The Sistine Chapel exhibit on display now at Festival Hall was inspired by a disappointing visit to the real thing | Photos provided by CBF Productions

Art history lovers are in for a treat at Festival Hall this summer. Through Sept. 26, the Beaufain Street venue is host to an exhibition showcasing Michelangelo’s renowned ceiling frescoes from the Sistine Chapel. Reproduced photographically and artfully displayed in their original sizes, the timeless masterpieces, including the Creation of Adam and The Last Judgment, can be viewed, studied and appreciated — all without having to travel internationally.

The exhibition came about as a collaboration between SEE Attractions, Inc. and CBF Productions. “With sold-out openings in Minneapolis, Phoenix, Charlotte and Atlanta, we’re honored to bring one of Rome’s most iconic artworks to Charleston,” said Martin Biallas, CEO of Los Angeles-based SEE Attractions and producer of the exhibition. Biallas was inspired to create the Sistine Chapel exhibition for two reasons. The first: his somewhat unpleasant experience visiting the real thing. 

“First, you wait in a long line, and then once you get in, you have about 2,000 people in a 10,000-square-foot area. Everyone’s screaming and yelling, there’s about 100 guards, and if you even think about taking a photo, they will confiscate your camera or phone. You are given 15 minutes, and then they usher you out, to get the next group in. The works are 60 feet in the air, and you can’t really see the amazing detail in the frescoes without a VIP tour
— and a forklift.”

Biallas launched SEE in 1997 as a way to bring Hollywood film and television franchises to the public in the form of highly immersive “themed” traveling tours. After his visit to the Vatican City site, Biallas found himself wondering if he might be able to create experiences swapping entertainment for art.

“If I am able to, why not bring these frescoes to the public to study, to look at, to enjoy for as long as they want, up close, and in the original size?” With a few challenges, Biallas and his team managed a way to license the images of the frescoes taken just after their 1980s restoration, and print them using a special material called Dekotex, which is used to mimic the texture of the frescoes.

The second reason driving the creation of this exhibition, Biallas recounted, was the opportunity to create space for discussion on the meanings of the timeless works. 

“Once you have this in front of you, you want to understand the meanings of these frescoes — Michelangelo was hiding all kinds of secret messages and ideas behind each work,” said Martin, an apparent aficionado of the Italian master. 

An informative audio tour gives context for each scene, and as you explore the exhibition, it’s easy to become lost in the stories, 

due in part to the reflective atmosphere in Festival Hall. The grand and ambient room was mostly dim, except for the reproductions, which almost seemed illuminated from within. Atmospheric music plays softly over speakers, and there is access to seating, tables and refreshments. Families, couples and strangers float through, discussing everything from the Old Testament to the artistic principle of contrapposto. 

“This is not just a Catholic thing. This is an art experience, a philosophical experience and also faith-related, in some way. There are atheists who come and view this as a historical experience,” said Biallas. 

The exhibition’s admission price of $19.40 is certainly lower than a flight to Rome.

Charleston’s Festival Hall is the exact same size as the Sistine Chapel, Biallas said, enabling the team to display the reproductions in a similar order as they appear across the pond. When searching for a venue, Biallas looks for a “unique atmosphere” for the artwork. When they came across Festival Hall, the team knew it would be a good fit. 

But, Biallas encourages folks to see both, saying that this exhibition is merely a complement to the world-famous frescoes.

The exhibition has been successful in its six-year run. “We’ve been running this now since 2015, with four units in the U.S., one in Europe and one in China.”

The exhibition does seem to attract a diverse demographic: people young and old are flocking to see something that they might not ever see in person — and that kind of accessibility is important to Martin. “Because of the design of this exhibition, we can go to communities that wouldn’t be on a major exhibit schedule.”