Sunday, August 22, 2010

Second Life Treasures: Sistine Chapel

Sistine Chapel in Second Life
The room is just a simple rectangle roofed by a flattened barrel vault, and yet it is one of Western Civilization’s greatest treasures. This is the Sistine Chapel, and on its walls and ceiling are magnificent frescoes by Italian Renaissance painters Dominico Ghirlandio, Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Peruguni, Cosimo Roselli, and the indomitable Michelangelo Buonarroti  The Sistine Chapel was built between 1475 and 1483 on the grounds of the Vatican. It’s the Pope's chapel, and, as the site of the conclave of the College of Cardinals in the election of new popes, it is a profoundly important space. Incredibly, the Sistine Chapel has been faithfully reproduced in Second Life. Now, the Sistine Chapel is one the greatest treasures of this virtual world.

Click on the pictures to enlarge them for better viewing.

The South Wall (Left), the North Wall (Right), and the Entrance Wall

Sistine Chapel in Vatican City
The Sistine Chapel in Second life is located on Vassar Island, the virtual campus of Vassar College. This accurate-to-scale recreation was built by Stan Frangible, who in real life is Steve Taylor, director of academic computing services at Vassar College.  The build was opened to the pubic in 2007. Its purpose is to explore how virtual reality can be used to help students learn about art and architecture.

The walls of the Sistine Chapel are divided into three tiers, the lowest tier is frescoed with faux tapestries of gold and  silver, the middle tier has two facing cycles - on the south and entrance walls are paintings portraying the story of Moses and on the north and entrance walls, the Life of Christ. On the upper tier, set between the windows, are images of the first popes, all martyred in times of great persecution.  But our eyes are inevitably drawn upwards to the ceiling. To the glorious frescoes of Michelangelo.

Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Second Life

In 1508, Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to repaint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which had been frescoed with an uninspired blue star-spangled sky. Decorating the ceiling was assumed to be a lesser commission compared to the paintings on the walls. Michelangelo was to paint the Twelve Apostles and a few ornaments on the ceiling. However, he conceived a far grander design. At its heart are nine central panels showing stories from Genesis, from the Creation to the Fall of Man, to the Flood and the rebirth of mankind with the family of Noah. Completed in 1511,  Michelangelo's revolutionary depictions of the human body and his creative use of light, form, and color were controversial at the time; but, they would have a profound influence on subsequent Renaissance art and would be embraced by generations of artists.

Creation of Adam

The most famous panel is Michelangelo's iconic depiction of the creation of Adam. Michelangelo's Adam is beautiful. He is the perfect man created in the image of God. Of the entourage of angels surrounding God, two are given special favor. Under the arm of God is a feminine angel. And the thumb and forefinger of God touch an angel that is a child. Many art historians contend that the woman is the uncreated Eve and the child is the human race that is to follow. Others believe that the woman is Sophia, devine wisdom. But, consider the child. In the Eucharist of the Catholic Church, only the thumb and forefinger of the priest touch the Host - the Body of Christ. Is Michelangelo foretelling of Mary and the Coming of the Savior? But, that interpretation raises a serious theological dilemma concerning free will and predestination. Isn't art marvelous and fun?

The Temptation and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden

One favorite of mine is the Temptation and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The flow of this composition is so dramatic. In the Temptation, Eve is turning towards the Serpent and reaches out to  accept the offered fruit from the hands of the Temptress. An act of will because the Temptress can persude but cannot coerce. Adam seizes a branch of the tree to aggressively reach forward. 'For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil,' tempted the Serpent. The center of focus of the Temptation is naturally Eve. Her skin is smooth; her body, voluptuous. Eve is idealized feminine beauty. In the Expulsion, she becomes hideous and haggard, hunched over, clutching her hair in shame. But, the focus of the Expulsion is Adam. There is dismay and pain in his face Art historians say that Adam's arms and hands are raised to ward off blows from the pointed sword welded by the cherubim in red (joined to the Serpent to symbolize the duel nature of good and evil) that is driving the pair from Eden. If so, shouldn't his arms be raised higher? I think Adam is refraining from looking back at paradise, painfully knowing what he has lost - his closeness to God. It is Eve who looks back, from the barren land of the Expulsion, to the verdant lushness of the paradise lost. What is it that is reflected in her face?

The alter of the Sistine Chapel in Second Life

At the end of the chapel is the alter of the Sistine Chapel and, above the alter, spanning the entire wall, is Michelangelo's tour de force, The Last Judgement.  A quarter century after finishing the Sistine Ceiling, Michelangelo, at age 60 and comtemplating his own mortality, was at work painting The Last Judgement, completing the fresco in 1541.  The Last Judgment is a depiction of the resurrection of the dead and Second Coming of Christ as foretold in Mathew 25: 31-46.

Michelangelo's Last Judgement

Christ has come in his glory, and all the saints and angels with him, and each person who has ever lived will be judged with perfect justice. Christ raises His right hand. To those at His right hand, He says, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." He lowers His left hand. To those at His left hand, Christ says, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."

The scene is tumultuous and frightening. The blessed are hoisted upward by straining angels. The doomed are pummeled by angels as demons drag them down. The bodies in this fresco are not the beautiful and perfect bodies painted on the Sistine Ceiling. They are grotesquely distorted. And all that nakedness above the alter was decried as immoral at the time. Indeed, after Michelangelo's death, there were calls for the destruction of the fresco. However, as a concession to modesty, Church authorities had draperies painted over the most offensive nudity. So notice, on many of the figures, the wisps of strategically placed cloth.

Many of the figures are fascinating studies with interesting stories.  One that must be pointed out is Saint Bartholomew who is holding his own skin. At his martyrdom, the saint was skinned alive. It is said that the face on the skin is a self portrait of Michelangleo.

With Jaysun viewing the Raphael Tapistries.

On special occasions, the faux tapestries of the lower side walls of the chapel are covered with real tapestries designed by Raphael and woven in Brussels from 1515 to 1519. The Raphael Tapistries depict events from the Life of Saint Peter, the Life of Saint Paul and the Acts of the Apostles. They are rarely seen in public; but can be viewed in Second Life's virtual Sistine Chapel with the mere click of a mouse.

The Raphael Tapestries in Second Life

During a trip to Rome, my sister and I had a memorable private after-hours tour of the Sistine Chapel with an art historian (the tour was arranged by my parents as a gift to us). It was a thrill to be able to spend considerable time in the chapel without a crowd. That experience is recreated virtually on Vassar Island for all to experience. And in Second Life, we can fly around the chapel and up close to the ceiling where we can get a unique prospective on the size of the paintings that could only be had in this virual world. Steve Taylor and Vassar College should be commended and thanked by all in Second Life (and by Linden Labs) for making this wonderful treasure available to all of us.

Sistine Chapel at Vassar Island:

Many of the pictures of the artwork used in this reproduction were obtained from the Web Gallery of Art which has an virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel:

The Vatican also has an extraordinary virtual reproduction of the Sistine Chapel:


Flying Visit to the Sistine Chapel Vassar College Second Life

Scene from the Michelangelo Code

Max Newbold and Sez Zabelin (Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker in real life) provide an incredible video tour of the Sestine Chapel in Second Life. This is one of the best videos on the art in the Sistine Chapel, real life or Second Life, period.  It is an outstanding example of the potential of virtual worlds to educate and enlighten.  Use the links below to take the video tour.

Other Second Life Treasures:

Mont Saint Michel


  1. This is FABULOUS - I had no idea it existed (in SL, that is). Thank you for sharing!

  2. BigJack Rolls (Second Life)October 7, 2010 at 2:50 PM

    Beautiful build .. don't let those idiots at the Alphaville Herald get you down .. they put down anything and everything, just because they can.

  3. Good and evil, leave it alone, upon pain of death! But have a care, the fruit that is mentioned as forbidden is nothing to do with the seed-bearing fruit trees that God still provides mankind for sustenance. That is one of the issues that has been entirely misunderstood, not without the help of Michelangelo’s impressions, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, depicting a snake-tailed cherub handing an apple to Eve and Adam. Interestingly, that ceiling had been previously frescoed with what the authorities considered to be an, ‘uninspired blue star-spangled sky’ – probably of the greatest astronomical significance for generations to come, since it was part of the Chapel, and designed as a record of astronomical observation, much the same as the Great Pyramid, and, later, Stonehenge. Anyway, it stands – or hangs – today as an indelible epic of one of the most misunderstood lines in Genesis.