Friday, September 26, 2008

Vatican Splendors Exhibit Opens Tomorrow at History Center

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Mannequins sport the plumed helmets and gaily striped uniforms of the Vatican's Swiss Guard. There's a walk-through recreation of the scaffolding from which Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

But beyond all the gold embroidery and bejeweled chalices, the "Vatican Splendors" show opening Saturday at the Minnesota History Center presents a sweeping 2,000-year survey of Roman Catholic Church history and ceremony, art and architecture, outreach and faith.

With more than 200 objects -- from ancient relics to a modern smoke cartridge --"Vatican" tries to offer something for all of the 150,000 expected visitors. More than 20,000 have already bought tickets to the exhibit, tentatively scheduled to remain open through Jan. 11.

A sneak preview Thursday offered a chance to survey what visitors will see during the next three months.

In the first gallery, Renaissance-era paintings tell the story of Jesus' life. A sensitive 17th-century canvas by Guercino of Christ bleeding from the crown of thorns, on loan from a private collection, has never been shown in the United States. The "Mandylion of Edessa," between 1,500 and 1,700 years old, is thought to be the earliest image of the face of Jesus.

Next comes a video and information about the building of St. Peter's and the Vatican, including Michelangelo's calipers and a letter he signed. A fascinating 1555 etching shows the original St. Peter's Square -- which really was square rather than oval as it is today -- with Michelangelo's unfinished dome under construction in the background.

Nearby, rough ladders, wooden paint buckets and a reproduction of a bit of ceiling with Adam rising to touch God's hand bring the Sistine Chapel scaffolding to life, though at reduced size. Here also are fascinating fragments of playing cards that workmen stuffed into the mortar, filling a hole in the chapel wall. When they were found in 1979, researchers hoped they had belonged to the artist and his crew, but tests dated them only to a 1710 restoration of the chapel.

The mix of reproductions -- including copies of a piece of an altar and a bronze door panel from St. Peter's -- with authentic art and objects gives a Disneyesque flavor to parts of the show. Some early mosaics on display are so heavily restored that the original has essentially disappeared, among them a much touted "Giotto Angel" in which "few of the original mosaic tiles remain," according to the label.

Art and history museums generally put a premium on authenticity, but history museums sometimes use copies to help tell a story, said Nina Archabal, director of the Minnesota Historical Society. "If there is no alternative and it helps to convey information, it's OK," she said. "But to me it's the real thing that speaks, whether its a tractor seat or a Bernini."

The show does have an authentic terra cotta sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the 17th-century artist-architect who designed the curved colonnade embracing the plaza in front of St. Peter's in Rome.

Papal bling

The white-smoke cartridge appears in the next gallery, which concerns the election of the pope. (When a pontiff is chosen, officials release white smoke from the Sistine chimney.) It includes documents, papal clothing, bronze ballot urns and a 1939 film about the coronation of Pius XII.

In the next gallery -- devoted to celebrations of the mass -- papal outfits and ceremonial regalia provide the splendor of the show's title. Long capes thickly embroidered in gold and silver thread vie for attention with jewel-encrusted tiaras, canes and crosses; enameled chalices and ornate incense burners.

Modernity appears toward the show's end in a section about missionary work, teaching and religious dialogue. Items range from 500-year-old maps of China to a 17th century Arabic grammar for missionaries to the Ottoman Empire and a gorgeous, pearl-embroidered tapestry given to Pope John Paul II by the Dalai Lama.

The star here is a magnificent 6-feet-tall contemporary sculpture by an African artist, James Chinkon Denji of Malawi, who depicts a black-featured Christ as a "tree of life," with hundreds of tiny human figures climbing his torso, lifting each other toward heaven in triumphal struggle and aspiration.

Portraits and busts of various pontiffs fill the final gallery. Visitors are allowed to touch a bronze hand modeled from John Paul II.

And then comes the gift shop, a well-stocked emporium purveying everything from lap robes sporting the Last Supper ($60) and a melon-sized holiday ornament on the same theme ($200), to scarves inspired by the Chigi Chapel ($80), figurines of saints ($13), and stuffed animals -- the "Jesus Loves Me Lamb" and the "Grace Table Prayer Bear" at $20 each.

The impecunious can leave sucking an "inspirational" sugar-free, fish-shaped mint, available in four flavors ($2.99 per box). StarTribune



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