Thursday, December 18, 2003

'Legacy of the Popes' astounds with beauty

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Museum personnel go over the final details of the exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal on Wednesday.
(Gary Landers photo)
The 350 objects in Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes capture 20 centuries of faith and conflict, glory and sacrifice - and, of course, pomp and circumstance - in 15,000 square feet of space.

This enormous exhibition begins with Pope John Paul II's blessing and ends with a symbolic handshake.

"Everything in this exhibition has something to do with the pope," says its curator, Monsignor Roberto zagnoli.

Saint Peter and the Vatican, the largest show to come to the Cincinnati Museum Center and the largest show of Vatican treasures to tour North America, opens at 10 a.m. Saturday.

More than 500,000 people saw it in Houston and Fort Lauderdale, the first two cities on a four-city tour. Clear Channel Exhibitions, which produced the show, expects an even bigger turnout in Cincinnati.

On Wednesday, the Enquirer got a preview.

The exhibit is showcased in 12 galleries. It tells the story of the papacy starting with St. Peter, through a re-creation of his tomb, to Pope John Paul II.

Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes
Portals flanked by Romanesque columns suggest transportation to Rome. There's the papal coat of arms, an arresting three-tiered tiara encrusted with pearls and precious stones, and an oil-on-wood painting of Christ carrying the cross.

"In this first gallery, there are two things that are important: Christ, first of all, and the Vicar of Christ (the pope) represented by the tiara," said zagnoli, standing before Marco Palmezzano's "Christ Bearing the Cross."

Fifth-century oil lamps and a glass case of exquisite devotionals found in tombs of the same period are in the re-creation of St. Peter's tomb.

Intricate drawings of the old Vatican and Nero's circus - where Peter was martyred - help provide perspective.

"The Vatican was named the Vatican because after Peter was crucified, his followers quickly buried him on Vatican Hill so the Romans wouldn't get his body," zagnoli explains. "Later there was a marker, and later still Constantine built the first basilica."

Several galleries are given over to the building of the basilica, beginning with Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.

A wood model shows the details of the first church. A beautiful mosaic, "Bust of an Angel" by Giotto, gives the viewer an idea of how grand the church's faade must have been.

A few pieces of art are spectacular: Giotto's "Bust," Michelangelo's drawings and Bernini's incredible "Charity with Four Putti," which has the artist's thumb prints visible in the clay.

One of the most striking pieces, "The Mandylion of Edessa," is considered one of the oldest images of the face of Christ.

The features are identical to the "Shroud of Turin," said Peter Wyatt, vice president of production for Clear Channel Exhibitions.

"This is actually the face of Christ," says zagnoli. "Because of time, it has faded. Over the centuries, they have touched up the canvas. But this canvas touched the face of Jesus."

"Reliquary of Pope Saint Pius V" attracts the most kids, Wyatt said. This relic is the finger of the pope wearing the papal ring.

A number of galleries hold rare historical documents and ancient maps drawn by Catholic missionaries. zagnoli points out the missal stand that sailed to the New World with Christopher Columbus and the first map of Australia.

For those mesmerized by the majesty of the Mass, a gallery called "Celebrations" holds an amazing processional of history with papal vestments. The copes stand in a row surrounded by precious cruets used in the Mass, miters of the most extraordinary design, chalices, tall ostrich fans, a chasuble (vestment) richly embroidered in gold thread that took an order of Franciscan nuns 10 years to complete, and a papal throne.

zagnoli stops before a gilded tiara that once belonged to Pope Pius VII.

"This tiara was initially made out of cardboard," he says. "The pope couldn't stay in Rome because of political difficulties, so the pope was elected in Venice."

In a case of ornate chalices, a small glass goblet stands out. zagnoli explains it was used by the priests to celebrate the Eucharist while imprisoned at Auschwitz during World War II.

The show ends with a bronze cast of Pope John Paul II's right hand. It is a way to connect with him and - for believers - perhaps with God.


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