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 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.