Vatican Splendors

Packed into the hallways of the Vatican Museums, hung on ecclesiastical officials’ chamber walls in Vatican City and kept in vast storage rooms of the papal city-state, hundreds of thousands of art pieces owned by the Roman Catholic Church make up one of the most famed museum collections in the world.

Each day, 20,000 visitors line up for hours to catch these masterpieces by names synonymous with beauty — Michelangelo, Bernini and Guercino, to name few — and to get a glimpse into the history of faith and aesthetics.

Now, a traveling exhibit of such Vatican art is making its final United States stop in South Florida at the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale, where 170 pieces spanning the breadth of church history are being displayed through April.

Vatican Splendors: A Journey through Faith and Art opened Saturday at the museum after launching last year in St. Louis and after breaking attendance records in Pittsburgh over a four month stay that ended earlier this month.

The exhibit, a mix of rare originals ( The Veronica of Guercino — a 16th century portrait of Jesus Christ with the crown of thorns by Guercino that has is being shown in public for the first time during the tour) and replicas (a plaster cast of Michelangelo’s famed Pietà from St. Peter’s Basilica), aims to tell the story of Roman Catholicism through art from its beginnings to modern day.

“The Vatican has been one of the great collectors of art for more than five centuries,” says Irvin Lippman, the Fort Lauderdale museum’s executive director. “The museum is looking at the visual history of our civilization. A very key part of that is religion, but the importance of this exhibit is in the subtitle.”

Two Swiss Guard mannequins welcome visitors to the exhibit as they step into a reconstruction of St. Peter’s tomb as it supposedly appeared in 160 A.D. A cast of the ancient red wall graffiti, which reads “Peter is Here” in Greek, is displayed, alongside elements discovered at the tomb: a 6th or 7th century gold votive plaque, brick and decorative marble fragments from the Vatican Necropolis, under Vatican City.

At that time, Christianity was illegal under Roman rule, with its burials and religious practices relegated underground and out-of-sight. But in 313, Constantine — the first Roman emperor to become a Christian — legalized the religion and its art began to flourish.

“Some of the earliest … pieces of art, we don’t know very much at all about who made them, especially names,” says La Sallian Brother Charles Hilken, a history professor at St. Mary’s College of California and an advisor to the exhibit. “But something ties all these centuries together: the faith of the artists.”

In a subsequent gallery focusing on the rise of Christian Rome, Bust of An Angel, a colorful mosaic by medieval artist Giotto, dates to the 14th century, which makes it one of the oldest complete pieces shown in the exhibit. A reliquary decorated with small gold and silver flowers that is said to contain tiny fragments of bones of Sts. Peter and Paul is also displayed.

A 14th century painting, Christ Pantocrator (Universal Ruler), reflects a common style of Eastern Orthodox art, while Sts. Peter and Paul are painted during the same era according to the Cretan school, a Post-Byzantine painting tradition that combined Eastern and Western elements.

Where the exhibit takes off and is bound to draw crowds, though, are spaces dedicated to the Renaissance, including one devoted to Michelangelo that has a replica of his Pietà at St. Peter’s Basilica, the most famed of many sculptures he made of the Virgin Mary cradling her dead son. It also showcases an original bas relief of Pietà that was made near the end of the artist’s life for his close friend and muse, Vittoria Colonna.

The Renaissance galleries contain what is almost certainly an iron caliper that belonged to Michelangelo — “likely the one he used to measure the walls of the Sistine Chapel,” according to exhibit curator Msgr. Roberto Zagnoli. Alongside, there are documents signed by artists including Michelangelo, Maderno, della Porta and Bernini during construction of the new St. Peter’s Basilica in the 16th century that was commissioned by Pope Julius II.

“These images of the past, which look so beautiful now, they weren’t necessarily for beauty itself in the past,” says Charles, who specializes in medieval history. “They were the best people could do to remind themselves of the reality and dynamics of their faith.”

While Vatican Splendors offers a few pieces that haven’t been shown before to the public and others that are rare in their own regard, the exhibit is not the first of Vatican art in South Florida. Two successful exhibits of art loaned from the papal state have stopped here in the past several years: Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes, which displayed at the same Fort Lauderdale museum in 2003, and The Invisible Made Visible: Angels from the Vatican at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach in 1998.

The Vatican regularly loans out small portions of its collection for tours, although Italian law stipulates that historic art pieces may not leave the state for more than 12 months at a time. Because of this, slightly modified versions of Vatican Splendors were exhibited in Cleveland, St. Petersburg and St. Paul, Minn. in 2008.

“There are many objects that have not been on tour before,” says Mark Greenberg, president of Evergreen Exhibitions, a San Antonio company that also put together the prior Vatican exhibit in Fort Lauderdale. “If you had a chance to go to Rome, you would not see the reliquary with the bones of Sts. Peter and Paul because it is kept in a private chapel in the College of St. Urban,” he says. “The statues of Sts. Peter, Paul, John and Andrew are new, as is the Guercino painting.”

Beyond traditional art, Vatican Splendors also aims to tell the church’s history through more everyday means. One is vestments — a stand-out is the large red cape worn by St. Charles Borromeo, a strong proponent of the 16th-century Counter-Reformation who was responsible for the establishment of seminaries — and another is physical parts of St. Peter’s Basilica, including its highly symbolic cathedra. It is not the real deal, but the 20th-century replica of the seat of several popes is the closest anyone will get to the actual 9th century cathedra, which is kept in the basilica encased in 17th-century gilt bronze by Bernini.

“The church has always used the arts to portray the spiritual…We all know a little bit about history, but this will fill in the gaps and answer the questions,” says Msgr. Terence Hogan, rector of Miami’s Cathedral of St. Mary and a Vatican art aficionado.

Not typically seen in church exhibits is a showcase of gifts to the Vatican from parts of the world where Catholicism does not have significant influence, from a Korean Virgin Mary with Infant Jesus and St. John the Baptist to a painting of Japanese women martyrs. Also of note: a collection of papal portraits, a tradition that began with Pope John VII in the eighth century.

As with most exhibits, visitors can not touch the art, with one exception. A bronze cast of the hand of Pope John Paul II caps off the last portion of Vatican Splendors, along with one of his handwritten letters. A recent announcement that the late pontiff will be beatified on May 1 — the last step before being declared a saint — could increase the piece’s popularity, as Vatican Splendors closes six days prior.

“We encourage people of all faiths to go see the exhibit. It opens your eyes…People will understand why the Holy Fathe
r wears what he wears, what the Vatican is all about,” says Hogan, a chaplain to the North Americans Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, an organization dedicated to preserving and educating the public about the Vatican art. “It all stands as a spiritual symbol of the holiest reality.”