Thanks to a new virtual reality project launched this week by the Google Cultural Institute, you can now immerse yourself in one of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s most bizarre paintings and hang out with the peculiar creatures that cover its canvas. The project, which brings to life the Flemish master’s 1562 “The Fall of the Rebel Angels,” is viewable on YouTube but is best experienced on headsets such as a Google Cardboard mask. While the Institute has recently brought 360-degree videos of performances closer to audiences around the world, this marks the first time it has created a virtual reality experience for an artwork.
While the performance videos were a little underwhelming, this new video is actually pretty neat. It transports you directly to the artwork’s current home — the Royal Museums of Fine Arts Belgium, which worked in partnership with the Google Cultural Institute — where it pulls you into the image. As a narrator explains the scene, which shows the moment a gold armor-adorned St. Michael expels the devil from paradise, you’re surrounded by the flapping wings of angels transformed into demons, of butterflies, and of hybrid monsters, some possibly inspired by Hieronymus Bosch, as your guide mentions. Above you, a swarm of beasts appears to spiral from the white heavens; below lies a murky darkness just visible past the crowd of waving limbs, claws, and tails.
The experience is part of Bruegel: Unseen Masterpieces, a collaborative project between Google Cultural Institute and eight major international museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Collection, London’s Royal Collection Trust, and Copenhagen’s Statens Museum for Kunst. Over 200 of Bruegel’s paintings, drawn from the collections of these institutions, were digitized and published online, allowing anyone with an internet connection to explore them through extremely high resolution images accompanied by detailed annotations.
The art-meets-tech experience also has a physical component at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts Belgium, where visitors may engage with the Bruegels on view through more virtual reality and screen-based projects. The museum’s officials launched the collaboration with Google in anticipation of the 450th anniversary of the painter’s death, which will be in 2019.