"Vatican Splendors" at the Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale Feels Reconstituted

Father, I confess: I dragged my heels before going to see "Vatican Splendors: A Journey Through Faith and Art," the latest religious extravaganza at the Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale. After all, hadn't the museum already covered much of this territory, first with "Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes" in 2003, then again with "Cradle of Christianity: Jewish and Christian Treasures From the Holy Land" in 2007?

I remember how "Saint Peter and the Vatican" seemed designed to inspire vulgar envy at the spectacle of the Vatican's obscene wealth on parade, especially the show's garish gift shop, with its action figures of the saints and its papal tea towels and pillows. "Cradle of Christianity" took a more austere approach, with its dusty-looking artifacts that seemed to have come straight from an archaeological dig, its Dead Sea Scroll fragments displayed in near-darkness. I worked at the museum around the time of "Cradle," and I recall how we used to joke nervously about how brown the exhibition was.

Of course, the former show was a heavenly hit for the museum, a crowd pleaser that prophesied the record-breaking hordes that would descend on the place a few years later for "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs." The latter, not so much. It seemed too dry, too scholarly — too brown, perhaps.

The emphasis is on copies and replicas.
The emphasis is on copies and replicas.

Location Info


Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale

1 E. Las Olas Blvd.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301

Category: Art Galleries

Region: Fort Lauderdale


"Vatican Splendors: A Journey Through Faith and Art." On display through April 24 at the Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-525-5500, or click here.

The good news about "Vatican Splendors" is that it includes some art among the artifacts. Never mind that a lot of that art is of the "from the school of" or "in the manner of" variety. A 17th-century nativity scene, for instance, is identified as "in the style of Giovanni Lanfranco." The Supper of Emmaus, an oil from the late 16th or early 17th Century, is not by Leonard Bramer himself but from his workshop. A 14th- or 15th-century Madonna With Child is from the school of Simone Martini.

The emphasis, then, is on copies and replicas rather than originals. There's a once- or twice-removed quality that gets progressively surreal, until it reaches an absurd level with anything that has to do with Michelangelo. A fragment of a bas-relief by the great artist is pegged as a unique (!) cast of a 16th-century original marble. Then there's a life-sized replica of his famous Pietà — the one that was attacked and damaged by a madman — which is identified as a 1975 cast from a 1930 copy of the 1499 original. You might as well stay home and look at it online.

The near-fetishistic fascination with Michelangelo extends to the artifacts as well. There's a 1562 document that appears to have been included simply because he signed it. A set of iron calipers is supposed to inspire awe in us because it is "believed to have belonged to" Michelangelo.

Other artifacts are likewise featured just because they have a link to the Vatican. There's a terra cotta roof tile from a basilica, a lid from a sarcophagus, a marble head found below a basilica floor. It's almost as if members of a cleaning crew collected whatever they found on their rounds and turned it over to the team that assembled the exhibition.

In this context, the exhibition's real art feels almost like scraps thrown in to appease anyone who comes in expecting more than relics. Deposition From the Cross, a Federico Fiori oil on copper from the 16th or 17th Century, comes across as important just because it's a well-executed painting. An anonymous 16th-century rendering of the Holy Family and a pair of angels carries more weight than it might otherwise.

Along the way are papal paraphernalia of the sort familiar to anyone who visited "Saint Peter and the Vatican" back in 2003: a cape that belonged to a nephew of Pius IV, a throne that was occupied by Pius XI, a gilt-silver and diamond- and opal-studded chalice and paten used to celebrate Mass by Pius IX.

By the time I got to the big oil portraits of three successive, more recent popes, I felt a sense of relief — here was art I knew how to respond to. The paintings portray Pius XII (1939-58), John XXIII (1958-63), and Paul VI (1963-78), all exquisite examples of modern realism. The "Papal Portraiture" section, in fact, is perhaps the show's most satisfying.

Ultimately, however, "Vatican Splendors" feels like a watered-down version of "Saint Peter and the Vatican," right down to the little gift shop you exit through, with its papal T-shirts, coffee mugs, key rings, and what I swear look like shot glasses — like the exhibition's contents, so many souvenirs of the sacred.

My Voice Nation Help

I agree with robin and the article's author. I saw this exhibition with my elderly Catholic mother, and she thought it was just ho-hum. I thought it was horrible. We went to the 2nd floor display and it was worse-- the pornography that passes as art astounds me. Who would have thought a huge collection of giant nude drawings would complement the Vatican Splendors should be crucified. We could not get out of the museum fast enough. I even wrote to the museum's directors about my disappointment and never got a response. When I moved her 7 years ago, I thought I would frequent this museum. I was wrong.


disappointment is an understatement. it was awful, as was the rest of the museum, it seems to have gone from ok to worse since my last visit there. definatly not worth your time or money. where was the permenant collection they once had? the 2nd floor was worse than the Vatican fakes, and that is the end of that. too bad, we had such high hopes that it would grow and be a place we would like to visit over and over. no such luck. wont be back there until it's revamped and re-managed. Sorry, but it was bad.

Randi Krotch
Randi Krotch

Frankly, I found the whole exhibit anti-semitic.Like where is our hell-raising Joyce Kaufman when we need here?

John Edwards
John Edwards

I saw this exhibit when it was in Pittsburgh, and was dismayed at how fast and loose the curators played with the facts. They know, for instance, that the little amateurish bas relief was not done by Michelangelo, their wall text even states it, although in a ay we can easily miss, (at least it did in Pittsburgh), but the attribution on the little tag next to the piece does indeed unequivocally state it's by Michelangelo, as does all the promotional material, which it is not. This is not only irresponsible, given the central position this small thing has in the promotional material. This amounts to fraud and they know it. I disagree about the cast of the Pieta. Photos of sculpture do not do justice to sculpture, and being able to look at this, even though it's a cast, and a plastic one at that, I found pretty valuable, and I'm both a photographer and a sculptor.The "calipers" is absurd. They are just a pair of big old green bronze calipers. Michelangelo probably owned a set like this but these aren't his and there's no reason to believe so. He owned boots too. Why not throw some boots in there and say they're his?The document IS his, not only his signature, but so what? Here any book will be far more valuable (unless you think a sheet of tiny ink writing [no pictures] is some kind of holy relic).In Pittsburgh they mocked up a "Sistine ceiling" thing with some boards and stools and cans of paint. I don't know if that's a permanent feature of this touring exhibit but it certainly didn't add anything and had the weird stupid feel of an art history fun house. The entire "Michelangelo" PR campaign (media, ads, brochures, etc.) of this show is fraudulent, just a way of getting us to go in, and then deliberately misleading in order to try to conceal the trick. I can't say. "Don't go." Just don't thinking there is anything "Michelangelo" to see. There is not.

Joseph Kelleher
Joseph Kelleher

Excellent review of a very poor exhibition! Vatican Splendors was disappointing and a total waste of my time and money. The exhibits on view were not very good, the way it was designed in the space was an eye-sore, and there were mistakes in the wall descriptions. Half of the stuff I saw before at the Saint Peter and the Vatican show a few years ago and the other half were copies and replicas. Clearly the museum of art in fort lauderdale needs new and smart leadership if it is to survive. Is there a doctorate in the house?