Canada's last cyclorama, 19th-century precursor to Imax, gets protected status

A century-old, giant panoramic painting of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus Christ's Crucifixion will be designated a historic provincial monument, Quebec said Monday.

Giant religious painting in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré will stay in Quebec, government vows

The movement to preserve and keep the Cyclorama of Jérusalem in Quebec materialized two weeks ago. (Sotheby’s International Realty)

A century-old, giant panoramic painting of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus Christ's Crucifixion will be designated a historic provincial monument, Quebec's culture minister, Luc Fortin, announced Monday.

Efforts to preserve and keep the Cyclorama of Jérusalem in Quebec materialized two weeks ago, when it emerged its owners were seeking to sell the 1,540-square-metre artwork on the international market.

On Monday, Fortin said the new status for the cyclorama would allow the province to protect its artistic, historic and architectural value. It also blocks the work from being moved outside Quebec.

The Cyclorama of Jérusalem has been in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, Que., — near the site of a basilica that boasts of its healing powers — since 1895. It was painted in the U.S. between 1887 and 1888 and was then showcased in Montreal.

A popular entertainment in the 19th century, cycloramas put people in the centre of an immense painting, whose casting of shadow and light gave an illusion of it being three-dimensional. A guide would explain the images to visitors, while another worker produced sound effects. 

Hundreds of cycloramas were painted in the nineteenth century, but few survive. Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré's is believed to be the last in Canada.

The panoramic painting was created by a team of artists, led by German painter Bruno Piglhein. (Radio-Canada)

'Indisputably a national treasure'

The Blouin family, which owns the work, had turned to Sotheby's International Realty Canada to sell the painting and the building that houses it in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, 30 kilometres northeast of Quebec City. They were seeking around $5 million.

But Laval University professor Jean-Pierre Sirois-Trahan spearheaded an effort to keep the 134-year-old cyclorama where it is, and have its worth properly acknowledged.

"It is indisputably a national treasure," said Sirois-Trahan, a film studies professor. "There are so so few 19th-century cycloramas left in the world. It is very likely the biggest."

An open letter, penned by Sirois-Trahan, was signed by 61 other academics.

The Cyclorama depicts images from the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. (Radio-Canada)

Cycloramas were equivalent to modern-day blockbuster Imax movies, Sirois-Trahan said. Every major city had one, he said, including Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto. New York City and Chicago had two. 

"We have to remember that this was a period where there were very few images. People were illiterate for the large part. Newspapers did not have extensive photographs," Sirois-Trahan said.

"We were really living in a world without images, and especially images from far-away places. For people at the time, it was like they had been teleported to Jerusalem."

But while he welcomed the painting's protected status, he said the heritage classification is not enough. Its historic value needs to be recognized and promoted in order for it to be properly preserved for generations to come.

"It's something incredibly rare, incredibly precious, even moving," he said. "The question is, Why was it not already classified?"