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Vatican Museums 3D cinema experience

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With a new 3D film of the Vatican museums, you can examine the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel from the comfort of your cinema seat. Peter Stanford, former editor of the Catholic Herald, explains.The Catholic Church is often seen as an institution perpetually at odds with modernity, clinging to Latin as its official language and maintaining its all-male hierarchy, topped by an absolute monarch in the form of the pope, centuries after such a style of governance went out of fashion elsewhere.

And so, using state-of-the-art technology and backed by Sky, the snappily titled Vatican Museums 3D is today on release at 250 UK and Irish cinemas, a showstopper of a 70-minute tour around the Vatican Museums.

The 54 galleries or salas that lead to the grandest of finales, the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement”, nestle alongside Saint Peter’s Basilica and take up a good chunk of the Vatican City State’s 44 hectares. They contain one of the world’s most extraordinary collections, built up over six centuries, but the film, directed by Italian Marco Pianigiani, is unashamedly a greatest hits compilation of a small number of treasures.

By donning 3D glasses, cinema-goers will get up close and personal with works by Giotto, Van Gogh, Caravaggio, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Chagall and Dali. As an advertisement for the museums, it is as glossy as a perfume commercial, but this is not simply an attempt to boost numbers beyond the present 5.5 million who go there in person each year, their admission fees key to the Church’s finances.

The ultra high definition 4K/3D cameras and advanced “dimensionalisation” techniques employed mean you get a much better, more intimate view of the artwork than any in-the-flesh visitor ever will. From a cinema seat, you can examine the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at closer quarters than even the 100 or so elderly cardinals who gathered there, behind locked doors, in March 2013, to elect Pope Francis.

It’s tempting to see this venture as another manifestation of the “Francis Revolution” and his efforts to fling open the doors of his Church and let the world in. He has a problem. He wants Catholicism to be “a poor church for the poor”, yet it owns one of the great art collections in the world. A simple answer would be to sell it and give the money to the poor, but it is impractical and would cause a controversy that could sink him.

So here’s the pope who himself has eschewed the ornate papal apartments trying to square the circle by opening up the Vatican treasure trove to anyone who can afford a cinema ticket. The logic is, in theory, persuasive, but it doesn’t work in practice because the whole project predates Francis’ tumultuous arrival on the scene.

So why’s the Vatican doing it? Because, it seems, it can. Nothing wrong with that, and in a digital age it’s good to seeing the Church joining the mainstream and producing something first rate into the bargain.

But the papal collection isn’t just any museum. Beyond the peerless artistic merits of the items included, and their historical significance, they have another, spiritual dimension, the connection between the sublime and the divine that was the intention of their original makers and those who commissioned them.

That’s a hard one for a camera to capture, and it is where there is still no alternative to making a pilgrimage to Rome, standing in front of these works of art, in the context of a museum that part place of worship, surrounded by fellow pilgrims, and just letting it wash over you. No 3D glasses required.

The Vatican Museums 3D is in cinemas