VATICAN LETTER Jun-23-2006 (950 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi
Bearded deities and stone Buddhas: Ethnology museum features Asia
By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Where would you find a gilded Taoist altar sheltering a bearded deity, a grinning wooden Confucius surrounded by dragons breathing fire, or a stone Buddha seated on a lotus flower? How about in the heart of the Catholic Church at the Vatican.
To the surprise of some, the Vatican Museums do not just display frescoes of saints and statues of Christ; they also house an enormous collection of religious and ceremonial objects from Asia, Africa, the Americas and Oceania.
After years of being closed to the public, the Vatican's Missionary-Ethnological Museum re-opened its exhibit on cultural artifacts from China, Japan, South Korea, Tibet and Mongolia June 20. Its collections of religious objects from the rest of Asia and other non-European continents will gradually undergo extensive restoration and be put back on display over the next four years.
A steady stream of tourists made its way to the exhibit of freshly restored works June 21.
While some had mistakenly stumbled on the collections after following signs for the post office, many were fascinated by the objects that reflected Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian, Shintoist and shamanist beliefs.
One Japanese visitor, however, was confused.
"Why are there many gods here? I thought the Vatican was Jesus Christ, you know, St. Peter. Why Buddha?" Mitsuotsu Sato, a Buddhist and resident of Milan, Italy, asked Catholic News Service.
He and a friend from Japan said they thought the placards' explanations of Buddhism and other Asian religions were well done, though they found the small, to-scale models of temples and shrines "not interesting."
Western visitors seemed more intrigued and pleased with the collections.
Marie Gairdner of Kitimat, British Columbia, told CNS she wished her grandson had been there to see the displays.
"In Canada, in grade 8 they do social sciences, and they've been doing dynasties. Wouldn't it be wonderful for him to come here and see" what the different Chinese empires created, "and not just read about it?" she mused.
She said the exhibit appealed to her because she had gone to Indonesia and Hong Kong earlier this year and visited a Buddhist monastery. But it was at the Vatican exhibit that Gairdner was finding out about things she saw on her trip to Asia.
Peter Morjak of Prague, Czech Republic, said he found it "very interesting to see other parts of the world" and "to see that there aren't only Christian cities" that deserve attention and appreciation.
A college-age Kelly Silvan of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, spent a long time wandering through the exhibit, savoring each piece and reading every placard.
"I like it very much," she said, adding she was "really surprised to find the Vatican had a museum of ethnology."
"It's interesting to have it in the Vatican; it shows another way of respect for other religions," she said.
The museum also documents the church's missionary activity and shows how Christianity adapted to non-European cultures.
For example, a 1935 copy of a Christian altar that had been in the chapel of the Catholic university in Beijing was built using traditional Chinese designs and patterns. Among the Chinese inscriptions on the front of the altar are Taoist, Buddhist and Christian symbols.
Missionaries went to Asia not to transplant European culture on foreign soil, but to tell people about the Christian faith, about Jesus Christ and his Gospel message, said the museum's curator, Msgr. Roberto Zagnoli.
Despite "historical contradictions," the church's aim in evangelization was to spread "not an ideology, but a message that everyone could relate to," Msgr. Zagnoli told journalists June 20.
The contradictions he pointed to included the "coincidence of the presence of missionaries and conquerors" or colonizers in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Attitudes of superiority about one's own European culture and Christian faith, he said, also scarred many indigenous communities and sometimes resulted in suspicion, intolerance, and the persecution or expulsion of foreigners, especially missionaries.
In the hopes of establishing a set code of conduct and guidelines for bishops and missionaries in Asia, the Vatican's evangelization office published "a modern and revolutionary" document in 1659, the monsignor said. It set the tone that missionary activity was not about proselytism or conquest, but that it involved dialogue and cooperation with the people and respecting and adapting to local customs and beliefs.
In an effort to show the Vatican's continued commitment to a missionary culture of respect, an excerpt from the 1659 document graces the entrance to the Missionary-Ethnological Museum.
Francesco Buranelli, head of the Vatican Museums, said the museum's Asian exhibit was scheduled to open in 2007, but officials moved up the date to coincide with the museums' 500th anniversary celebrations this year and because Asia, especially China, is "particularly relevant in international relations" right now.
The exhibit aims to show that the church's missionary activity is still based on respect for other cultures and to reaffirm its desire for dialogue between peoples, he said in a written statement.
The ethnological museum's total collection of about 100,000 artifacts also represents an important depository for preserving local treasures or reproductions of originals that have been lost or risk disappearing in today's "overpowering globalization," he wrote.
Often it was the missionaries who salvaged local artifacts that would otherwise have been lost or destroyed during periods of social or political upheaval, Msgr. Zagnoli said. However, the bulk of the collection is objects donated to popes as gifts, he said.
Buranelli said visitors must not be dismayed to find that many of the artifacts on display are copies. He said that's because either the original no longer exists or because the revered treasure remains in its country of origin.
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