Vatican Splendors shows off Catholic treasures -- and a few ironies of church-sponsored art. 

Vatican Splendors shows off religion as spectacle. Along the way, the Vatican-sponsored touring exhibit perhaps unintentionally highlights some ironies of church-sponsored art.

The show, now at the Heinz History Center, is principally a large-scale retrospective of the Roman Catholic Church's patronage of religious art and artists from Giotto to Michelangelo through the present day. But it begins humbly, with crude though heartfelt charms and relics left at the tomb of St. Peter around 160 A.D. These include bones in a reliquary and a charm of a beaten gold to honor St. Peter for healing an eye ailment.

The early church was a secret sect of the poor and persecuted. Members could not worship openly and maintained their faith through signs and symbols. But after Constantine accepted Christianity, in 312 A.D., the Catholic Church evolved into one of the richest institutions in the world. Money donated by (or extracted from) the poor and downtrodden supported a rich tradition of art ... that often depicted the suffering of the poor and downtrodden.

Undeniably, the church's increasing wealth translated into some of the most beautiful art produced by human hands. Yet while that art could seem to transcend worldly concerns, this exhibit traces cultural shifts as well as the growth of the Catholic Church's own power.

The early paintings and mosaics included in the exhibit, for instance, offer characteristic two-dimensional style and lack of individual features. In one work, St. Peter and St. Paul are almost indistinguishable except for the keys held by one and the sword by the other. After all, art in the early church served to communicate the church's dominion over the earth and God's power in heaven; the individual was not important. Even holy figures are identified primarily through gesture and religious symbols such as doves -- or the halo that's the only distinguishing feature in Giotto's "Bust of an Angel," produced in 1304.

Still, things were changing starting in the ninth century, when the church's center of power shifted from Constantinople to Rome. The exhibit of this period shows the ascendance of Western over Byzantine style and the influence of Roman art. The early Renaissance fresco by Cosimo Roselli on the Sistine Chapel walls show a greater attention to revealing personality and individual features. The figures are no longer simply symbols of piety and devotion. They represent flesh-and-blood human beings with the struggles and joys of living evident in their faces. 

The exhibit also shows the evolution of sculpture and architecture. Between the 16th and 17th centuries, the old basilica at the Vatican was demolished and a new one erected, befitting the Catholic Church's evolving power and wealth. A model and timeline depicts how designers such as Michelangelo and Bernini transformed the center of the church from its humble beginnings to a symbol of holy shock and awe.

Michelangelo is the rock star among the exhibit's artists. The exhibit includes a replica of his famous pietà -- a heartbreaking young Mary holding a dead Jesus on her lap. Visitors can walk beneath a recreation of the scaffolding the artist used to paint the fresco for the Sistine Chapel. The outline he drew to guide his brush is visible. Cans of paint sit waiting for the artist to return.

Theological cataclysms are also reflected. In art from the time of the Counter-Reformation, the exhibit includes paintings depicting ships on a storm-tossed sea and the martyrdom of missionaries in Japan. There are even interpretations of scripture by indigenous people.

The final section highlights the succession of popes and church's current efforts at social justice. The exhibit carefully glosses over the ambiguous role the church played in the Holocaust.

Meanwhile, a local addendum reflects Pittsburgh's historic connection with the church. Many of the immigrants who arrived to work in the region's mills came from a strong Catholic or Eastern Orthodox tradition -- and often donated portions of their meager pay to build the splendid churches that still dominate many communities, and help purchase the chalices, vestments and documents included here. 


Vatican Splendors -- A Journey Through Faith and Art continues through Sun., Jan. 9.  Sen. John Heinz History Center, 1212 Smallman St., Strip District. Reservations recommended. 412-454-6000 or www.heinzhistorycenter.org

click to enlarge Renaissance plan: a recreation of Michelangelo's scaffolding from the Sistine Chapel
  • Renaissance plan: a recreation of Michelangelo's scaffolding from the Sistine Chapel


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