Vatican Splendors arrives at Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale
By Rachel Galvin
Stepping into the Vatican Splendors exhibit is like stepping back in time as it leads you on down a cobblestone pathway toward an illustration of what St. Peter’s tomb must have looked like. Each room is filled with historical gems that piece by piece chronologically tell the story of the life of the Vatican, which supposedly sits atop St. Peter’s tomb. The basilica is said to have been built in the 4th century in this spot.
Paintings, mosaics and marble casts of Peter reveal the symbolism that has grown to represent him throughout the ages: his upside down crucifixion, his white hair and curly beard, the crossed keys in his hand. But other saints are depicted here as well, including St. Paul, seen holding a sword, and St. Sebastian (displayed in a never before viewed outside of the Vatican painting), pierced with arrows. St. John usually was seen with an eagle or a chalice. St. Andrew was shown carrying an X-shaped cross. Symbols like these were an easy way to educate an illiterate populace.
The Byzantine mosaics with their gilded squares would have reflected the light within the space and made them come to life for those who worshiped there. The key element to this media is lack of realistic expression, yet the symbolism and personality of those depicted still comes across.
Besides seeing the development of religious symbolism, those who stroll through the exhibit can see the gradual shift in the way those symbols are presented. In “Adoration of the Magi,” in the Borgia collection, the symbolism of the halo revealing holiness is still evident, as well as a stiffness to the anatomy, but the faces show expression, signaling a transition from an earlier style to the Renaissance.
Even the reliefs here made during this time period show St. Peter and St. Paul with an added depth of perspective and feeling.
The Renaissance brought to the world many masters, including Michelangelo, who was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508 to work on his tomb. During the many years he worked on it, he stopped to reluctantly paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling with scenes from the Bible (Genesis), including the creation of the world and the story of Noah and the great flood, a fresco still looked up at in awe where it remains within the Vatican complex. (Those who actually visit it in Italy take note of the hardly-seen-in-books painting on one of the walls depicting the Last Judgement). A cast of Michelangelo’s well-known “Pieta’” is on display in the exhibit showing a forlorn Mary holding the limp body of her son, Jesus. One element that makes this particular marble sculpture so unique is that Mary and Jesus are shown to be the same age. Also shown here is a Bas Relief of the “Pieta,’” as well as a hand-written letter from Michelangelo and the caliper’s he may have later used to measure the dome of the Vatican as architect.
Pope Julius II built the new basilica where the old one remained, ordered built by Constantine around 349 A.D. Thought sacrilegious at the time of Pope Nicholas V in the middle of the 15th century, the building of a new basilica was begun under the architect Bramante. He was succeeded by Michelangelo in 1547, who held the position as architect for 27 years (until he died at age 89). But he was not the last architect. The project took 126 years and went through 121 papacies. It incorporated the old with the new with elements such as placing the old bronze doors onto the new basilica. A cast of the doors is also shown at the exhibit. The 80-ft.-tall obelisk (originally obelisks were a symbol of Rome’s victory over Egypt) from Emperor Nero’s circus was also moved to be placed in front of St. Peter’s.
As Renaissance gave way to Baroque sensibilities, the décor of the basilica went a bit whimsical, best exemplified by Bernini’s famous baldacchino, which eloquently marks the placement of St. Peter’s tomb with panache with its twisting bronze columns. Bernini was appointed by Pope Urban VIII. His sculptured golden angels give another example of his opulent style. Besides whimsy, the Baroque artists loved to play with light. Their characteristic chiaroscuro can be seen in paintings here such as “The Nativity,” painted in the style of Giovanni Lanfranco.
Baroque art gave the Reformationists what they craved, a direct connection between the divine and the people. Martin Luther, who initiated the Protestant Reformation, felt that the new church was funded by indulgences, payment for washing away sins, and that the church needed to connect more with the people. Pope Paul III ordered a meeting, called the Council of Trent. In three sessions from 1545 to 1563, the council made reforms, including changing the guidelines for art, making it more accessible to the masses, making sure it created not just symbolism or expression, but evoked an emotion to bring those who viewed it closer to God.
The Vatican underwent a lot of changes not only from orders within the church, but from outside influences. In 1796, Napoleon invaded Rome and looted the Vatican. In 1823, a fire broke out, destroying many precious artifacts. However, 42 frescoes survived.
In 1627, Pope Urban VIII founded Urbaniana, which trained missionaries to go out into the world and spread the message of Christianity. The art here reflects this with paintings such as “Martyrdom of Lorenzo Ruiz and Companions” created by Rafael del Casal. In order to translate the message to the new groupings of people, not only did the wording have to be in their native language, as seen in one painting showing Mary and Jesus with Arabic lettering, but sometimes the look of the holiest personages had to be altered as well. A Korean artist depicted Mary and an infant Jesus as being Korean and in traditional Asian attire.
To ossify the power throughout the ages of the Pope, the exhibit wraps up with portraits throughout the years of the popes and even a few more modern photographs, along with some vestments and liturgical items, including the faldstool where Pope Piux IX once sat.
Vatican Splendors: A Journey Through Faith and Art, will be on display through April 24 at the Museum of Art| Fort Lauderdale, One East Las Olas Blvd., Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33301. Admission is $20 for adults, $13 for children (6-12) and children under 5 free. Ask about other discounts, group rates. For more information, call or visit www.VaticanSplendors.com.
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