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Villanova University Team Designs 3-D Virtual Reality Tour of the Rarely-Seen Redemptoris Mater Chapel

Touring the Pope’s Chapel, Redemptoris Mater, is now just a click away


Redemptoris Mater Chapel
Computer science professor Dr. Frank Klassner (right), and Villanova student Zachary Rahn ’16 (left), photograph Redemptoris Mater Chapel for the Virtual Reality Tour.

VILLANOVA, Pa.– Renowned for its beauty, the Redemptoris Mater Chapel in the Vatican is often called “the Sistine Chapel of the 21st Century.”  Located on the second floor of the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City, the Chapel is used exclusively by the Pope for prayer and to celebrate special masses for small gatherings. For the last three years, students and faculty from Villanova University’s Department of Computing Sciences were granted rare clearance to photograph it for a use as part of a virtual reality tour—and now, for the very first time, anyone with access to a computer or mobile device can view the sacred, rarely-seen space online.   

The Virtual Reality Tour of Redemptoris Mater Chapel launched last week at The tour was designed by Villanova on behalf of the Department of Telecommunications of the Governorate of Vatican City State and the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, with permission from the Papal Household.

Virtual reality technology enables those interested in historic locations inaccessible to large numbers of tourists to view and study them fully and comprehensively. Formerly known as the Matilde Chapel and completely renovated by Pope St. John Paul II, the Redemptoris Mater Chapel is notable for its various mosaics similar to early Byzantine religious artwork. Millions of small fragments of stone from places as varied as caves with prehistoric paintings to seaside beaches and riverbanks were used in the design of the mosaics.

John Paul II’s vision was that the new chapel include the presence of Oriental tradition and become a visible sign of communion between the Eastern and Western Roman Catholic Churches. The Chapel has been the site of many historic meetings between the Pope and special visitors over the years.    

Dr. Frank Klassner, computer science professor and project lead, reflected on the scope of the project and the design of the tour. “Our project endeavored to help Internet visitors both examine the Chapel’s levels of mosaic detail and interactively read ‘on demand’ about the many theological details, while keeping the information display interface’s presence to a minimum on the screen,” Dr. Klassner said.

“My students and I were privileged to visit the Chapel three times,” Dr. Klassner continued. “Each time we marveled at how its rich design was ultimately produced with many simple elements – and I do not refer just to the many stone pieces. Each scene on a wall is one facet of a complete theological reflection that becomes clear when all the scenes are considered together in spatial relation to each other.”

Over the course of three years, Villanova Computer Science students worked with Dr. Klassner to program the interactivity of the project. Zachary Rahn ’16 and Albert Hermida ’18 worked as interns at the Vatican as part of an exclusive internship program the University has with the Vatican.

“Villanova’s internship program with the Vatican was a tremendous experience. I was honored to walk past St. Peter’s Basilica and receive a salute from the Swiss Guard every morning,” Rahn said. “The Vatican generously allowed us to capture and create a virtual experience of this elegant, private chapel and provide the public an opportunity to view it.”

The students and Dr. Klassner carefully took over 800 digital photographs of the chapel interior using a motorized camera rig. The photos were digitally stitched together, color-corrected, and post-processed by the Villanova team members to create a cubic panorama file that presents the Chapel in a three-dimensional projection. Tour visitors can zoom in for high-resolution views of the interior of the Chapel.  They can also use the interactive context-sensitive interface to learn about the theological messages of each of the Chapel’s mosaics.

Director of the Villanova Center of Excellence in Enterprise Technology, Dr. Klassner manages Villanova’s virtual reality CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment, which was funded by a $1.67 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant and opened in 2014. The CAVE gives users an immersive experience, allowing them to virtually visit a variety of locations from the surface of Mars to the Sistine Chapel.

Dr. Klassner has been a leader on all the teams from Villanova that have created a total of 7 virtual reality tours of Vatican sites, including the Sistine Chapel, the Basilica of St. John Lateran, and the Basilica of St. Peter—making them accessible to virtual tourists, educators and the Roman Catholic faithful worldwide.  He is currently working with Vatican Museum representatives on the planning stages of a new project to create a virtual tour of Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the Popes.

“This is an example of Villanova’s commitment to preparing its students for the future,” Rahn said.  “Coursework taught me the foundational skills necessary to be successful and working on this project for the Vatican gave me the hands-on experience to carry into graduates’ careers.”

About the Vatican Program: Through a unique internship program, Villanova University students are helping change the ways in which the Vatican communicates with the rest of the world – using the internet, multi-media technology and social media. Villanova began this program in 2003, sending computer science students to the Internet Office of the Holy See. Since 2005, communication majors have joined these students in Rome. Today, computer science majors work in the technology offices of the Vatican Museums, the Vatican Post Office, the Telecommunication Department of the Vatican City Governorate, and the Dicastery for Communication. Villanova communication majors also work in the Dicastery where they have been integral in helping add to the Papal presence on YouTube and Facebook. They also intern in the Rome bureau of Catholic News Service.

About Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Since its founding in 1842, Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has cultivated knowledge, understanding and intellectual courage for a purposeful life in a challenging and changing world. With more than 40 majors across the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, it is the oldest and largest of Villanova’s colleges, serving more than 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students each year. The College is committed to a teacher-scholar model, offering outstanding undergraduate and graduate research opportunities and a rigorous core curriculum that prepares students to become critical thinkers, strong communicators and ethical leaders with a truly global perspective.

About Villanova University: Since 1842, Villanova University’s Augustinian Catholic intellectual tradition has been the cornerstone of an academic community in which students learn to think critically, act compassionately and succeed while serving others. There are more than 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and law students in the University's six colleges—the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Villanova School of Business, the College of Engineering, the M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing, the College of Professional Studies and the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. Ranked among the nation’s top universities, Villanova supports its students’ intellectual growth and prepares them to become ethical leaders who create positive change everywhere life takes them. For more, visit