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Artifacts of Conversion, Martyrdom and Devotion

3/24/2006 - 6:00 AM PST

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2 New Exhibits Speak to the Heart and Soul

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MARCH 24, 2006 (Zenit) - 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 ...

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