Students and experts from Villanova’s faculty have spent the last decade on a project that re-creates some of the most astounding Vatican and Roman sites for 3D digital tours. The gallery of tours — which currently includes St. Peter’s Basilica, St. John Lateran, St. Paul-Outside-The-Walls, The Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Necropolis — is made available on the Vatican website, free to use by anyone with a computer or mobile device.
Virtual reality technology allows interested parties to explore areas that are often closed to tourists. The most recent addition to their gallery of tours was the Redemptoris Mater Chapel, which is sometimes called “the Sistine Chapel of the 21st Century.” The Redemptoris Mater Chapel is used exclusively by the Pope for prayer and to celebrate special Masses for small gatherings and it is very rare for tourists to get any time in the room at all.
Formerly known as the Matilde Chapel, the room was completely renovated by Pope St. John Paul II and is for its various mosaic artworks that covers all the walls. The work utilized millions of small fragments of different colored stones to create depictions of Christ. JPII wished for the room to include the presence of the Byzantine tradition and become a visible sign of communication between the Eastern and Western Churches. Since opening, the site has held many historic meetings between the Pope and special visitors.
Before bringing visitors to the virtual tour, the Vatican website provides the history of each scene. Of the new addition, they explain:
The Redemptoris Mater Chapel is a prime example of a powerful means for a new evangelization, a true “locus theologicus” where the mystery of God, manifested in Christ, is contemplated not only with all-encompassing theological truth but also in aesthetic theology. In this way we experience the category of beauty attributed to God with the goodness and beauty of all his deeds, especially the saving Incarnation of the Son of God, along with the blessed Mother of God who is the icon of the Church and of humanity redeemed.
While their efforts have been underway for a decade, the Redeptoris Mater Chapel has been the focus of project leader Dr. Frank Klassner for the last 3 years. Dr. Klassner worked with Villanova Computer Science students both on-site and in the computer lab to program the visitor interactivity. Of the project, he told Villanova University’s Media Room:
“Our project endeavored to help Internet visitors both examine the Chapel’s levels of mosaic detail and interactively read ‘on demand’ about the many theological details, while keeping the information display interface’s presence to a minimum on the screen.” “My students and I were privileged to visit the Chapel three times,” Dr. Klassner continued. “Each time we marveled at how its rich design was ultimately produced with many simple elements – and I do not refer just to the many stone pieces. Each scene on a wall is one facet of a complete theological reflection that becomes clear when all the scenes are considered together in spatial relation to each other.”
The team carefully took over 800 digital photographs of the chapel interior using a motorized camera rig. In order to make a cubic panorama, an image with a 360-degree view, the team digitally stitched the images together, color corrected, and post-processed them all together to make one image, capable of zooming.
Team member Zachary Rahn, who interned at the Vatican for the duration of the project, commented:
“Villanova’s internship program with the Vatican was a tremendous experience. I was honored to walk past St. Peter’s Basilica and receive a salute from the Swiss Guard every morning,” Rahn said. “The Vatican generously allowed us to capture and create a virtual experience of this elegant, private chapel and provide the public an opportunity to view it.”
Director of the Villanova Center of Excellence in Enterprise Technology, Dr. Klassner has been the leader of all the teams which have created virtual renderings of Vatican properties. He is currently working with Vatican Museum representatives to plan a new virtual tour of Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the popes.