas said.

      Since then, this exhibition has toured the world, from Vienna to New York to Brisbane to Shanghai.

      It's been shown in three other Chinese cities with the next stop scheduled in Beijing. According to Biallas, this was the first religious exhibition ever permitted in Communist China.

      The company hopes to take the Sistine Chapel photos to 30 Canadian cities.

      "It costs a low amount of money to set it up," Biallas stated, "but it looks like a million dollars."

      The Last Judgement was created many years after the frescoes were painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
      SEE/Bridgeman Images

      In the future, See Attractions is planning to create a digital experience with art created by French painter Claude Monet and an exhibition called Treasures of the Louvre.

      "I'm sure we'll be coming to Vancouver at some point with those," he said.

      Biallas is used to putting on large-scale, themed exhibits. His Los Angeles–based production company has already created Star Trek: The Tour, Tutankhamun: His Tomb and His Treasures, The Titanic Official Movie Tour, the Complete Frida Kahlo Exhibit, The Art of Banksy: Without Limits, and Museum of Failure.

      According to Biallas, it took several years to obtain the licensing rights from the Vatican for images of Michelangelo’s frescoes.

      “You would send an email and you would wait for six weeks,” he related, “and you would get a reply by mail with a big Vatican seal.”

      The return address impressed his letter carrier.

      “I thought he was going to have a heart attack,” Biallas said. “He thought it was from the Pope.”

      Eventually, See Attractions ended up negotiating with Bridgeman Images, which represents the Vatican.

      “That’s basically how we got this,” Biallas said. “In fact, we just renewed the licence for another five years.”

      Video: See the images that are on display in Vancouver.
      See Attractions presents Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition at Exhibit Hall A of Vancouver Convention Centre East from Wednesdays through Sundays in November. In December, it's open seven days a week but is closed on Christmas Day.