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VATICAN LETTER Oct-3-2005 (xxx words) Backgrounder. With photos posted Sept. 30. xxxi

Quiet as a tomb no more: Vatican hopes crowds visit sarcophagi museum

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- By far, the Vatican Museums' most popular destinations are the Raphael Rooms and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.

Visitors pack themselves in, wall-to-wall, to revel in the splendor of the artists' colorful frescoes of biblical scenes.

But the museums' corner gallery housing mammoth, carved marble sarcophagi depicting equally unique scenes from the Bible has, up to now, been quieter than a tomb.

However, this early Christian funerary art gallery, called the Pio Christian Museum, is hoping to come back to life with a new initiative sponsored by the Vatican Museums, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and the United Bible Societies.

The permanent exhibit of sculpted stone caskets is now supplemented with "didactic panels that give a biblical reading" of the carved friezes, said Francesco Buranelli, director of the Vatican Museums.

The explanatory placards together with a beautifully illustrated free guide will allow visitors to "understand the biblical sources of inspiration" for the carvings, he said at a press conference to inaugurate the new project.

The guide, called "The Engraved Word: The Bible at the Beginning of Christian Art," merges fourth-century Roman funerary art and sacred Scripture.

Available in six languages, the 80-page booklet uses enlarged photos of the sarcophagi's biblical scenes to illustrate Mark's Gospel and the Book of Jonah.

Visitors can also refer to the newly installed placards set up next to selected caskets.

A diagram shows which biblical scenes are depicted on the sarcophagus and gives related biblical passages from the Old and the New testaments. It aims to facilitate the reading of the tomb's sculpted message with written verses from the Bible.

For example, for the fourth-century Jonah Sarcophagus, the placard accompanies the image of sailors tossing Jonah into the gaping mouth of a sea monster, which later deposits him safely onto land. The placard contains a long excerpt from Jonah's prayer.

The same sarcophagus features Noah floating in a small ark behind the sea monster and Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead as well as Peter baptizing his jailers.

The sarcophagi harmoniously juxtapose scenes from the Old and New testaments, emphasizing the message of salvation.

"Through baptism ... all Christians, and therefore the occupant of the sarcophagus, know they are linked to the death of Christ and to his resurrection," said Umberto Utro, head of the museums' department of early Christian art.

For this reason, the caskets are replete with biblical scenes representing the hope and eternal life that are at the end of suffering and death.

Many Christian sarcophagi contain pagan elements and references to Greek and Roman gods and goddesses.

Even the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd came from the pagan image of the shepherd, Utro told Catholic News Service.

"The image of the shepherd, which represented philanthropy, was very widespread" in Rome's early Christian era, he said.

"Because, in the Gospel, Jesus said 'I am the Good Shepherd who will lay down my life for the sheep,' the early Christians easily recognized Christ in (the pagan shepherd) image and invested it with new meaning," he said.

Artists also saw Christ in Orpheus, the son of the god of music, Apollo, Utro said.

"Just as Orpheus tamed wild beasts with his music, his image became the image of Christ who, with his words, transformed the lives of sinners," he said.

Utro said the frequent juxtaposition of scenes from the Old and New testaments shows that the early Christians easily saw the Gospel message embedded in the Hebrew Scriptures.

In one frieze, God creates Eve from Adam and, below there is a scene in which Jesus, "the new Adam," is born from Mary, "the new Eve."

"Some early Christians had been converted Jews and so they were well-grounded in the Old Testament," Utro said.

Integrating pagan elements on the caskets also showed how early Christians "implanted the Christian message in the prevailing pagan culture" at the time, he added. The early Christians did not reject or disparage the prevailing images at the time, but embraced them "for their potential to prepare the way for Christian revelation," he said.

The pagan figures were the so-called "'seeds of the word' that the first Christian writers recognized as scattered by God in the ancient world," Utro said.

The Pio Christian Museum's new project coincides with the 40th anniversary of "Dei Verbum," the Second Vatican Council's document on Scripture and divine revelation.

Utro said that just as the document urged Christians to "read, understand and take hold of the sacred Scriptures," the museum's initiative tries to show "that still today we need to return to the origins, the essential core of our faith as revealed in the sacred Scriptures."

The art engraved in the early Christian caskets "is biblical art, founded on sacred Scripture," he said.

"I also like to think of this museum as an ecumenical museum because all Christians from all denominations can find their common roots here," he said.

Utro said Christians today can continue to follow the road toward unity by "looking at these common roots," at these "first brothers and sisters in the faith, when the church was still undivided."


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