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Issue Date:  April 4, 2008

Treasures of the Vatican

Art from St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums

By MAGGIE D. HALL

To mark the 500th anniversary of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums, the Vatican collected about half of the pieces that had traveled to four American cities in 2003-2004 and paired them with some new treasures to craft “Vatican Splendors.” The four-gallery exhibit is currently showing in St. Petersburg, Fla., and will travel to two other U.S. cities this year and into early 2009.

Some of the items on display in the repackaged exhibit are genuine art treasures and others are more likely to appeal to devout Catholics than to their secular neighbors. Despite its splendor, the exhibit suffers from a lack of context. In fact, without the optional audio tour that features comments by medieval historian and Vatican consultant Br. Charles Hilken, it wouldn’t have any context at all.

The four galleries are loosely organized into categories dealing with the foundations of the church, 500 years of the Vatican, the day-to-day workings of the papacy and personal items from papal history. If that sounds like a lot to cram in one exhibit, it is.


-- Photos/ Governatorato
of the Vatican City State

Thanka, given by the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibet, 1978. Multicolored silk, pearls, coral

At times the exhibit suffers from its surfeit of treasures without their place in history. For example, a stunning missal stand crafted from a single piece of wood, fish spine and tortoise shell by Cuban artisans in the late 15th or early 16th century isn’t paired with any mention of the evangelization of the Americas. In fact, the missal stand was made for Fra Bartolomeo de las Heras, Christopher Columbus’ chaplain during his voyages to our continent. It’s displayed with Bibles in other languages and a pearl-decorated thanka from the Dalai Lama to Pope John Paul II as just another art object.

The explosive growth of the church from its earliest days to its post-Constantine I status as a rich institution is alluded to in Br. Hilken’s commentary, but visitors who don’t purchase the optional tour would only move from galleries of the persecuted church in Peter’s day to papal finery without a mention of the transformation.

"Face of Christ with Thorns" by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), 17th century, oil on silk canvas

When “Vatican Splendors” shows a glimpse of the priceless art in the church’s holdings, it hits the right note. One of the new objects that wasn’t in a previous exhibition called “Legacy of the Popes” is the exquisite oil-on-silk “Face of Christ with Thorns” by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) from the 17th century. The suffering Christ, whose red-rimmed eyes are filled with a delicate grief, is painted as a veil of Veronica. It’s making its debut outside the Vatican and is the exhibit’s genuine treasure.

Another new piece is a clay model by Bernini for a larger work of Daniel in the lions’ den. The maquette dates to 1655 and shows a remarkable fluidity of movement even in its experimental state.

Papal tiara of Pius VII (gift from Napoleon Bonaparte), 1804, Henry Auguste and Nitot, Paris. Cask: wood, velvet, silk; crown: gold, precious stones; top: emerald, gold.

Visitors who saw “Legacy of the Popes” will remember the “Mandylion of Edessa,” a third- to sixth-century treasure that is one of the earliest representations of Jesus. The legend that the mandylion or “little towel” was sent by Jesus to the king of Edessa as a healing gift may be spurious, but the object had been revered by the faithful for centuries before it acquired its elaborate frame in 1623. The original tempera on linen is barely visible, but it’s an excellent example of Byzantine art from the church’s beginnings.

The weakest of the four galleries is the one containing papal finery: gold-embroidered chasubles, gem-encrusted chalices, diamond rings and an ostentatious tiara given to Pope Pius VII by Napoleon. Some of the gems had been stolen by Napoleon’s troops during their raids on the Vatican, but the emperor returned them in a tiara topped with one of the largest emeralds in the world. Visitors of other faiths may find this gallery too short on how the chalices, patens, thuribles and ciboria are used in the Mass.

“Vatican Splendors” is dazzling when it sticks to art and pedestrian when it deals in papal bling. The magnificent art on display whets one’s appetite for a true Vatican Museums exhibit that may one day tour our nation.

Maggie Hall is a writer in Dunedin, Fla. She blogs at writeforgod.stblogs.com.

Art Information
“Vatican Splendors” will be on display at the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., until May 11. It moves to Cleveland May 31-Sept. 7 and then to St. Paul, Minn., Sept. 27-Jan. 11. For more information, go to www.vaticansplendors.com or call (727) 341-7900.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2008

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