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Events: Spiritual Appreciation

Vatican exhibition traces impact of religion on art

By Brandon Brady · December 31st, 2003 · Events
The powerful crucifixion of St. Peter leaves a dramatic imprint.
Geoff Raker

The powerful crucifixion of St. Peter leaves a dramatic imprint.

It's unsettling to hear Monsignor Roberto Zagnoli referred to as "Sugar Bob." It's a touch disrespectful, even for the non-religious like me. But Stacy F. King, president and chief executive officer of Clear Channel Exhibitions, has no qualms calling the monsignor "Sugar Bob" during opening remarks at a media preview to Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes.

The idea is legit. The nickname unwraps Zagnoli's confectionery nature while dispelling the negative press that lately follows the Catholic Church around like a Holy Ghost. The stickiness of the situation, the tragedy and the travesty within the church's circles, poses its problems. Dubbing Zagnoli "Sugar Bob," an apropos name, best bandied about in an intimate gathering of true friends, can't erase the past of others.

Besides, don't we all have skeletons in our confessionals? That's not meant as an absolution of certified sinners or as a statement condoning horrific acts. Simply put, should we decree our own judgment day on a whole organization for the reprehensible actions of some individuals? In the hands of Saint Peter, a traveling exhibition of 350 religious art and artifacts from the Vatican Museums on display at the Cincinnati Museum, the answer is no.

For all its recently publicized faults, the Catholic Church has much to behold and cherish.

Saint Peter is an exhibit that travels beyond religion into the realms of history and art. It's not a question of "Do you believe in Jesus Christ?" It's a question of "How has Jesus Christ shaped beliefs? How has he shaped history? How has he shaped art?"

Pope John Paul II answers with his own hopes for the exhibit. Lining the entrance to Saint Peter is a personal message from the pontiff to visitors: "May all who visit the exhibition, 'St. Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes,' in admiring the beauty of the works of art contained therein, draw near with confidence to Jesus Christ the Redeemer, who made the Apostle Peter his vicar on earth."

Standing inside the exhibit, Zagnoli, curator of the Vatican Museums, is aglow in the spirituality surrounding him. His smile stretches into a permanent fixture, as if painted by Michelangelo himself. Zagnoli's eyes twinkle. His arms move excitedly, punctuating his speech. Though an ocean away from the Vatican, Zagnoli is at home.

"The works of art in this exhibit speak for themselves. It's a message of unity and of welcome from the Holy Father," Zagnoli says. "The message of this exhibit is far more precious than the precious artifacts on display in this exhibit."

Zagnoli embodies his Catholic beliefs with the joy of a kid. His native Italian ebbs and flows like a roller coaster as he talks. He allows himself to get carried away on his passion, speaking hurriedly. The translator accompanying him has trouble keeping up. Zagnoli barely pauses for breath. He has much to say.

"They demystify the Vatican because the doors are open that have never been shown before. This is really to show the Vatican or Papacy less as a source of power than as a dialogue," Zagnoli explains.

I haven't engaged in much dialogue since viewing the exhibit, nor have I forgotten its vision. The simplicity of St. Peter's tomb, reconstructed here from the second-century original, is a somber, reverent touch, although I can't help but feel that its significance is lost on me. Two white marble columns support a horizontal travertine slab that separates St. Peter's resting place into two parts. A soundtrack plays in the background. Birds chirp periodically over gorgeously haunting chants. Though a handful of visitors mill about, I feel alone.

The crucifixion of St. Peter is unfolded in a contemporary casting of a 15th-century object of resin and marble dust. According to the placard, Pope Sixus IV built a marble high altar (also known as a "ciborium") above St. Peter's Tomb to relay his story. The image of St. Peter hanging upside down, arms outstretched, is a powerful one. Its placement in the exhibit, suspended from the ceiling above visitors, adds to its emotional weight.

"There was a story to tell, a theme to follow, starting from the tomb of Peter, one who represented Him first on Earth," Zagnoli comments. "So each one of these objects was chosen of this thread that unites."

The tale spills out into 12 galleries of papal gowns, paintings, original artifacts and more. Zagnoli personally chose the objects to be included. A Missal Stand of Cuba wood, fish spine and tortoise shell, journeyed on Christopher Columbus' first voyage to America. A 20th-century papal throne of fur, red velvet and bronze sits in anticipation of being occupied. Cecco Benanotte's bronze viewing of "Twelve Portraits of Popes" is a beautifully aged and detailed yearbook.

The richness of each piece shines outside Vatican City. Traipsing through St. Peter didn't set me on the same path as the Catholic Church. There was no spiritual awakening, just a spiritual appreciation.

"Just as it's right that Catholics and Christians to be familiar with other religions, perhaps it's a good idea for others to learn about our religion," Zagnoli responds, not in disrespect but as a good-natured joke. His nickname is affirmed with a playful wink.

SAINT PETER AND THE VATICAN: THE LEGACY OF THE POPES is on display at the Cincinnati Museum Center through April 18.


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