Review: Is The National Gallery's Virtual Veronese The Future Of Art?

Virtual Veronese, The National Gallery ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 27 months ago

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Last Updated 01 April 2022

Review: Is The National Gallery's Virtual Veronese The Future Of Art? Virtual Veronese, The National Gallery 4
Entering the virtual world. © The National Gallery, London

I'm staring up at an altarpiece by the Renaissance master painter Veronese, within the original chapel it was first displayed in Mantua, Italy.

The thing is, this painting — The Consecration of Saint Nicholas — now resides permanently in London's National Gallery. No, I haven't got my hands on a flux capacitor and travelled back 500 years; the chapel is pure virtual reality.

The National Gallery's new Virtual Veronese show is extremely impressive; not only does it immerse you into another country and another time, but it's cleverly curated. A virtual guide stands at my side explaining that the painting tells the story of Saint Nicholas (the original Santa Claus) and how he was consecrated as a bishop by both the senior bishop, and an angel of God (seen descending from heaven with a mitre and staff).

Visitors can also opt for curation from the abbot who commissioned the painting (though it's not a recording of the man himself; even this technology has its limits).

A still from inside the experience with the curator. © Focal Point VR

The 10-minute experience (20 minutes if you allow for getting it all set up) really does give you the impression of what it'd be like to kneel before the altarpiece way back when — the pious atmosphere enhanced by a Gregorian chant piped through headphones.

Is this the future of art? A guide is certainly more engaging than reading some text off a wall (as is the case with the original painting upstairs, which I seek out after the VR session). Wouldn't it be wonderful to pick a few works from the National's collection, stick on a headset and be personally guided through them? The technology now exists to do so.

The original Consecration of Saint Nicholas. © The National Gallery, London

It's not a perfect experience. There's a slight frustration that I can't get close enough to the painting to zoom into the details. While there is a close up at the end, I'd have appreciated the ability to roam more freely. VR headsets are still clunky things too, and while the staff do their best to help you through the experience, it's not seamless.

Tech in the art world is evolving at a tremendous pace, and it won't stop here. Maybe in the future we'll be able to stroll up to real paintings in the gallery and have a hologram curator pop up, their voice transmitting directly into our ears, no need for bulky headsets.

Until then, Virtual Veronese is a glimpse of what the not-too-distant future of art galleries might be.

Virtual Veronese: A virtual reality experience at The National Gallery is on from 7 March-18 April. Tickets are free but should be booked in advance.