"Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes," a 300-strong collection of Vatican art and important ecclesiastical objects, opens Saturday at the Museum of Art. The exhibition comprises items that trace the 2,000 years of papal history, beginning with St. Peter through Pope John Paul II. Included are works of gold and silver, marble sculptures, embroidered silk vestments, jewelry, and paintings, most of which have never left the Vatican before, and they are truly the crème de la crème. The exhibition even succeeds in immersing the viewer in Vatican environments so that he can better understand these objects in their historical settings.
The museum has been divided into 12 galleries, each of which represents a phase in the development of the church, and each houses one or more of the celebrated artworks that highlight the exhibition.
Gallery Two, for example, re-creates the second-century Vatican necropolis and contains a life-sized reproduction of the monument that marks St. Peter's tomb; the apostle's gravesite would eventually become the site of St. Peter's Basilica. Architectural drawings and models, frescoes, and mosaics in Gallery Four tell the story of the early church. One of the frescoes, Bust of an Angel, is attributed to 14th-century master Giotto. Gallery Five continues to focus on the ancient basilica, including the Mandylion of Edessa, a fifth-century image on linen considered the oldest-known representation of Jesus. That's assuming, of course, you don't buy into the Shroud of Turin stuff.
Gallery Six begins to reveal the building of the Renaissance basilica -- the ancient one existed from the reign of Emperor Constantine to more than 1,000 years later. Today's church, completed about 1626, spans the reign of 28 popes and contains the artistic contributions of some of the most storied artists of the period -- Bernini, Cellini, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Gallery Seven contains Bernini's sculpture Charity with Four Putti and features the altar of St. Peter's, one of the most revered sites in the Christian world.
Gallery Eight depicts the Sistine Chapel, and it allows visitors to see how Michelangelo painted its ceiling. Two of his actual sketches -- Study of a Nude for the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and Study of a Roman Monument -- are on view. The gallery also examines the ceremony surrounding the death of a pope and the process of papal succession, both of which take place in the chapel. Other galleries house liturgical treasures such as the mass cruets of Leo XIII, crafted in 1878 by Parisian goldsmiths; the tiara of Pius VII, which contains one of the world's largest emeralds; and a thanka, a Buddhist devotional cloth handcrafted by the Dalai Lama for John Paul II.