The University of Texas at Austin

Behind the Scenes: Hollywood's Sistine Chapel

Behind the Scenes: Hollywood's Sistine Chapel

About the Exhibit

Filmed in Rome during a time of transformation within the Catholic Church under Vatican II and the global nuclear escalation of the Cold War, The Shoes of the Fisherman delves into the highest levels of international politics and the Catholic Church when a new Pope must decide his role in the future of humanity.  

MGM’s The Shoes of the Fisherman tested the illusion-making prowess of their Scenic Art Department.  Denied access to film in the Sistine Chapel, the Italian-based film crew requested an emergency replica of the Sistine Chapel. George Gibson, Scenic Art Supervisor, gathered scenic artists from across Hollywood, including competing film studios, to execute this monumental task in three short months. So convincing was their illusion that the Catholic clergy were enraged at the film's premiere, believing that the film crew had been allowed to film the actual Sistine Chapel. The film was a box office disappointment but garnered Academy Award nominations for Alex North for Best Score and George W. Davis and Edward C. Carfagno for Best Art Direction. 

This exhibition has been made possible by the generous donations of MGM historic backdrops by the ADG Archives and J.C. Backings to Texas Performing Arts. The paintings on display in Behind the Scenes: Hollywood’s Sistine Chapel represent only a portion of our growing collection. What you will experience today is a reimagined Sistine Chapel space built from MGM’s historical backdrops.

Edward C. Carfagno

Academy Award winning Production Designer Edward C. Carfagno on the set of The Shoes of a Fisherman 1968 with Sir John Gielgud as the elder Pope. Courtesy of Carfagno Collection 

The MGM Scenic Artists

George Gibson enlisted his top MGM scenic artists to recreate the historic frescoes, with Clark Provins leading the painting of the entire suite of the Sistine Chapel interior backdrops. F. Wayne Hill executed much of the drawing, working alongside journeymen scenic artists Harry Tepker and Albert J. Londraville. Czech artist Jerry Gebr was hired to paint the key portraits. He worked with a team of six scenic artists who projected, laid in the drawing, and adding a base color in advance of Gebr's detailed work. Scenic art legend Ronald Strang stepped away from Warner Bros. for one month to assist the MGM artists in meeting their deadline for completion in time to ship to Rome. Gibson smiled at the film's premiere when he overheard the scandalized clergymen behind him say, "I thought they were not going to allow them to film inside the chapel." 

Image of Last Judgement painting in progress with Jeroslov "Jerry" Gebr

(Image of Last Judgement painting in progress with Jeroslov "Jerry" Gebr) Courtesy of Thomas Gebr

MGM Sistine Chapel fresco replica attributed to Scenic Art Supervisor, George Gibson, Lead Scenic Artist Clark Provins, and Scenic Artists F. Wayne Hill, Harry Tepker, Albert Londraville, Ron Strang, Bob Oberbeck, and many others. Lead Portraitist, Jaroslav "Jerry" Gebr. 

Hollywood Motion Picture Backdrops at Texas Performing Arts

In 2018 the Art Directors Guild Archives and J.C. Backings Corporation generously donated 50 historic Hollywood motion picture backdrops to Texas Performing Arts, this Sistine Chapel replica from MGM's The Shoes of a Fisherman. Texas Performing Arts works with these educational assets to train UT Austin students in scenic painting art and share this previously untold history with the broader world. The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop (2016 Regan Arts) chronicles the secretive world of motion picture backdrop painting, celebrating the "below the line" artists responsible for their creation. The award-winning book was written here, in Austin, by UT Austin faculty Karen Maness and Richard Isackes.

Curated by Karen L. Maness, Scenic Art Supervisor at Texas Performing Arts and College of Fine Arts faculty member at The University of Texas at Austin

Soundscape design by Malyssa Quiles, Texas Theatre & Dance Graduate Student 2019

Lighting design by Seb Boone, Master Electrician at Texas Performing Arts

Special thanks to the Coakley family and JC Backings Corporation for their generous donation of painted backings to UT Austin and the ADG Archives Backdrop Recovery Project.

  • US Wall
    • Testament and Death of Moses
      • Luca Signorelli or Bartolomeo della Gatta
      • Backdrop Size: 20’-9 ¼" x 12’-6”
    • Punishment of the Rebels
      • Sandro Botticelli
      • Backdrop Size: 22'-3 ½” x 12’-6”
    • St. Anterus
      • Fra. Diamante
      • Backdrop Size: 9'-3 ½" x 12’-6”
    • Baptism of Christ
      • Pietro Perugino and assistants
      • Backdrop Size: 23'-8 ½" x 12’-6”
    • Temptations of Christ
      • Sandro Botticelli
      • Backdrop Size: 21'-11 ½" x 12’-6”
    • St. Stephan I
      • Sandro Botticelli
      • Backdrop Size: 9'-3 ¼" x 12’-6”
    • St. Stephan I
      • Sandro Botticelli
      • Backdrop Size: 9'-3 ¼" x 12’-6”
  • SL Wall
    • St. Caius, St. Marcellinus, St. Marcellus I, and St. Eutychianus
      • Backdrop Size: 45'-10" x 12’-6”
    • Resurrection of Christ
      • Hendrick van den Broeck (1572) over Domenico Ghirlandaio's original
      • Backdrop Size: 21'-4 ¼" x 12’-6”
    • Disputation over Moses’ Body
      • Matteo da Lecce (1574) over Luca Signorelli's original
      • Backdrop Size: 20'-4 ½" x 12’-6”
  • DS Wall
    • St. Dionysius
      • Cosimo Rosselli
      • Backdrop Size: 9'-6 ¾" x 12’-6”
    • The Crossing of the Red Sea
      • Cosimo Rosselli, Domenico Ghirlandaio or Biagio di Antonio Tucci- the most disputed attribution
      • Backdrop Size: 22'-0 1/2" x 12’-6”
    • Descent from Mount Sinai
      • Cosimo Rosselli or Piero di Cosimo
      • Backdrop Size: 22'-0" x 12’-6”
    • St. Cornelius
      • Sandro Botticelli
      • Backdrop Size: 9'-6 ½" x 12’-6”
    • The Trial of Moses
      • Sandro Botticelli and his workshop
      • Backdrop Size: 22'-0 1/4" x 12’-6”
    • Moses Leaving for Egypt
      • Pietro Perugino and assistants
      • Backdrop Size: 23'-11" x 12’-6”
  • SR Wall
    • The Last Judgement
      • Michelangelo
      • Backdrop Size: 47'-4" x 23’-3”
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