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May 15 - August 15, 2004 at San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego

by Roberta Carasso

Considering that Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes represents a nearly 2,000 year history of the papacy via art and artifacts gathered from eight Vatican Museums and institutions that themselves span over 500 years, the exhibition is much more than an art exhibition or a blockbuster display of 400 objects.
The Vatican Museums--begun in 1503 by Pope Julius II, of Sistine Chapel fame, upon purchasing a series of sculpture--continually collect, commission, and conserve an enormous variety of religious and non-religious relics, clothing, furnishings, mosaics, paintings, sculpture, drawings, and documentation. Being one of the world’s oldest institutions, the papacy spans an incredible history from the origins of the Catholic Church to the present day. This is the essence of the exhibition--to relate the enormous chronology within the scope of the items exhibited, which includes rare art by some of history’s towering figures, such as Giotto di Bondone, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Gianlorenzo Bernini.

Most objects are Church oriented, but there are also gifts, such as a Thanka created by the Tibetan Dalai Lama. However, many of the artifacts, particularly the older religious ones, encompass several realities--the object itself, its original purpose, and its historical evolution seen from an ancient to a contemporary sensibility. That is, at one time, many of the artifacts--crucifixes, ecumenical attire, and various ritual objects--elicited extreme emotions, from devotion and bliss to striking fear and awe in the hearts of many for the spiritual and political power the Church wielded. Today we look upon these well-preserved treasures differently, some merely for design and craftsmanship, and others for their eternal spiritual beauty.

Clearly, the exhibition is skewed to show the lineage of 264 Popes as supreme, holy and beneficial. Inevitably, while passing through various displays, amidst the grandeur of bejeweled ornamentation and masterpieces, and especially when reading the wall labels and chronology in the catalogue, they bring to mind how the papacy was not always holy in its actions. Consequently, through the years the church weathered a great deal of political, social, historical, and even religious criticism. Nevertheless, a remarkable trove of the art has survived.

The exhibition is organized into six sections, each designed to bring attention to the brilliance of the papacy and the artistic treasures each acquired. This multi-sensory experience begins with the second century, progressing towards the last decade of the 20th century. Visitors are first welcomed, on video, by Pope John Paul II, who tells of their jubilant discovery of the tomb of St. Peter. Wherever possible, the exhibitors construct, through contemporary media, key eras in Church history, starting with the creation of ancient Roman streets and the 2nd century tomb of Saint Peter, regarded as the first pope, and the site of St. Peter’s Basilica. Floors, walls, doors and the foundation of the Vatican have been simulated, tracing Church history from its origins. Moving through the exhibition, passing fourth and fifth century oil lamps, the visitor comes upon a 5th century mosaic fragment, a portrait of Saint Peter himself. Mosaic was a popular art form in the ancient world because it has permanence, could be applied to walls, floors and ceilings, and allowed worshippers to touch and rub holy figures without harm to the art. The many tiles that compose St. Peter’s face still sparkle with their original luster.

Of particular importance are some rare art historical treasures. Giotto created a mosaic design of Jesus walking on water to a boat of apostles. It was first put on public display in 1675; but in 1924, when the top layer of the mosaic was removed, A Bust of an Angel (c. 1310) was uncovered. Replete with halo, long plaited hair, and robe, one can see Giotto’s masterful use of color, as touches of green tile, against the brown of the angel’s neck and robe, draws attention to the outline of the figure. The angel is housed in an area entitled Giotto’s “Angel Gallery,” including doors and assorted art on the theme of angels, a lovely sampling of Pre-Renaissance art.

Michelangelo is the next giant to occupy center stage. Visitors walk through a simulation of the Sistine Chapel, scaffolding and all, as it was when under construction, from 1473 to 1481. But it is the original drawings for the ceiling will amaze. Simple line drawings of nude figures from the hand of the master are by themselves worth the visit.

Giotto di Bondone, “Bust
of an Angel” (detail), c. 1310,
polychrome mosaic, 80 x 90 cm.

Michelangelo Buonarotti, “Study
of a Nude for the Ceiling of the
Sistine Chapel,” 1509-09,
chalk on paper, 11.4 x 6.6 cm.

Recreation of Michelangelo's
Sistine Chapel ceiling (detail).

Tibetan Dali Lama, "Thanka," 1978,
silk/pearls/coral, 165 x 111 cm.

Giacomo Manzú, “Portrait of
Pope John XXIII,” 1962,
bronze, 105 x 79 x 75 cm.

"Saint Peter," mosaic fragment from
the Basilica of Saint Paul's Outside-the-
Walls, 5th century AD, 74 x 54 x 5 cm..

Papal Tiara of Pope Pius VII,
1804, wood/velvet/silk/gold/precious
stones, 44 x 26 x 26 cm.

Installation view, "The
Legacy of the Popes"

Bernini’s Charity with Four Putti (c. 1627/28) is a terracotta statue that captures the dynamism of the Baroque era. Four small angels in a dynamic composition that bends and turns playfully court a lovely female figure, Charity, in its center. The piece was the first in a series of studies for figures for the tomb of Pope Urban VIII.

The grand finale of this trek through the history of the Church Patriarchs is the recreation of the Holy Doors of St Peter’s Basilica, which the Pope himself opens and closes every 25 years (the Jubilee Years). The rarity of the collection, art that has never been seen in North America, and the incredible range of relics, displayed in a most proper and regal manner, can be appreciated by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. For non-Catholics, liturgical objects are explained on wall labels.

Undoubtedly, the point of the exhibition is to publicize the papacy by sharing its artistic and cultural heritage. Under the auspices of the Holy See, the project was led by Francesco Buranelli, Director of the Exhibition and the Vatican Museum, along with the technical execution of Clear Channel Exhibitions, Trident Media Group and Arts Services International. Given the scope and magnitude of the enterprise, it cleverly blends the ancient with the contemporary.