Heaven and Earth on Fifth

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At The Met, a photo reproduction of Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling


  • A 33-foot-long reproduction of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco is part of the exhibition “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer,” on view at The Met Fifth Avenue through February 12. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • "The Creation and Downfall of Adam and Eve" imagined by Michelangelo, reproduced and presented by The Met. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Seven male prophets and five female sibyls (prophetesses from the ancient world who were said to have foretold the birth of Jesus) are depicted on the Sistine ceiling. "Studies for The Libyan Sibyl" is one of The Met's masterpieces. Photo: Adel Gorgy

At the 1964 World’s Fair, New York hosted a very special guest. Michelangelo’s Pietà was installed in a specially designed exhibit in Flushing Meadows Park. Thousands lined up to see it. I, a preschooler, holding my mother’s and father’s hands, was among them. A conveyor belt slowly carried us into a pitch-black space that opened into a room where a miracle occurred. Illuminating the darkness was a piece of marble carved by Michelangelo, caressed by spotlights, transformed into something as transcendent and important as the characters it portrayed.

My parents, in their wisdom, had prepared me that this was something quite special, more important than any of the other fun and excitement at the World’s Fair. Also in their wisdom, according to my mother, when the conveyor belt deposited us at the exit, we — my mother, father, brother and I — walked right back to the end of the line and saw it again. And again. And again. It remains my first clear visual memory, something I can call back to my mind’s eye at will.

Also on that line was a young Daniel Weiss, now the president and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I remember visiting the World’s Fair quite vividly because, after all, it was an exciting thing to visit, but that was the highlight for me — the theater of it but also the object itself,” Weiss said of Michelangelo’s marble sculpture in a 2016 interview. “That was the first time I remember a meaningful interaction with art.”

Now The Met Fifth Avenue is hosting Michelangelo in an extraordinary exhibit comprising more than 200 works, which Val Castronovo recently detailed in these pages. Whether indebted to that decades-old memory of a prominent New York art lover or independent of it, part of “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer” that deserves its own consideration is the exhibition’s installation. Worth a revisit or visit on its own is an incredible quarter-scaled backlit high-resolution photographic reproduction of Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. No book, postcard or device screen can give the feeling of the seemingly miles of masterpiece that stretch across the ceiling, even a downscaled one. It’s stunning, humbling, fascinating and practically close enough to touch.

No, it’s not the real thing. (Reproductions of China’s Terracotta Army have warranted their own museum exhibitions and delighted audiences.) And no, you don’t have the experience of being in the Sistine Chapel. But at the Vatican, you don’t have the ability to look at the detailed drawings Michelangelo used to plot his course across the heavens. Here, we can see The Met’s own exquisite red chalk “Studies for the Libyan Sibyl” sketched by Michelangelo, a nude figure based on a young male model. We can see how the musculature of the model had to be worked out before the artist morphed the figure into a clothed female, dressed in flowing pink and orange robes. And then, there she is, above you, in a full color reproduction on The Met’s ceiling.

Michelangelo’s careful consideration of the drapery of fabrics, so important that it deserved its own drawing, devoid of even a hint of a figure, is presented at eye level, inches from the viewer. The finished treatment, again just above, is an extraordinary before/after picture, and can only be seen at The Met.

Maybe you’ve been to the Sistine Chapel, but years have dimmed the memory. Maybe you visited before the fresco was cleaned, and it wasn’t the memory was dimmed, but the work itself. Maybe you’re too young, too old, too busy, too broke, or too whatever to get to Rome. You, especially, should see this before it goes away. Sometimes the most miraculous things drop by New York. The Pietà was one. The Met’s installation of a full scale, brilliantly lit, awe-inspiring reproduction of arguably the greatest feat of painting in the Western world is another.

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