July 2008 Issue
A Splendid Selection
Art and artifacts from the Vatican Museums are touring three U.S. cities, with a summer stop in Cleveland.
Five hundred years ago, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Giuliano da Sangallo journeyed to the Holy See after receiving word that Pope Julius II requested they assess a marble sculpture uncovered at a vineyard in Rome.
When the artists inspected the relic, they were not only astonished by its portrayal of the mythical Trojan priest Laocoön and his two sons being strangled by sea serpents, but also were intrigued by the work’s ties to ancient Rome. Soon after, the pope displayed the artifact at the Vatican, marking the genesis of a renowned collection that would ultimately become the Vatican Museums.
This summer, visitors to Cleveland won’t have to join the more than 1 million art aficionados who travel to Rome each year to catch a glimpse of the museums’ celebrated collection of antiquities. Through Sept. 7, Vatican City meets the city of Cleveland’s University Circle during “Vatican Splendors from Saint Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican Museums and The Swiss Guard” at the Western Reserve Historical Society.
The exhibition celebrates the 500th anniversary of three events: the building of the modern St. Peter’s Basilica; establishment of the Vatican Museums; and the inauguration of the Swiss Guard, the world’s oldest military organization, still in continuous service and comprised of young Catholic Swiss men in service to the church.
Cleveland is the second leg of the tour, which premiered in St. Petersburg, Florida, in March, and will conclude in St. Paul, Minnesota, early next year.
“Cleveland was selected because it’s a city that is very vibrant, with people who pay a lot of attention to cultural events and [their significance],” says Monsignor Robert Zagnoli, exhibition curator for the Vatican Museums.
It’s no small coup for the Cleveland museum to be chosen to host the objects. “The Cleveland Diocese had to agree that we were a suitable venue,” says WRHS sales and marketing director Angie Cochenour. “Then, we had to send a letter to the Vatican, and they had to approve us as a venue as well.”
More than 200 artifacts (70 percent of which are new to the tour) from the Vatican’s renowned collection are showcased in thematic galleries that start with the evolution of the Christian church and papacy and conclude with the current pope, Benedict XVI.
“This is a very special exhibit from both a religious and historical perspective,” says WRHS President Gainor Davis.
“The exhibit is not solely about religion, it’s rather a collection of fine and decorative art that explores the Vatican’s influence on world history and great art,” adds Mark Greenberg, president of Evergreen Exhibitions, producers of the exhibit.
“If it weren’t for the Vatican,” he says, “the original patrons of the arts — Michelangelo and Raphael, and some of the great Renaissance artists — would not have been supported and may not have been able to complete their great works.”
As they walk through scaffolding suspended underneath a simulation of the Sistine Chapel — meant to illustrate how the artist painted the colorful frescos on the ceiling of Saint Peter’s Basilica — visitors get an up-close look at the compass experts suggest was used by Michelangelo.
The spirit of the prophet Daniel comes to life through Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculpture, “Daniel in the Lions’ Den,” which is making its debut outside the Vatican Museums. The terra-cotta statuette depicts the story from the Old Testament in which Daniel — who remained unscathed after being thrown into a lions’ den because of his refusal to worship King Darius as a god — prays to the heavens while a lion lies beside his feet.
If you look carefully, Greenberg notes, “You can still see [Bernini’s] fingerprints on the model.”
One of the most popular artifacts of the exhibit, “The Mandylion of Odessa,” recounts the story of the King of Odessa, who fell ill and sent for Jesus to cure him.
Jesus pressed a cloth (the “mandylion”) to his own face, and when he pulled it away, an impression remained, Greenberg explains. The story goes that Jesus then sent a prophet carrying the cloth to the king, and when the nobleman touched the cloth, he was cured.
Additional artifacts include the Papal Tiara of Pope Pius VII, a gift from Napoleon (adorned with looted emeralds); a casting of Pope John Paul II’s folded hands, which visitors can touch; a scrap of St. Peter’s sarcophagus inscribed with the words, Petros Eni (“Peter is Here”); a reliquary containing bone fragments from St. Peter’s tomb; and full dress attire worn by members of the Swiss Guard.
Tamera Brown, vice president of marketing for the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau, Positively Cleveland,
estimates tickets sales during the exhibit’s run will reach nearly 140,000. “Our region is blessed with many outstanding cultural amenities,” Brown says. “Special exhibitions like this give us tremendous marketing opportunity to tell our story.”
And with the wealth of cultural activities taking place near University Circle this summer — including the mid-August Feast of the Assumption in Little Italy, a neighborhood with many fine eateries — the Vatican couldn’t have come to Cleveland at a better time.