More than 500 years after Michelangelo applied his paintbrush to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Callaway Arts and Entertainment will publish The Sistine Chapel, an ambitous three-volume set that essentially places the reader alongside the Renaissance genius to view his masterwork. The oversize 24"× 17" volumes’ 822 pages are encased in silk covers in silver, gold, and platinum, and each weighs a healthy 20 lbs. The images in the books were captured with state-of-the-art gigapixel photography and color-matched against the originals with 99.4% accuracy, reproducing 1:1 scale renditions of Michelangelo’s frescoes as well as those of Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio, and other Renaissance artists in the Vatican City chapel.

“It’s safe to say, without exaggeration, that it is both the definitive and ultimate book on the Sistine Chapel,” boasted Callaway founder Nicholas Callaway. With a price tag of $22,000 (including shipping and handling), “it’s the world’s most expensive impulse buy,” he added, half joking. Publication date is December 1. A portion of proceeds from sales will be given to the Vatican Museums.

Callaway editorial director Manuela Roosevelt said that the scale “allows us to experience these great works of Renaissance art as no one has since they were painted,” since visitors to the chapel view the works 60 feet above them and on walls they can’t get close to. The more than 270,000 images were captured over the course of 65 nights. They allow readers to see individual brushstrokes and to feel as though they are next to the artists as they paint.

Five years in the making, the book is a collaboration with the Vatican Museums and the Italian art publisher Scripta Maneant of Bologna. The Vatican Museums have limited the worldwide publication of the work to 1,999 copies, with 600 of those designated for Callaway’s English edition, whose customized design differs from those of the Italian, Polish, and Russian editions that were produced earlier. The 1,000 copies of the Italian edition sold out immediately when it was published two years ago, Callaway said.

Callaway pointed to the book's preservationist value. “We now have, thanks to this work, a digital capture that preserves the chapel for as long as these books will last,” he said. “Art historians, students, collectors, and curators will be able to study the works presented in unprecedented detail.” And, he added, “we believe that books can and are art objects in and of themselves.”

Antonio Paolucci, former director of the Vatican Museums and former director general for Cultural Heritage in Tuscany, wrote the text, which describes the scenes and stories behind the masterpieces. “It explains what you’re looking at: the biblical stories from the New and Old Testaments, the story of creation, the last judgment,” Roosevelt said.

While keenly aware of the extraordinary price of the edition, Callaway intends the books to be seen by a wide population. The company has established systems, with financial incentives, intended to connect art collectors, benefactors, and donors to major museums, public and private libraries, universities, dioceses, and other institutions. Several negotiations are underway.

The books will be warehoused in Italy and will be drop-shipped to customers anywhere in the world. Booksellers will be provided with marketing materials but will not have the “onerous burden” of purchasing the set up front and housing it, Callaway said. Ingram Publisher Services is handling sales to retailers, and accounts can place orders according to a schedule of discounts. Customers can also go to the Callaway website and connect with one of its representatives.

Completing the highly sophisticated project took longer than expected, but Callaway believes it is worth the wait. “We hope that, in the midst of all our travails, The Sistine Chapel is going to give people something inspiring and exciting,” he said.