Artifacts of Conversion, Martyrdom and Devotion

2 New Exhibits Speak to the Heart and Soul

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MARCH 23, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Along with spring showers, March has brought a glorious reawakening of Roman art. Two new exhibits opened this week, one at the Vatican Museums and the other in the prestigious Scuderie del Quirinale, the former stables of the papal Quirinal residence, redesigned to hold the city's most important exhibitions.

The Vatican Museums, as part of their 500th anniversary celebrations that will last all year, reorganized and reopened their Christian Museum. Complementing the Pio Christian Museum which contains ancient Christian sarcophagi, this collection displays hundreds of small objects found in the catacombs or in Christian sites around the city.

The Christian Museum was founded exactly 250 years ago by another Pope Benedict, Benedict XIV Lambertini, who reigned from 1740 to 1758 over a very cosmopolitan and sophisticated Rome. The recently built Trevi fountain and Spanish Steps as well as the new facade on St. John Lateran drew droves of visitors to the Eternal City and established Rome as a model for other European capitals.

This era saw extensive collectionism, including the great painting galleries of the Doria Pamphilj and the Corsini families, while the rediscovery of the buried city of Pompeii in 1749 revived a worldwide passion for antiquities. In this climate, a few pioneering families began to collect objects connected with the first community of Christians to live in Rome.

Under Benedict XIV, these collections were purchased by the Holy See and arranged in the Vatican Library so as to "Promote the splendor of Rome and affirm religious Truth," as the inscription above the doorway proudly states.

This first Christian Museum, containing more than 1,000 items, was displayed in exquisite custom-made walnut cabinets bearing the papal crest of Benedict XIV. Following the fashion of the times, the pieces were arranged by aesthetic criteria, with large objects grouped in one case and smaller ones in others without taking into account the provenance of the objects.

The reorganization of the museums started with the restoration of the antique wooden cabinets adding a lighting system to allow visitors to admire the fine detail on the smaller exhibits.

The most elaborate part of the renovation, however, was undertaken by the curators of the Christian Museum, Umberto Utro and Claudia Lega, who traced the origin of most of the pieces in the collection. The new Christian Museum organizes the works topographically, according to the catacombs where the objects were found.

While just a few steps from the Sistine Chapel, this collection boasts no grand paintings. Nor are there any of the timeless marble statues like those contained in other halls of the museum. But its objects have nonetheless a powerful voice. These artifacts, in the words of Vatican Museum's director Francesco Buranelli, are "witnesses of conversion, of martyrdom and the interior private devotion" of the first community of Roman Christians.

Many of the objects are displayed still embedded in plaster. These little items were pressed into the wet cement that closed the resting places in the catacombs. Beautiful glass medallions containing gold-leaf portraits of St. Peter and St. Paul that would have glittered in the torchlight speak of the shining faith of the first Christians. An ivory game piece from the catacombs of Priscilla offers a touching glimpse of an early believer and his everyday pleasures.

A dramatic find from the Caelian Hill is representative of what wealthy Christians commissioned as votive gifts. Two beautifully crafted silver vials with relief portraits of St. Peter and St. Paul are displayed, along with a silver bowl, incised with the votive inscription "Petivi et accepi, votum solvi" -- "I asked and I received, and I fulfilled my vow." These treasures as well as signet rings bearing Christian symbols and bronze medallions offer an insight into the everyday objects of the early Christian community.

The cases of terracotta oil lamps are eloquent testimony to the centuries of Christians who made their way through the miles of underground tunnels in the catacombs accompanying loved ones or praying at the graves of the martyrs.

These little objects, many small enough to fit in the palm of one's hand, remind us of the living Christian community of vibrant, faithful and hopeful people offering their prayers, their votive items and their hope for eternal life.

Antonello da Messina

The simplicity and humility of the Christian collection makes for good preparation for the Antonello da Messina show at the Quirinal stables. The 36 paintings on display reveal a world where Christianity was no longer an underground religion but permeated every aspect of Western society.

Historical information regarding Antonello da Messina is scarce. It can be inferred from documents that the painter was born around 1431 and died in 1479.

As his name suggests, Antonello was from Messina, the cosmopolitan Sicilian seaport. Not surprisingly for a young man who saw ships departing for exotic locales every day, Antonello seems to have traveled a great deal.

One supposed voyage earned the artist eternal fame. Giorgio Vasari, in "The Lives of the Artists," written in the 16th century, claims that Antonello traveled to Germany where he learned the art of oil painting and taught it to the Venetians.

Whether Antonello indeed introduced oil painting to Italy remains doubtful and in fact the artist may have never even gone to Germany, as Flemish painters were employed in many Italian courts. Still, Vasari's colorful legend captured the imagination of generations.

The exhibit opens with an 18th-century painting by Joseph Francois Ducq, representing the historic moment when Antonello was introduced to Jan Van Eyck, the great Flemish painter renowned for his work in oils. This is just one of many such images that romanticize these artists.

The upper level displays a breathtaking array of paintings, starting with one of Antonello's early works, "St. Jerome in his Study." The use of oil in this small panel is so exquisite that Venetians mistook it for Jan Van Eyck's work.

St. Jerome sits in a wooden cubicle placed in a large hall. The viewer seems to be looking through a stone arch and can see out windows into distant landscapes with boats rowing down a river.

This complicated system of spaces in spaces presents a very rich vision of perspective, enhanced by magnificent still-life painting. The copper bowl reflecting warm light and the peacock casting a shadow are but a few of the fine details to admire in this work. Careful observers will notice a shadowy lion (attribute of Jerome) in the background padding silently on the majolica floor.

Several versions of similar images give the visitor an idea of devotional styles among the wealthier Renaissance patrons. One wall is lined with panels of the Blessed Virgin crowned with roses, each boasting shining, gem-studded crowns of gold.

Although visual sumptuousness is common to all the images, some patrons preferred the Madonna with Child, others wanted the Madonna reading and still others requested that the Blessed Mother be looking out at the viewer.

Several of the works damaged in the Messina earthquake of 1908 tantalize viewers with hints of magnificent painting amid the lost areas. The "Annunciation" originally painted for Palazzolo Acreide outside Syracuse, reveals upon closer study the milky opaque of a ceramic vase, the crisp pages of an open book, a wooden shutter in perfect perspective and a chase taking place in the far distance.

Antonello's style reveals greater depth and detail the more one studies the panels. Like a treasure hunt, the more one penetrates into the painted spaces the more jewels one finds. But this characteristic shines most brilliantly in the stunning portraits that were clearly much in demand from the hand of this great master.

The same wealthy patrons who were purchasing devotional images are immortalized in portraiture. They look out at visitors throughout the show with riveting, enigmatic expressions. One man holds himself high gazing down at passers-by in self-satisfaction, while another appears to be on the verge of smiling and winking. Some seem a little intimidated to be captured in paint and others have an expectant air. The variegated expressions of humanity surround and engulf the visitor.

Interspersed among these portraits of proud, privileged men, there is another face staring out at the visitor: Christ as Man of Sorrows. He is placed in the same window-like opening, but instead of the crisp linens and soft wools of his neighbors, Jesus wears only a rough rope around his neck. His bare torso is flecked with ruby-red drops of blood falling from his brow crowned with thorns.

Christ gazes out at us, not to display his success, but to implore us to recognize what he suffered for us. It is hard to look at Jesus' tears without mirroring them with one's own.

The Museum of Palermo sent my favorite Antonello painting, "Annunziata," to the exhibit. It represents the Virgin of the Annunciation alone before her bookstand. The angel is not visible to us, but we see that Mary has abruptly stopped her reading and the pages of the book fall open unattended.

Mary is completely shrouded in a heavy veil of a splendid lapis blue color. One hand pulls her veil closed, indicating her surprise at the angel's appearance, while the other hand is foreshortened toward us, indicating her acquiescence to God's will.

But it is her face, framed in shadows, which arrests the viewer. Mary seems luminous as the light bathes her in grace. Her eyes are downcast making it impossible to read her expression although her lips seem to hint at a smile. Antonello renders the humility of Mary and her serene trust in God while capturing and suspending the moment in time when the salvation of man began.

The work of Antonello presents a challenge to the modern viewer because it demands a meticulous, detail-oriented attention uncommon to our daily lives.

Television, or simply the speed of our daily lifestyles, spurs us to absorb quickly and move on. Antonello's patrons paid a great deal for these treasures and would have studied and admired them over and over again. The art of Antonello invites the viewer to suspend time, the same way he does in his images, and lavish loving attention over the details that make up the splendid whole.

The Antonello da Messina exhibit runs through June 25 in the Scuderie del Quirnale in Via XXIV Maggio, 16. It is open every day except Mondays from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Rome campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.