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VATICAN LETTER Apr-7-2006 (600 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi

At Vatican Museums, a new way of looking at old things

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The problem with being a 500-year-old museum is that the science of collecting and displaying pieces has changed dramatically.

To celebrate its half-millennium, the Vatican Museums has decided not to host special temporary exhibits, but to focus on restoring, rearranging or reopening significant pieces of its permanent collection and opening new collections.

One of the Vatican Museums' new collections is composed of the smallest items that once belonged to the Pio-Christian Museum: a collection of sculptures, epigraphs and sarcophagi from the catacombs of Rome. The new collection of early Christian antiquities had been under the care of the Vatican Library, but in 1999 Pope John Paul II transferred it to the Vatican Museums.

For seven years, experts in archaeology and museum design prepared the collection for its late-March opening. Gone, for the most part, is the 18th-century organizational plan, which basically boiled down to putting all the round items together and all the square items together.

The collection includes more than 1,000 medals, cameos, etched or gold-painted glass, ivories, oil lamps and bronze or silver cups and bottles found in the catacombs of Rome and surrounding towns.

While they are not famous masterpieces, "the objects are signs of deep personal devotion, of martyrdom and of conversion -- this is the value, the beauty they still transmit today," said Francesco Buranelli, director of the Vatican Museums.

Although the previous arrangement of the collection was old-fashioned, the impulse that led Popes Clement XI and Clement XII to gather the artifacts was not, said Guido Cornini, the museum's director of decorative arts.

"Collecting paleo-Christian artifacts not so much as art, but as documentation is a very modern idea in museography," Cornini said. The objects "speak of a way of living the faith, not by the elite who commission great paintings, but by ordinary Christians."

In 1756 Pope Benedict XIV ordered his predecessors' collections to be organized and displayed in a new museum with the aim of "promoting the splendor of Rome and affirming the truth of Christian religion."

The museum's collection does not take people's breath away as much as it demonstrates the care taken even by ordinary Christians to bury their loved ones with signs of their religious identity and their trust that they would join the saints and martyrs in heaven.

Today, the Christian Museum occupies a long corridor on the main thoroughfare from the Sistine Chapel to the museums' exit, and most visitors simply would walk past the glass-fronted antique cupboards filled with the little artifacts.

The Vatican Museums hope more people will pause for a look now that the cupboards have been restored, the lighting modernized and the items rearranged.

The first step, Cornini said, involved "a long, painstaking research into the pedigree of each piece."

While the new exhibit does place some items together based on the material they are made of -- for example, the images of saints on glass or the terra-cotta oil lamps -- most of the objects are now grouped together according to the catacomb in which they were found.

"Putting them in their context gives an idea of life and death from the first to the sixth centuries," Buranelli said.

The objects probably will not stop people in their tracks, as does the awe-inspiring grandeur of the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo's famous frescoes, he said, but even a quick peek in the cupboards demonstrates that almost from the beginning Christians felt a need to communicate the beauty of their faith by making something beautiful.


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