Please note that the following review is not an endorsement of purchasing the NFTs discussed, and the author does not themself own any of the collection.
NFTs are traditionally associated with pieces of digital art (hence the common criticism of them being glorified JPEGs). A collection from the Paris-based artist Pascal Boyart, otherwise known as PBoy, deftly shows that NFTs needn’t be only restricted to digital artworks, however.
His Underground Sistine Chapel is an NFT collection that serves as a collision between a Renaissance masterpiece and a modern-style PFP collection. Derived from a recreation of Michelangelo’s sixteenth-century Sistine Chapel fresco The Last Judgment, the collection splits the overall artwork into individual pieces focusing on a specific character. The physical mural is located in an old gold foundry in suburban Paris and was painted during a COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. The 100 square-meter creation features over 400 characters, each of which has been photographed and turned into the 404 individual NFTs that form the collection.
Boyart has been a pioneer in the crypto/art space for quite some time, having first monetized his frescoes in 2017 via QR codes that linked to bitcoin donations. Via that method, he accrued 1.21 bitcoin over a period of two years, before issuing his first NFTs in 2019 – two halves of a fresco called “Daddy, what’s money?” which had been painted two years earlier. Bornet’s website justifies the creation of NFTs as a means of making the artwork “immutable”, owing to the fact that the building on which the mural is painted will at some point be demolished.
Released in 2021 alongside a feature-length documentary on the mural’s creation, Underground Sistine Chapel builds on Boyart’s existing modus operandi when it comes to digitising his physical art – apportioning up frescoes for sale as NFTs via photographs of individual elements present in the piece. Further burnishing Underground Sistine Chapel Web3 credentials, the work itself was financed via NFT presales – representing a potentially transformative new way of raising money for artistic projects that sidesteps patrons or crowdfunding efforts.
Taken as a whole, the full power of the mural becomes apparent – drawing both from Michaelangelo’s original composition and Boyart’s modern rendering. Viewing the piece side-by-side with Michelangelo’s original, we can see this is not a one-to-one recreation. Aside from the shifting around of elements to account for features such as windows in the wall upon which the mural is painted, Boyart also makes his own changes, including swapping the gender of characters and adding modern elements such as depictions of a power plant, an Apple monitor in place of a stone tablet, and falling credit cards shaken out by a demon. Combined with a graphical, comic book style that includes bold black outlines around characters, the overall effect is to wryly equate our modern way of life with the apocalyptic scene depicted by the original.
It’s foolish to devote too much time to the overall image, however, as the NFT collection is experienced by the purchaser as a depiction of an individual character rather than a full composition.
Thankfully, the project holds up in miniature. These are a far cry from the algorithmically arranged faces we’re used to seeing, with each character inheriting the perfectly sculpted and intriguingly posed bodies of Michelangelo’s original, only usually with some enjoyable modern twist. Standouts include Jesus Christ himself (which benefits compositionally from the crowd of onlookers surrounding him, as well as including a special animation), the boatman Charon (who is suitably menacing and largely faithful to the original), and a herald angel who appears to have swapped a horn for an iPad.
A small amount of animated zooming and vignetting on each NFT makes each piece feel sufficiently “Web3”, rather than just being a static image – though it does slightly detract from the viewability of the characters. And it must also be said that many of the NFTs consist of abstract and not immediately readable heads that suffer from not being able to portray the surrounding context. In such cases, all we can really witness are blobs of black and skin tones that don’t make for a particularly captivating image.
Boyart’s blending of a physical artwork with digital NFTs used both to fund the piece and prolong its lifespan could well serve as a template for other artists going forwards. But The Underground Sistine Chapel project doesn’t stand up purely thanks to its novelty. Its invocation of the world-famous original paired with modern references serves as a clever piece of satire, and while the full effect doesn’t quite make it through to the atomised NFTs, the pieces are always at the very least graphically arresting.