Humanities and Virtual Reality: Staring Up at the Sistine Chapel and Globe Theater

This is part 4 of a 5-part series on virtual reality in humanities. This article series explores the trends and use cases of how universities are utilizing VR and visualization to further explore research and public engagement opportunities in the humanities.

Five hundred years ago, people relied on pictures and stories to learn about their faith. Without the ability to read, research, and contextualize the world around them, the masses turned to art for personal fulfillment in a highly religious and spiritual culture. When today’s students learn about the past, they must radically change their understanding of culture to truly understand the impact art had on society.


“Learning starts with how you position yourself,” explains Luca Cottini, an assistant professor and coordinator of Italian studies at Villanova University. “You might be exposed to great professors and great lectures, but if you’re not in the right attitude, true understanding passes you like a conveyer belt.”


Villanova University found a way to avoid the proverbial conveyer belt by leveraging virtual reality. When students were able to learn by experience, they truly grasp the significance behind art and storytelling both in the visual and performance arts.

VR Sends Students Back in Time to the Sistine Chapel

Although many people can easily list off the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo in conversation, most may not understand the true impact this artwork had on people of faith at the time. In the 1500s, the Roman Catholic Church fought for influence against the Protestantism movement. The Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s work played a big role in the Church’s push to revitalize the Catholic faith. Students may examine smaller pieces, such as the famous “Creation of Adam,” yet this iconic piece of the painting represents only a fraction of the Sistine Chapel’s grandeur.

Villanova’s professors are consistently challenged with presenting the separate pieces of Michelangelo’s work and bringing it together in the whole piece while ensuring students learn in the context of European culture and history. The university began building a curriculum around a simple truth: true learning occurs when students consider the entirety of a culture in context instead of slicing it apart.

“My purpose is to give students a sense of what kind of space the Basilica and the Sistine Chapel is,” explains Cottini. “Most students have seen images of Rome but they’ve never been exposed to the grandeur and size of the monument. I saw the advantage of a place for students to get a sense of the space.”

In the fall and spring semesters of the 2017 school year, Professor Cottini brought his baroque arts classes to the second floor of the university’s Falvey Memorial Library. Tucked away in Room 203 sits the technology to make his goals possible. Standing at an impressive 18-feet wide, ten feet deep, and over seven feet tall, Villanova’s CAVE brings the grandeur of the Sistine Chapel to life. The students file into the room, don 3D glasses, and lay on the floor of the CAVE. There on the ceiling is Michelangelo’s grand masterpiece in stunning 3D.

“I could learn about this academically, but not having been to these places before, I lacked a certain understanding,” says Jack Swick, a philosophy major at Villanova. “This experience gave me a chance to see where everything was and how it felt to be in the Sistine Chapel. It gave me more insight.”

It isn’t just Professor Cottini that sees the benefit of teaching students this way. Professor Noel Dolan, director of academic learning communities, also brings students to view the Sistine Chapel.

“It’s really hard to describe the feeling you get in the Sistine Chapel,” explains Dolan. “What it feels like to be small in that space and discern one scene from all the others. It’s very different than what the students have experienced before. It’s not the same as being dwarfed by the art and feeling that sense of awe.”

 “The CAVE helps give me a deeper meaning of what I’m studying,” echoes Sean Rodgers, a humanities/ Spanish double major. “It almost creates a love toward it because you understand it. There’s a sense of ownership. You experience it, I’m not memorizing and forgetting.”

From Rome’s Visual Arts to London’s Performing Arts

For Professor Dolan, the idea of taking things from flat, 2D images to immersion started seven years ago. A presenter visited her class to discuss the newest trend taking the internet by storm: 360-degree viewing. Instead of simply viewing a single image, people now had access to seeing how art fits into the surrounding space, creating a new sense of immersion. This opened the doors not just for visual arts, but extending into theatre and performance art.

Last year, Professor Dolan took her class into the CAVE to experience London’s original Globe Theatre, the famous theater where Shakespeare’s plays first emerged in the early 1600s. Her class immediately latched onto the immersive experience greater than standard learning practices, immediately digging into questions about the culture and society of the time by experiencing it for themselves.

“It’s interesting how quickly at the moment the students were looking for ways to enhance the experience,” says Dolan. “They were saying, ‘It’d be cool if they could develop the space outside the theater to get a sense of the street and the environment.’ If you don’t experience these things, you don’t think of these related questions.”

Similarly, experiencing the Sistine Chapel in the CAVE provides a more conducive learning experience. Students aren’t limited to where they can explore in the space. They aren’t surrounded by chatty or hushing guards. Instead, the students and professors have an open dialogue about the true impact the space had on society at the time.

“When you think about how both storytelling and art interacted with people of faith in the day, it served as a way to educate the illiterate,” says Dolan. “We can take these stories and the way students might know them culturally or from their own faith, and think about them from a time in which people explored images and people in the stories more fully.”

Virtual Reality Changes the Meaning of Learning

The world we live in is fast-paced. Thanks to the immediacy of information and education, people consider art as supplementary instead of a primary source of learning. Combined with technology and social media, society gets easily distracted, quickly scans, and carefully curates what we want to see and what goes out into the world. The type of experience offered in the CAVE radically changes everything about how today’s generation interacts with art and their learning experience.

 “The art was created to be in this space,” explains Dolan about the Sistine Chapel. “It’s not the museum approach of ‘this was there, and now it’s here.’ When you walk into a place like the Sistine Chapel, you don’t get to scan. You have to see it all in context and get the immediate impact. It’s a loss of control for students, and they have to give over to an experience that’s larger than they are.”

“Looking at the artwork in this context made me look at the architecture and the world around me differently,” says Swick. “The literary and philosophical elements influenced some of my thoughts. It’s like putting theory into practice. To this day, I still remember the names and artists.”

Today, students crave the ability to understand and contextualize something beyond their own understanding. They search for deeper meanings and truth in what they study.

“I’m not worried if students don’t remember everything about St. Peter’s,” explains Cottini. “But if they learned a way of observing, I’ve succeeded. One student said to me, ‘I started to look at Villanova’s buildings to see how they were built. The ideology and the concepts reflected in the architecture.’ We are eliciting that spark in students.”

“This technology can be a bridge to experience reality and become alive in the experience,” says Rodgers. “The CAVE helps a person arrive at a deeper meaning of what we’re studying. It almost creates a love toward because you understand it and there’s a sense of ownership.”

Learn more about Villanova’s CAVE and how it’s impacting student learning.

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