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VATICAN LETTER Oct-1-2004 (XXX words) Backgrounder. With photo to come. xxxi

For papal eyes only: Vatican to restore frescoes in Pauline Chapel

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Just 10 years after the monumental makeover of the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican's art historians, chemists and technicians are dragging out their notes, tools and scaffolding once again to restore another set of Michelangelo's masterpieces -- his last major frescoes.

Only this time, when Michelangelo's brilliant colors are laid bare after the dirt and grime are scrubbed away, the doors to these two works of art will never be open to the general public.

The Vatican announced at the end of September it was set to begin work cleaning and restoring the Pauline Chapel, which houses Michelangelo's "The Conversion of Saul" and the "Martyrdom of St. Peter."

The massive works -- each measuring some 445 square feet -- flank either side of a narrow papal chapel, just down the corridor from the more well-known Sistine Chapel, which gets millions of visitors a year.

The Pauline Chapel, however, is off limits to tourists.

"It's part of the pope's apostolic palace which is never open to the public," said Archbishop Piero Marini, who is in charge of the Pauline and other chapels in the palace.

The Pauline Chapel was built between 1537 and 1540 and has been used by popes to celebrate Mass privately.

It also was used for conclaves when the Sistine Chapel was not available for the gathering of cardinals, the archbishop told Catholic News Service Sept. 29.

After Michelangelo left Florence, Italy, for good in 1534, he spent most of his time working on projects for the papacy. Though he had completed the Sistine Chapel's ceiling 29 years earlier, he was asked to paint an additional fresco, "The Last Judgment," to adorn the Sistine Chapel's altar wall.

When he finished that fresco in 1541, "the Maestro" was commissioned by Pope Paul III to decorate the newly built Pauline Chapel just down the corridor.

Between 1542 and 1550, Michelangelo fleshed out his last two major frescoes, completing the set when he was 75 years old. Though he lived another 14 years, he left behind his pigments and wet plaster to become chief architect of St. Peter's Basilica.

These late frescoes in the Pauline Chapel depict the darker pain and turmoil that colored the beginnings of the Christian faith.

The first piece, "The Conversion of Saul," depicts an old and bearded Saul splayed out on the ground, thrown from his horse, shielding his blinded eyes from a powerful ray of light from the heavens.

Saul, who later became St. Paul, was on his way to Damascus to get permission to arrest Christians.

The scene of fear and confusion on the ground is juxtaposed by the powerful image of protective angels in the sky surrounding a confident Jesus bathed in light, who, in the Acts of the Apostles, asks: "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?"

Though the image of God is not present in the "Martyrdom of St. Peter," the strength of faith in the Lord is present in Peter's firm, stern gaze toward the viewer, while scores of onlookers tremble as he is hoisted upside down on a cross by Roman soldiers.

Many art lovers and critics were astounded when Vatican restorers unveiled a restored Sistine Chapel in 1994; a swirl of controversy erupted in some circles, because few had expected to see such bold colors and heightened hues lurking under centuries of candle soot and sticky layers of varnish.

Most likely, the fresh makeover for the Pauline frescoes will reveal the same vivid colors and perhaps trigger another round of outcry from those used to scenes made dull and dingy by time.

But the Vatican insists its precious frescoes are never tampered with.

At the end of the restoration, the frescoes "will just be clean; that's it. Anyone who says anything else doesn't know about (Michelangelo's) work," said Arnold Nesselrath, who is in charge of Renaissance works as director of the Vatican's Byzantine, medieval and modern collections.

The Vatican is also proud it uses its own army of art scholars, restorers, and workmen in repairing and revitalizing its treasures.

"The Vatican is the smallest country in the world," said Nesselrath, and like any other country, "you can find everything," all under one roof.

"Though we do have people come from the outside, it's only when we need the extra manpower; the supervision must always be kept in-house," he said.

The Pauline restoration project is due to get off the ground later this year and to take at least four years to complete.

Though few will get a chance to see these masterpieces after they're restored, the Vatican is still hoping to raise $3.7 million in funding from outside sponsors and benefactors.

The cleaning of the Sistine Chapel cost $4.3 million -- the bulk of which came from the Japanese television network, Nippon.

As the Vatican tries to drum up the money, they'll be hoping donors won't be discouraged from funding frescoes that will remain for "papal eyes only."


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