July 11, 2010

Vatican Splendors at MO History Museum

Vatican Splendors exhibit at Missouri History Museum in St. Louis

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Lovers of art and architecture should not miss the Vatican Splendors exhibit this summer at the Missouri History Museum. St. Louis is one of three U.S. cities to host the 170 Vatican treasures, which by tradition cannot be out of Vatican City more than a year.

Models of two colorful Swiss Guards flank the elaborate wooden doors that open the first half of the exhibit. Swiss Guards have served as official security guards of Vatican City since 1506. The royal blue, gold and red uniforms date back to the 16th century and feature striped pantaloons.

True to the tiniest detail, the buttons on the uniform highlight delicate, stitched red crosses. The red-plumed hats are reminiscent of Spanish conquistadors.

The dimly lit area under St. Peter's Basilica offers a peek into the crypts and catacombs holding remains of saints, including Sts. Peter and Paul.

Peter, considered the first Pope or Bishop of Rome, was executed in Rome by Nero around A.D. 67, 33 years after the death of Christ. Early Christians struggled after the deaths of Peter and Paul, until Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of Rome in the fourth century.

Venerated relics of Sts. Peter and St. Paul are contained in a gold and silver reliquary in this section, along with a cast of ancient graffiti inscribed with "Petros Eni" (Peter is here) from his tomb. The church defines "venerated" as honoring but not worshipping.

At the time of Christ's death, the Roman Empire was in full glory. Rome was a city of circuses, gladiators and public buildings and statues dedicated to Roman gods. The St. Louis exhibit offers historical context of the clash of the Roman Empire and the early Christian church.

The large display of Rome from Constantine's time shows the first great basilica built over St. Peter's grave as well as other Roman treasures such as the Pantheon. The Pantheon, built in the second century, stands as a monument to Roman gods and features the largest concrete oculus in the world. (A local example of an oculus is the recently refurbished ceiling at the West Baden Hotel in French Lick.)

A mosaic called "Bust of an Angel" by Giotta di Bondone immediately draws attention with its sparkling, complex tile pattern with a clear Byzantine influence.

Transitioning into the prolific Renaissance era, is a life-sized model of scaffolding in the Sistine Chapel during the time the ceiling was painted. Visitors can walk through the wooden planks and view a close-up reproduction of Michelangelo's epic creation from his vantage point. The great artist's eyesight dimmed over the 20 months it took to finish the fresco.

For most of that time, Michelangelo worked alone on his back, and even mixed his own paints. An exhibit display highlights the question of the eager Pope Julius who asked the artist when it would be finished, and Michelangelo responded, "When I can."

The work remains today as a magnificent highlight of Western art. Large iron calipers, believed used by Michelangelo in his work at the Vatican, are displayed in this section.

Three amazing pieces end the first half of the exhibit. A life-sized reproduction of "The Pieta," Michelangelo's masterpiece sculpted out of a single slab of marble. Visitors to the chapel in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome note that this sculpture cannot be viewed from behind. This limits the viewer from seeing Michelangelo's signature on the piece, which is evident in the reproduction in St. Louis.

Mary, depicted holding the body of Christ after his death on the cross, sits on the rock of Golgotha. She is pictured as a young woman, larger in size than the Christ whose limbs have small nail holes.

The exhibit's first half closes with two gilded wooden angels, made by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Bernini, who designed St. Peter's, the Vatican colonnade and piazza, has earned pop culture status in the book and movie "Angels and Demons." To the art history purist, however, Bernini remains the genius of Rome, his monuments, obelisks and fountains enriching the Eternal City.

The first noted piece in the second half of the exhibit is a stunning portrait of Christ with the Crown of Thorns known as "The Veronica of Guercino,"which haunts the viewer with Christ's mournful eyes at the time before his crucifixion.

While the second half of the exhibit attempts to transition the church with the history of the Western world, something is lost in translation. The Reformation changed the Western world again, and Rome held the Council of Trent to outline the doctrinal and theological ideas that separated Catholics and Protestants.

An outgrowth of this council was the establishment of guidelines for artists about how the message of Christianity should be delivered. While the exhibit aptly shows gifts of and to the Vatican, it remains isolated from the rest of history. Only a small notation under the portrait of Pope Pius XII mentions the Holocaust.

A section highlights objects used during the sacred Mass, including a 15th century processional cross, priestly vestments known as chasubles, a papal throne and ornate gem-encrusted chalices and items used during communion.

The exhibit ends with a section on "Art and the Contemporary Papacy." The faithful lined up to place their hands over a 2002 bronze replica of the hand of John Paul II. An exhibit featuring architectural drawings and paintings of the magnificent Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis adds local color.


If you go

What: Vatican Splendors: A Journey through Art and Faith

Where: Missouri History Museum in St. Louis

Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Wednesday-Sunday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday

Last entry one hour before close

Exhibition Admission: Adults (13-plus) $19.50; children (7-12) $13; children 6 and under free; students and seniors $17

Call: (314) 746-4599

More information: Vaticansplendors.com or mohistory.org

An audio tour (recommended) is available for a nominal fee. Allow two full hours for this exhibit. Admission to the Missouri History Museum is free, but exhibit tickets are not and require a reservation. If time permits, also try to visit the 1904 World’s Fair Exhibit at the museum. An older part of the museum features a large bust of Thomas Jefferson, who financed the 1803 Lewis and Clark exhibition, which left from St. Louis to explore the Northwest.

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