Vatican City and Evergreen Exhibitions of San Antonio, Texas, have collaborated to bring to the U.S. an exhibit of art and artifacts illustrating the papacy’s two-millennia-old encounter with the Church and the world. The bilingual exhibit is titled Vatican Splendors: A Journey through Faith and Art/Esplendores del Vaticano: Un peregrinaje a través de la fe y el arte. It opens this week at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia. The choice of the city is due to the upcoming papal visit and to the large population of Catholics in this part of the country. Strange as it may seem for a science museum to negotiate for such an exhibit, it may be borne in mind that theology once reigned supreme as the Queen of the Sciences. The exhibit is the first to be held in a brand new wing of the museum and has been embraced warmly by the staff there.
More than 200 objects have been sent from twelve Vatican lenders, including the Vatican Museums and Library, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Basilicas of Saint Paul Outside the Walls and Saint Mary Major, and the Swiss Guard. A small curatorial team interpreted, organized, and designed a story and layout. I had the good fortune of serving as a member of this team primarily in the capacity of historical consultant. The story we have sought to tell is about the Christian faith that has left a record in art and architecture and in the artifacts of a dialogue between the papacy and men and women of good will throughout the world. Visitors will encounter precious items, from objects left at the tomb of Saint Peter to liturgical plate and other items made for modern-day popes. A letter from Pope Francis greets them at the entrance as they pass through a Swiss honor guard.
The works of artists, including Michelangelo, Guercino, and Bernini are on display. A pietà that Michelangelo made for his friend and inspiration, Vittoria Colonna, is especially poignant as it reveals the spiritual maturation of the artist in his old age. No more is Mary the serene composure of the 1499 pietà in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Now the mother extends her arms in inconsolable grief at the loss of her son. This is in keeping with the religious sensibilities of Lady Colonna whose poems are filled with the message of salvation through the cross of Christ. In the drawing that the artist did for his friend, Michelangelo wrote the message on the hast of the cross, “Non vi si pensa quanto sangue costa – No one thinks how much blood it costs” (Dante, Paradiso, canto 29). This message is especially poignant today with the horrors of war crimes in the Middle East and elsewhere. Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, addressed the suffering of countless mothers today and Mary’s own in the Gospel reflection published in Give Us This Day, for the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows (15 September): “God did not spare his only Son and his Son’s mother from human cruelty and all the consequences that follow….[Mary] saw her Son suffer unspeakable torture yet never lost sight of the greatness of God, who scatters the proud and lifts up the lowly. Her sufferings were real but so were the promise and the power of God, by whose plan salvation would unfold. Mary might not have understood it all, but she trusted.”
Each object of the exhibit carries a message of faith, whether of private prayer, public worship, respect for tradition, or dialogue in pursuit of the Good News in a redeemed world. Vatican Splendors: A Journey through Faith and Art runs until February in Philadelphia and will then move to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley where it will be on display from March to August.
Photo Credits: Michelangelo, Pieta, Wikimedia Commons All other photos, Brother Charles