The Vatican's altar images

Peter Greenaway hopes to create a light show in the Sistine Chapel

It takes chutzpah to embellish the greatest works of art the Western world has produced. As these pictures show, however, the British film-maker Peter Greenaway is not afraid to try.

Best known for The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover – which explores his regular themes of sex, violence and death – the director is now in discussions with the Vatican to project images on to one of the most significant art treasures in the world – Michelangelo's Last Judgement, a fresco on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.

Greenaway, whose latest film, Nightwatching, about the artist Rembrandt, is released in the UK today, told The Independent on Sunday that he was one of 250 artists invited to the Vatican in December to talk about developing the relationship between the church and artists.

His plan for the Sistine Chapel would be the culmination of his Nine Classic Paintings project. This has already seen him use light shows on Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper in Milan, as well as The Wedding at Cana, by Paolo Veronese, at the Venice Biennale. He intends to move on to Picasso's Guernica in Madrid and Jackson Pollock in New York before finishing with Michelangelo.

"I believe these paintings are well worth examining and we examine them through very contemporary forms of technology," said Greenaway, 67, who trained as a painter.

"We are projecting directly on to the paintings. To some this will seem an act of gimmickry or tomfoolery or iconoclasm. It's not a film or animation, but it does interface with how the painting was created.

"Just think if Michelangelo had had electricity; just imagine what the Sistine Chapel could have looked like if he was a film-maker dealing in holograms – how much more amazing that would be. So in a sense we're giving Michelangelo electricity."

Greenaway's Nightwatching, a detective-style drama based on Rembrandt's painting The Night Watch, stars Martin Freeman, famous for his role in The Office, and was finished two years ago. "My home country is very much behind with the release," he said. "I'm told of all sorts of reasons, one of which is the poor appreciation of European cinema in England.

"I understand the distribution system for the European art movie is now at an extremely low ebb. I'd be the first to agree that the death of cinema is about us. A great deal of cinema is being made, but very little of it is inventive, very little is radical."

"What fascinates me most is that Rembrandt paints artificial light. Rembrandt, Rubens, Caravaggio and Velazquez for the first time practised the depiction of artificial light.

"You could say they are the first film-makers, because cinema is the manipulation of artificial light. So it starts with these guys round about 1600. So as a painter and film-maker I'm going to be interested in these people."

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