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  • Writer's picturePenny Neef

Michelangelo’s Frescoes of the Sistine Chapel: A Different Point of View

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

Words by Penny Neef. Images courtesy of Andrew Cooper, City of Norfolk (including featured image), and David Neef.

Almost a year ago, pre-pandemic, worry-free, and full of the joy of travel, I was in Rome. Rome was the last stop on our fantastic trip through the gardens of Italy. I’d been to Rome once before, as a poor college student. I walked the circumference of the Vatican, but only had enough money to do everything free. This time, I was determined to see inside the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. More about that later.

This year, no travel, lots of worries, no Rome, but the magnificent art of the Sistine Chapel is right here, in Norfolk, at the MacArthur Mall. The Virginia Arts Festival and MacArthur Mall are co-presenting Michelangelo’s Frescoes of the Sistine Chapel August 7-30.

This is the first complete exhibition of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes to be shown outside the Vatican. The exhibit is officially licensed by the Vatican. Michelangelo’s frescoes have been photographed in high resolution and reproduced in close to life size. The very best part about the exhibit is you can get up close. The details and colors are amazing. The Master’s sketch marks and brush strokes are right there in front of you. The genius of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564) is apparent.

The display of the works on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but recreated on movable exhibits sitting on the floor.

Photo by Andrew Cooper, City of Norfolk.

Back to my trip to Rome, which seems so much longer than a year ago. We booked an evening, after hours “private tour” of the Vatican Museum with the Sistine Chapel as the grand finale of the tour. I pictured empty galleries with a small group and an Italian art historian pointing out details of the artistic treasures of the Vatican.

What a disappointment. Our “private tour” was one of about a thousand private tours that night. We were herded like cattle through the wonders of the Vatican Museum, with barely enough time to stop and look. The worst of it was the magnificent Sistine Chapel. We were warned before we walked in that there would be no photos and no talking. We were not told that there would be a Vatican guard, standing on a platform in the corner on a microphone, yelling at people if they spoke or heaven forbid, pulled out their phone.

It was so crowded in the Sistine Chapel, that we could not move. We could barely look up to the ceiling 70 feet above us. I had such claustrophobia that I could hardly wait to get out. I saw little and appreciated nothing.

I went to the Sistine Chapel at the mall yesterday. I know, I know, MacArthur Mall is not the Vatican Museum and Norfolk is not Rome, but people, we’re in a pandemic. There was a lot to love. The exhibit is set up in the old Forever 21 store on the second level of the Mall, next to Dillard’s. It’s a pretty space, light and bright, with shiny black and white floors and chandeliers.

There is no guard yelling at you to keep quiet. Instead, you will be greeted by a nice person wearing a mask. There will be a limited number of people allowed in at a time, absolutely no crowd. Your phone will take you straight to a website where you can take your time and read about each panel and piece of the Sistine Chapel artwork.

A sign at the beginning of the exhibit reading Scna the QR code below for the exhibit reading guide. VAfest/michelangelo/guide.

Photo by Andrew Cooper, City of Norfolk.

You can stand close and be amazed at the details. You can step back and appreciate the dynamics of the piece as a whole. You do not have to crane your neck, squint your eyes and stare up 70 feet. I learned so much more about each story from the Bible that Michelangelo, the “reluctant painter” took on, mostly alone, over the course of more than four years.

This was the first time I’ve been to MacArthur Mall this year. It’s sad that so many stores have closed, but the Mall looks good. There are some bargains to be had if you miss shopping. While you’re there, take a mall walk down to the old entrance to Nordstrom’s and take a selfie in front of the three, fun artworks by Kelsey Montague that the mall commissioned last year.

A woman leaning into a pink background. It looks like she is blowing out air or possibly shouting. On the pink background is a swirl of colors, blue and purple and white and black and green, which appear to have come out of her mouth. #MacArthurCenter #WhatLiftsYou @KelseyMontagueArt

Photo by David Neef

Don’t miss Michelangelo’s Frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. The art is fantastic. You can imagine, just for a few minutes, that you are in Rome, with a much better view of the Sistine Chapel ceiling than anyone except Michelangelo.

For more information and to purchase tickets, go to

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