Touring exhibit brings Vatican treasures to three U.S. cities

Msgr. Roberto Zagnoli tells the story that when Italian artist Cecco Bonanotte was commissioned to sculpt the hands of Pope John Paul II in 2002, the people surrounding the pope hesitated to tell him that he had to put his hands in clay. 

“Don’t worry,” the pope replied when he learned of the process. “I know how to wash my hands.” 

Msgr. Zagnoli is exhibition curator of “Vatican Splendors: A Journey Through Faith and Art” that’s touring the United States. It is now at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis. 

“He tells that story with much love and reverence to give a sense of the man, the pope, who in his humility, was not afraid to wash his hands,” said Mark Greenberg, president of the show’s producer, Evergreen Exhibitions, of San Antonio. 

The bronze sculpture of the pope’s hands is one of the 200 treasures on display and the only that people are allowed — even encouraged — to touch. 

“It is one of the most moving areas in the exhibit,” said Mary Hendron, partner of Insight Marketing & Communications in St. Louis, which is promoting the exhibit for the museum. “When you see people touching them, and the look on their faces, you can tell how much he meant to them.” 

Array of beauty 

The exhibit ends in St. Louis Sept. 12 and will be at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh from Oct. 2 to Jan. 9, 2011. From there it will move to the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where it will open on Jan. 29. 

According to Greenberg, it took more than a year to plan the selections and to arrange the sites, marketing, security and the proper environment. The exhibit is a multi-sensory experience with sights and sounds re-creating a visit to the Vatican. The collection is arranged in themed galleries that feature works of art and historically significant objects and artifacts that the Church has collected throughout history. 

Many of them have never left the Vatican before, and some have never been displayed at all, not even in Rome. 

Expressions of faith 

Holy Family from the Vatican exhibitThe pieces of artwork on display represent just a small part of the role that the Vatican has played in supporting the arts through nurturing and preserving art as an expression of faith. The 2,000-year tradition has impacted Western civilization’s art, history and culture ever since the earliest Christians drew symbols on walls of caves when they were forced to worship in secret. 

Religious art developed to help the illiterate understand lessons of faith in the centuries when most people could not read. By the Middle Ages, the papacy was commissioning cathedrals that were architectural masterpieces filled with fine art reflecting the beauty of the faith. 

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) established guidelines that art should be created in the service of faith and to deliver the message of Christianity in ways accessible to ordinary people. Art became part of the liturgy, and through missionary work the Church was enriched with devotional art of diverse cultures. 

The fruitful dialogue between the Church and artists has gone unbroken, Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1999 “Letter to Artists.” Their work, he said, “is rooted in the very essence of both religious experience and artistic creativity,” becoming an example of the human craftsman mirroring the image of God as Creator. Their work, he wrote, “is a noble ministry.” 

The exhibit has many original pieces as well as reproductions. There are paintings, sculptures, historical objects, reliquaries, secular items and archaeological finds, like Roman heads and busts dating to the days Jesus walked the earth. 

“We have the caliper that Michelangelo used, and it might have been exactly the one he used when he created the dome [of St. Peter’s],” Greenberg said. 

Guercino’s 1622 “Portrait of Christ with Crown of Thorns” has never been on display at the Vatican. “It is probably the most moving piece there,” Hendron said. “There is a trickle of blood on the face of Christ, and it looks so real that it’s amazing. It’s almost three-dimensional.” 

Local flair on display 

The St. Louis area has a strong Catholic heritage that dates back to the presence of 17 th -century French explorers Father Jacques Marquette and fur trader Louis Joliet. 

The archdiocese also boasts of St. Louis Cathedral Basilica, which houses one of the largest collections of mosaic art in a single building in the world. A related gallery on mosaic art was created for inclusion in “Vatican Splendors.” It includes mosaic samples, tools and banners telling the story of the building of the cathedral basilica. “The exhibit has been very well received in the archdiocese,” Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis told OSV. “It gives the people a powerful sense of faith going back to Sts. Peter and Paul, and an awareness of the missionary nature of the Church and the lives of the popes from St. Peter to Pope Benedict XVI.” 

When “Vatican Splendors” is in Pittsburgh, a special gallery will represent Church history in Western Pennsylvania, relics from St. Anthony Chapel and artifacts from the ethnic traditions of European immigrants. 

The regional gallery at the Fort Lauderdale tour is still under consideration. 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania. Visit for more details on the exhibit.

A Letter to Artists (sidebar)

“In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colors, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of it transcendent value and its aura of mystery.” 

— Pope John Paul II in his Letter to Artists, 1999

The Tour (sidebar)

“Vatican Splendors” takes visitors on a journey through the ages of artistic expression and religious iconography. Visitors enter one gallery through a half-scale model of the Filarete Doors of St. Peter’s Basilica, can get an up-close look at a reproduction of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Also included: 

  • Reconstruction of St. Peter’s tomb as it appeared in 160 with graffiti (inscribed with “ Petros Eni ,” meaning Peter is here), and oil lamps and a brick discovered at his tomb. 
  •  An early Renaissance mosaic from the Oratory of John VII, “Bust of Angel,” by Giotto di Bondone, reliquary of Sts. Peter, Paul, Anne, Joseph and others. 
  •  A cast of Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” reproduction of the Sistine Chapel scaffolding, documents with his signature and a caliper he used for measurements. 
  •  Artworks created in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, including gold statues of Sts. Peter, Paul and Andrew and paintings by the Italian Baroque painter, Guercino. 
  •  A reliquary containing the remains of Sts. Peter and Paul that has never been outside of the Vatican. 
  •  Liturgical and ritual items like 15 th -century processional cross, elaborately decorated vestments and a papal throne. 
  • Diverse cultural art, including a Korean “Mary, Jesus and John” and a book in the Tamil language. 

  • Papal-portraiture display featuring four of the 42 paintings that survived an 1823 fire at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, and a photo of Pope John Paul I, who died after only 33 days as pontiff. 

  •  Contemporary items like a bust, portrait and poetry of Pope John Paul II, bronze cast of his hands, and a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI.