Denver Shows 'Vatican Treasures'

By Marilynne S. Mason, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 18, 1993 | Go to article overview

Denver Shows 'Vatican Treasures'


Marilynne S. Mason, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


THE didactic "Vatican Treasures" exhibition currently on view at the Denver History Museum through August 31, offers more in the way of interesting cultural artifacts than great works of art.

Though there are a number of fine pieces, few of the great names of Western art were entrusted to the care of traveling custodians. Instead, the work was chosen to illustrate Roman Catholic beliefs and the history of the Vatican, underscoring the Pope's visit here last week.

Consequently, the show includes a number of copies and lesser works of art; many architectural drawings of St. Peter's Basilica as it was designed and changed over time; and a number of liturgical instruments and vestments. Tapestries and primitive medieval sculpture are among the most interesting artifacts.

As the museum world has become more aware of art from the world's many cultures, more exhibitions are designed to be culturally sensitive. So "Vatican Treasures" has been designed to take the viewer back to another time, a distant culture. The viewer descends the stairs of the museum and enters a beautifully designed labyrinthine exhibition space.

Many of the gallery walls have been painted dark gray. One can look through a window cut into a wall to see a particular work of art at a great distance. A magnificent 12th-century mosaic of the Apostle Peter is thus framed. A copy of Michelangelo's "Pieta" can be seen through a series of doorways almost at once - and from a distance, the form is striking. The exhibit has been lit to preserve ancient textiles and paint made delicate by age.

Pin spotlights replace the brighter lights of the gallery, highlighting gold threads and glistening silk or jewels and ornaments. The overall effect is meant to simulate the reverential atmosphere of a church or cathedral - a cultural approach similar to that taken by the Denver Natural History Museum with last year's Aztec exhibit. One important difference is that the show's catalog, signage, and audio tour have been written by Vatican staff; the approach is not meant to be objective.

The show is arranged thematically, beginning with the story of Jesus passing the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven to Peter - a metaphor given a literal interpretation in several works of art. One of the finest pieces here is a page from an illuminated manuscript by the great Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio (1473), the master under whom Michelangelo first studied. The miniature image places Jesus in a tranquil countryside, an exquisitely detailed landscape stretching out behind him. Peter clings to the key and a book.

Nearby, a 1st-century bust of the Emperor Nero glares down at the viewer - the artist captured the cruel features in the same refined detail with which he captured the curly beard. …

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