Still from inside the Virtual Veronese Virtual Reality experience (© Focal Point VR)

LONDON — In late 2020 Marina Abramovic sold via Christie’s what was billed as a “world first”: a Mixed Reality artwork viewed through a VR headset in which a hologram of the artist stepped into the viewer’s immediate environment, like a souped up Pokemon Go. Its ambition was to bring the artist’s “presence” to anyone at any time (although in actuality it was limited to the person who bought the thing). In the wake of two years of COVID-19 restrictions and communication with others via tiresome video chats, the National Gallery’s Virtual Veronese ingeniously uses the VR concept for more practical and educational reasons. Its aim, according to the National Gallery’s Head of Digital, Lawrence Chiles, is to use immersive storytelling to add “depth of experience, meaning, and emotion to Gallery visitors’ engagement with our paintings.” Using VR headsets, visitors will be able to see Paolo Veronese’s “The Consecration of Saint Nicholas” hanging in the chapel of San Benedetto al Po, one of the largest Benedictine monasteries in Europe, for which it was commissioned in 1561.

Entering a white room in the bowels of the museum, diamonds painted on the floor to demarcate where each visitor can stand for the experience, I was handed a health form. A guide explained the procedure and how to put the headphones round my neck, then the headset on, then the headphones over the ears; I tried not to get tangled up but still managed to accidentally remove my glasses in the process. My headset malfunctioned so a steward wrestled with it for a few moments, before I stepped into the diamond and found myself “inside” the chapel, standing in front of the altar on which the painting appears. Visitors have two options: in the first, curator Dr. Rebecca Gill stepped into the picture to give a talk on the altarpiece and its significance; in the second, two actors dressed in Benedictine robes play a novice monk and the historical figure of Abbot Andrea Asola, who commissioned the painting. I have a soft spot for historical dramatizations — heaven knows actors have to get work — and I love the endearing cheesiness of it, regardless of how believable it may be. The event lasts eight minutes.

Virtual Veronese viewing room at the National Gallery (photo by Olivia McEwan/Hyperallergic)

Many visitors to the National Gallery may not consider the original context of the religious works as they encounter them hung one after the other at average head height and evenly lit in the decidedly secular environment of the museum. Presenting one piece “within” the chapel for which it was intended may thus be revelatory for those unacquainted with European worshipping practices or even art history. Not everyone will be familiar with the interior of Renaissance Italian churches, and indeed it is not exactly obvious or perhaps easy for the majority of viewers to travel abroad to see a painting, much less one in a small town outside Mantua. As such, it is an excellent educational tool and hopefully one that will inspire viewers to seek out and reconsider the painting as displayed in the institution, and maybe cause them to stop and question how the gallery setting inadvertently colors our reception of paintings.

It is difficult to argue with the nobleness of this cause. What one can argue, however, is that it requires a major step from viewing the VR to making the trip to study the piece itself. While the photography of paintings for the purposes of digital reconstruction is now minutely accurate, and proven to be historically and educationally important in multiple cases where replicas are required, the resulting image is still distorted by blurring when viewed via the VR headset, regardless of the resolution used to capture it. Coupled with the fact that the VR setup means you cannot walk up to the piece, the experience is not about looking closely, as it is not possible via such crude means. For a setup wholly geared to showcase one painting, it feels more about the illusion of the scene; one hopes the gimmick will not overshadow the art.

3D Capture Mesh Optimisation of the Chapel of Saint Nicholas in the Church of San Benedetto al Po, Mantua, Italy, created by ScanLAB projects, commissioned by the National Gallery (courtesy The National Gallery, London)

Similarly, upon viewing the chapel (which is faithfully reconstructed down to the smudges of dirt patterning the walls), I was reminded of how like but unlike the real experience it is. Playing through the headset is a Gregorian chant performed by Veneti Cantores, taken from a choral book that was produced at the monastery in the 1560s and is therefore contemporaneous with the altarpiece. This certainly helped set the mood in a pleasingly historical way. What was missing were the Catholic “smells and bells”: the incense and atmosphere and above all the people who are present solely for worshipping purposes, as you encounter in the real thing.

Also unnerving was a “timeless” sky moving indistinctly outside the windows; what time of day was it meant to be? Beyond the chapel parameters, the visuals faded to a mysterious blackness. Any artwork we see is framed in our memory by its immediate physical frame, expanding out to encompass the gallery walls, then the gallery’s location in a city or town, then the wider geographical context, and so on. Here Veronese is in a vacuum, or the isolation of cyberspace. The limitations of technology’s current level of sophistication circumscribe its aims. To play devil’s advocate, you could argue that eventually technology will be so good that everyone will have VR, and the picture will be so excellent that there is no need to travel to the National Gallery at all to see it, undoing its own purpose. But perhaps we are safely far from that eventuality now!

National Gallery visitors wearing headsets in the Virtual Veronese experience (© The National Gallery, London)

While it is no substitute for the very essence of art — looking closely, meticulously examining the brushwork, imagining the painter’s movements, feeling (sensing) the “presence” and tactile quality of the physical thing — this enterprise is nonetheless useful. If on a basic level it illuminates religious works that may seem impenetrable to many without existing cultural knowledge, or prompts people to question what role a gallery setting plays in the display of art, and even why the painting is in the UK rather than Italy, then this is a useful step toward audience engagement — which is precisely the point.

Virtual Veronese continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square London) through April 3. The exhibition was curated by Rebecca Gill.

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...