This news is pitched as good news. But is it?

In a new exhibit called Mythological Passions, the Prado Museum, Spain’s national treasure house, is extolling its virtual tours as more than walkabouts through its galleries.

Picture quality

As ArtDaily reports the story, exhibitgoers can now move through a show with an “optimum level of image quality” - courtesy of something called Gigapixel technology. This means you get close-ups not only of brushwork but also “millimetric detail” not seeable with the human eye.

But wait, doesn’t such extra vision surpass the artist's vision and invite views never intended?

And if an artist didn’t see what the Prado is showing, what’s the point? Can this really be an improved way to art appreciation?

Art appreciation?

Gigapixel technology focuses on the one exhibit “Mythological Passions” - seven paintings in all – each based on ancient Greek myths. Included is Peter Paul Rubens’ The Garden of Love. The technology allows you to view an artwork made of one million pixels magnified more than 100 times. Who needs that kind of minutia? Forensic scientists, maybe. But art appreciation isn’t an autopsy, is it?

This latest technology is not just a one-off experiment at the Prado. ArtDaily reports that it’s available to all museums and currently it's used by more than 75 art institutions worldwide.

But as the Prado website touts the “maximum image quality,” one may well ask, is the image getting maximized, or are art lovers getting minutia? Let’s consider Rubens’ The Garden of Love for example.

Garden of Love

What you see is a group of rose-tinted Cupids swooping over smitten couples. Do you really need Gigapixel to appreciate such a scene?

Even a casual glance at the euphoric faces, adoring eyes, and cherishing tilts of heads tells you that you’re looking at a portrait of people so lusty that you imagine catching whiffs of their arousal. Rubens imbued his paintings with animal energy. Will Gigapixel pick up on that?

Another powerful painting by Rubens comes to mind that would lose something in technological translation.

I’m thinking of The Judgement of Paris in which reddened flesh is everywhere as if all the people in the picture are blushing. Three bare, full-figured goddesses Venus, Minerva, and Juno expose themselves before Paris, each hoping to be picked.

What’s the point?

You can see in The Judgment of Paris that same roiling, reeling quality that marks all of Rubens’ paintings. Even though he chose to paint a time of reflection, the look of the scene is raging – even in the clouds and trees. But, most of all, Rubens was intent on painting people, real people and he chose the women in his life as models: his first wife Isabella Brandt, who died young, and his second wife Helene Fourment, said to be Isabella’s cousin. You can see the family resemblance. Each shows a round face, small mouths, and large eyes. If you see all that, who needs technology.