In 1506, a farmer found a statue in his vineyard in Rome. The statue turned out to be an ancient Roman depiction of the horrifying death of the mythical Trojan priest Laocoön and his two sons, and on the advice of his art advisors, Pope Julius II immediately purchased it and set it up for display within the Vatican. As the foundation of the Vatican Museums collection, Laocoön and His Sons would become the basis for one of the most magnificent and influential collections of art in the world, and go on to inspire some of the finest works of Western art.
The Vatican Museums 3D, which is much more exciting than its name would suggest, begins with an examination of this sculpture before proceeding to explore many of the other prominent pieces in the collection, such as Michelangelo’s Pieta and Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s The School of Athens and Delivery of St. Peter, Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ, Salvador Dali’s Crocifissione and other famous works of religious art.
Providing context for all of this is Professor Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, who speaks with authority both about the history and significance of particular pieces and also about the mission of the museums themselves-that is, to display the great art of the Christian tradition. This has been a part of the museum’s mandate since the 18th century, when Popes Clement XIV and Pius VI became some of the first European rulers to open their collections to the public. As a film, The Vatican Museums 3D continues in this tradition of making art available to everyone.
It is not , however, without its flaws. Chief among them is the inconsistency of the three-dimensional technology. While its effects are breathtaking when dealing with statuary and architecture, making the viewer feel as if one is actually walking through the halls of the museums, when applied to painting they become distracting. One of the key elements of the artistic revolution in Renaissance Italy was the discovery of perspective, the artistic technique by which a two-dimensional surface can render the illusion of a three-dimensional object. When 3D technology is applied to the paintings, it not only obfuscates this significance-it has the effect of making the paintings themselves seem vaguely like images from a children’s pop-up book.
The film is also at times confusing to follow. For those not already familiar with the key artists discussed-Michelangelo and Raphael-the fact that the narrator jumps between them throughout the film will be disorienting. This is especially puzzling given that the film is clearly meant to appeal to those who don’t have a sophisticated knowledge of art history. This is not to say that the film doesn’t do a good job of introducing and explaining its subjects, but simply to suggest that it could have done so more effectively if it were better organized.
I would contend, however, that the most important purpose the film serves is a theological one. The films reminds its viewers that Christian churches were not only at the forefront of artistic production for centuries, but were able to do so partly because they were open to applying techniques and insights from non-Christian traditions and works-such as Laocoön and His Sons-to sacred art. In a context where artistic endeavour of all kinds is viewed as being the preserve of the secular, this is an important lesson indeed.