The Art of Noble Spirituality; Asian Appetizers

2 Princely Collections Show Their Stuff

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JUNE 22, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Rome has so many churches, museums and galleries, it would take a lifetime to see all the works of art housed here. Just when one thinks that perhaps one has come to the end of the city's great masterpieces, another one comes out of hiding.

This June, two princely collections have put several of their works on display. The result has not only been a visual treat, but also a fascinating glimpse into the artistic spirituality of Roman nobles in the 17th century.

The Pallavicini-Rospigliosi family displayed their collection of paintings by Rubens of Christ and the Twelve Apostles from 1618. These consist of 13 oil panels which were purchased in Antwerp for the Pallavicini family chapel in Rome. The central figure of Christ holds the cross, his wounds standing out in vivid scarlet against pale skin.

The paintings of the apostles look like portraits, with almost familiar faces as they pose in the panels. St. Paul, holding a sword and a book, looks out with an enquiring expression, engaging the beholder.

The second work to be put on display was a single painting, "The Conversion of Saul," an early work by Caravaggio. This belongs to the Odescalchi family who exhibited the work in their family archives last weekend.

This version of the "Conversion of Saul" is remarkable for its detailed setting. Those familiar with Caravaggio's painting of the same subject in Santa Maria del Popolo will notice that the Odescalchi painting is far more ornate than the works one generally associates with Caravaggio. Many art historians think that this painting is an early version of the Santa Maria del Popolo commission, which was rejected by the patron Tiberio Cerasi.

Leaves, plants and props crowd the painting, revealing Caravaggio's artistic training under a landscape artist. From the upper left corner, Christ, supported by an angel, appears to Saul on the road to Damascus. Christ's face is hidden from us by shadows, but the effect on Saul is literally blinding. A bright light bathes Saul, who has fallen to the ground and is holding his hands over his eyes. A rearing horse and a frightened soldier, brandishing his sword and shield, complete this scene.

This work is based on the action-packed conversions made popular by Michelangelo in the Pauline chapel. By the time Caravaggio returned to the subject in the Santa Maria del Popolo picture, he had pared down his storytelling to the absolute minimum, vigorous narrative.

While I was delighted to see these works, another thing struck me when visiting these private halls and collections. The Pallavicini gallery where the Rubens paintings were being displayed boasted two large canvasses by 17th-century Neapolitan painter Luca Giordano also showing the conversion of Saul. This subject matter appears to have been very popular in Baroque Rome with many commissions for both public and private spaces.

Saul's dramatic conversion, brought about by the eruption of Christ in his life, seems to echo the spirituality of post Counter-Reformation Rome, where the call to change one's life was ever present in the 50 new churches under construction, the saintly examples of Ignatius and Philip Neri and the new straight roads tying one site of pilgrimage to the next.

In this age, art sought not merely to swell the private collections of the great families, but also to persuade the denizens of the Eternal City to "not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind" (Romans 12:2) as Paul himself exhorted.

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A Peek East

The Vatican Museums, as part of its fifth-centennial celebrations, reopened a part of the Missionary Ethnological museum on Tuesday. While only a tiny fragment of a collection containing more than 40,000 works, the reopening of the China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and Mongolia section of the museum reflects the Holy See's contemporary interest in relations with Asia.

Over the next four years, the Vatican Museums plan to open the other sections, which display artifacts from Africa, Oceania and the Americas. The museum was established by Pope Pius XI in 1926 after the Holy Year of 1925 when missionaries from all over the world arranged exposition pavilions in the Vatican gardens to bring testimonies of these other cultures to Rome.

All the works displayed that year were donated to Pius XI and housed in the Lateran palace from 1927 to 1963, where they were joined by numerous objects owned by the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith and collected by Cardinal Stefano Borgia in the early 18th century. Under Pope Paul VI in 1970, they were given a new building in the Vatican Museums together with the Pio Christian museums and the Gregorian Profane museum.

The two most arduous tasks in the reorganization of these collections are the inventory and restoration. To discover the provenance of the artifacts, the researchers have had to scour archives of numerous religious orders, and of the 15,000 objects from China alone, fewer than half have been catalogued.

To restore these delicate works, the Vatican Museums had to assemble a restoration team very different from the one that cleaned the Sistine Chapel ceiling or tended to the ancient sculptures. The diversity of the materials -- bone, glass, wood, paper, leather, hair -- presented different kinds of problems, and the restorers had to develop methods of working and communicating together on this delicate task.

The result is a tantalizing preview of what will be an increasingly important collection as modern communication makes the world grow smaller and smaller. Some of the objects in the museum witness to customs that are all but extinct.

A series of small painted wood sculptures represent the cult of the ancestors of the Tanka population of China, also known as boat people. As these people have been relocated to urban centers and their worship of ancestors is all but extinct, these few little works become significant historical documents.

The didactic displays explain the thinking systems and spiritual beliefs of the countries represented. A succinct explanation of Christianity is also offered. Reading these side by side helps visitors understand the challenges faced by missionaries trying to establish dialogue and common points with the native people. A reproduction of an altar to Confucius, from the town where the philosopher was born, shows how the love of wisdom took on religious significance. The imperial headdress worn by Confucius and the decorative motif of the dragon represent how the cult to the philosopher melds with the cult to the emperor, so that Confucius is portrayed as the emperor of wisdom.

The new arrangement only provides a sneak peek of 200 works, but this glimpse of the numerous Asian traditions and their interaction with Christianity whets the appetite for more.

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Anglicans Amid Antiquity

During the first week of June, I accompanied a group of Anglicans on pilgrimage in Rome. It was a rocky week in Christian unity after Cardinal Walter Kasper's vigorous reaffirmation of Catholic opposition to women's ordination, and as our first appointment drew closer, I wondered if the pilgrimage would focus on this question.

The organizers and I had struggled with an itinerary that would help accentuate the sense of dialogue which the trip was supposed to foster.

The result was so successful that what started as burden became a pleasurable journey.

Our first visit, on the afternoon of Pentecost Sunday, was to the catacombs of St. Priscilla. In the underground maze of thousands of early Christian burials, we talked about the earliest community of Christians in Rome. Sixty feet below ground, it was easy to imagine the fears of these early men and women who had to hide their faith or face persecution and often death.

At the same time, looking at the hastily painted images on the walls, we also saw their hopes, their belief in salvation. Daniel, Jonah, the Good Shepherd and "orante" (praying) figures with their arms raised toward heaven all affirm the common Christian belief in deliverance.

But the most moving moment came when squeezing the large group into a tiny corner of the catacomb to peer up at a faded image which, with time and scrutiny, revealed itself as the first known image of the Madonna and Child, dating back to the early third century. In the musty, dim corridors we peered up to see the first visual evidence of Christian devotion to Mary.

The art of the catacombs draws its inspiration from the biblical readings that catechumens learned before baptism. Crowded together in that ancient space, professing our common belief in Christ, and hope of deliverance, we created a common bond to build on the rest of the week.

From the catacombs to the patriarchal basilicas, it was clearer to the group why St. John Lateran bears such a triumphant stamp, since it was the first church built for the Christians by the emperor Constantine. From the empire's forbidding Christianity to the emperor's giving his own land for a church -- this shift signaled that the deaths of thousands of martyrs had not been in vain.

In the wake of the tiny image of the Madonna and Child in the catacombs, it seemed more natural that one of Rome's most beautiful churches would be dedicated to the Mother of God. The shimmering mosaics and the stately construction represented a 1,700-year-old unshakable devotion to the intercessory power of the Blessed Virgin.

And the ancient painted stories of man's belief in salvation found their most glorious echo in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, where the pilgrims saw the same scenes in the bold confident colors and brush strokes of the Renaissance master.

We all marveled at how the humble catacombs of Rome testify to an ancient Truth, which although interpreted in grander and more sophisticated form through the years, has remained the same since the first Christians proclaimed to the world.

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