Experience the Sistine Chapel in Tacoma

See replications of Michelangelo’s famous frescoes in the Sistine Chapel at the Tacoma Armory.

The Sistine Chapel in Rome is arguably one of the most impressive artistic displays in the world. The ceiling and walls are covered in extravagant paintings that depict important biblical scenes, the majority of which were done by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512.

The fame that the paintings have garnered, however, has in many ways made them inaccessible. Martin Biallas, CEO of Special Entertainment Events and the visionary behind world-famous exhibitions on King Tut, Frida Kahlo, and the Titanic, visited Rome’s Sistine Chapel about five years ago with a group of friends. It was not his first time there, but it was memorable in that the experience was particularly unpleasant.

“It was summer, we were in there with 2,000 people at the same time, guards were watching to make sure no one took a photo, and after 10 or 15 minutes, we were shoved out,” Biallas said. “And the Vatican is lowering the visitors per year from 6 million to 2 million (to protect the artwork). So, the lines to get in will be even longer.”

After this last visit, Biallas had a vision of obtaining the licensing rights to reproduce Michelangelo’s 33 frescoes in an environment that was more accessible, less chaotic, and more informative than a ten-minute whirl around the chapel itself might be.

With the help of historians and a large agency that represents photographers who were able to capture up-close images of the paintings after their restoration in the 1980s and 90s, Biallas did just that: Three years ago, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition opened in Montreal, and has since been on tour around the world.

The exhibition mimics the feeling of being in the Sistine Chapel: All 33 of Michelangelo’s frescoes are reproduced in their original order and size on special pieces of textile that line the ceilings and walls. They are much easier to see than the actual paintings, though, which are suspended so far above visitors’ heads that Biallas had the impression he was looking at a stamp. In this exhibition, visitors can stand a foot from the hanging prints to absorb their detail and richness. And each fresco is paired with a sign that explains its characters a story, keeping visitors engaged and informed about the biblical history that each represents.

Today, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition opens at the Tacoma Armory, which is in many ways is a perfect venue for the material. The Armory’s square footage — about 10,000 square feet — is similar to the square footage of the Sistine Chapel, meaning the atmosphere of the actual experience is further amplified.

“This will never replace the original,” said Biallas.  “If you can see both, do. But if you can’t, see ours. You can take all the photos you want, take the time you want, and really immerse in this whole atmosphere.”

The Tacoma Armory is the only location in Washington State to have hosted the exhibition. A launch party will celebrate the opening tonight at 7 p.m. Tickets are $75, which includes two drinks, appetizers, and extended viewing opportunities.

The rest of the showings, which are offered in 90-minute sessions and which last through October 14, are $24 to enter. Discounts are available to students, military, Broadway Center members, and groups of 10 or more.

is an assistant editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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