By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, SEPT. 17, 2009 ( Following the restoration of the Sistine Chapel and the construction of the new entrance, the Vatican Museums seem to be celebrating the third millennium with a period of spiritual renewal. Over the last year, the museum has taken great strides to recover its identity as a sacred space and symbol of the papacy's longstanding commitment to the arts and the conservation of the ancient patrimony of Rome.

The new director, Dr. Antonio Paolucci, swept in like a breath of fresh air in 2007. Fresh from curating the Petrus Eni exhibition in St. Peter's Basilica in 2006, Dr. Paolucci has worked tirelessly to infuse new life into the museum as well as stimulate interest in some of the lesser-known galleries.
After hiring scores of new custodians, the museum has reopened rooms that had long been closed, increasing the dazzling array of available works in the museums. The museums have been arranging English lessons for the employees to strengthen communication skills, while the director and the curators have offered early morning gallery lectures to illustrate the works in the collections.

The on-line reservation system was also perfected last year, diminishing lines and rendering the logistics of getting into the museums considerably less harrowing.

And a new initiative, opening the museums after hours to the general public on Fridays nights, signals the Vatican Museums desire to become part of the cultural life of the Romans, instead of just a stomping ground for tourists and pilgrims. What better Friday night date than exploring the history of the Eternal City through its greatest artistic treasures?

Dr. Paolucci, who has a particular appreciation for Raphael, is overseeing the restoration of the Raphael rooms in the apartments of Julius II with startlingly beautiful results, while the Patrons of the Vatican Museums, led by Legionary of Christ Father Mark Haydu, have been redoubling their efforts to finance the conservation and cleaning of this immense collection. It seems that every week, some new work is emerging from under centuries of grime to shine among the constellation of Vatican art.

The Pio-Christian Museum, a unique collection of fourth century sarcophagi documenting the earliest Christian images, has grown in prominence, particularly this summer with the impressive exhibition on St. Paul. In this way, the museum, headed by curator Dr. Umberto Utro, flanked the Holy Father in his efforts to spotlight St. Paul, and demonstrated an admirable collaboration between pastoral and cultural.

But the real metamorphosis is more than logistics and accessibility. The spirit of the museums is also changing. Dr. Paolucci and his staff have made impressive overtures to help all those who collaborate with the museums become better ambassadors of the Vatican and its mission.

To combat the hydra of scurrilous tours, proffering scandal stories and tall tales, the museums expanded the didactic staff, hand-picking a growing team of historians and archeologists to work as guides through the collection. They are not only at the disposal of the ever-present school groups, but also for tourists who would like a more factual tour than those hawked shamelessly along the road to the museum entrance.

The curators also met with these guides, offering their wisdom, experience and inside knowledge of the collection to the new Vatican recruits. The museums even arranged a lecture followed by apéritifs, encouraging the didactic staff to meet, mingle and share ideas, as well as making them feel a welcome part of this ancient and venerable institution.

Among these new guides are a small group of religious sisters, the Missionaries of the Divine Revelation, founded by Mother Prisca Mormina with the apostolate of catechesis. Wearing distinctive green habits, they have become a common sight in the Vatican Museums.

Several of these sisters took up the call to catechize with art, offering tours of St. Peter's Basilica and St. John Lateran. In 2008, they were invited to the Vatican Museums to develop museum itineraries reflecting art and faith. These tours, led by the sisters and their staff, look at the collections through the eyes of the faith the works express and the Christian beliefs that inspired the artists who made them.

Mother Rebecca Nazzaro, the superior of this little group, described their choice of a mission to the museums: "The Church needs art because through art man can leave his 'finite' self to enter into the infinite of God. The Church believes that the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the intimate and invisible life of God became visible to man, and the language of art therefore becomes a bridge between heaven and earth and visible and invisible."

These itineraries, available through the Vatican Web site, are offered in English and Italian. Through them, Mother Rebecca hopes to "offer pilgrims who are 'lost' amid the vast collection or visitors who find themselves distracted by the myriad of works, a journey through the history of man through the language of art." She considers art "a privileged instrument of evangelization for its comprehensible idiom and capacity to open dialogue between people of diverse social or religious extraction."

While there are still plenty of chaotic days in the museums and there is still a ways to go to render the papal collection an earthly paradise for visitors, this sixth century of the Vatican Museums is looking pretty positive.

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While taking my students to Florence this weekend, we made our obligatory stop to see Michelangelo's "David." This time, however, there was a little more "art" than I bargained for in the Accademia. Michelangelo's sculptures were all paired with black and white photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, the controversial American photographer renowned for his homoerotic pictures, who died of AIDS in 1989.

After the initial discomfiture caused by being with my students in the presence of such erotically charged works, I tried to understand what the curators had in mind. Unfortunately, the only conclusion I could draw was that the Accademia was attempting to draw a parallel between the nude sculptures of Michelangelo and the nude men and women photographed by Mapplethorpe.

Beyond the facile comparison between the powerful carved forms of Michelangelo and Mapplethorpe's selection of perfectly muscled specimens for his lens, there is little to bring these two together. Superficially one could surmise that they shared a common formal characteristic in their habit of reducing art to essentials. Michelangelo was interested in little else besides the human form and his landscapes, architecture and backdrops were mere cursory considerations, while Mapplethorpe wanted no distractions from his subject and used the minimum of set dressing in his pictures.

That however, ends the similarity. Mapplethorpe exalted the human form for its own temporal use; Michelangelo tried to render man not as he is, but as he is called to be.

The first Mapplethorpe images are subtly sprinkled along the main gallery alongside Michelangelo's "slaves," executed for the tomb of Julius II in Rome. This series of photographs titled "Thomas," after the model, show a nude man posed inside a circular frame. In the four pictures, Thomas is posed differently but always conforms to the curve of the ring. The figure is a prisoner of the ring, confined within its sterile white form, and the model follows the line dictated by the shape. He seems bent to the will of Mapplethorpe's lens, a pliant and willing servant.

Michelangelo's prisoners, carved to decorate a free standing architectural structure, rail against their confines in space. They would have been bound to the architectural piers of Julius' tomb, but they strain for freedom, to expand to their full potential.

Perhaps the greatest i nsult of this show was to David, Michelangelo's colossal statue from 1504. Symbol of the potential of Florence, Michelangelo's "David" was ennobled through a certain awkwardness in the proportions and hesitation in the glance, reflecting the trials and difficulties of the hero.

By contrast, Mapplethorpe’s "Thomas" seems woefully plastic, a mass of muscle with no tale to tell. Substance gives way to form.

Oddly enough, I had just come from the Uffizi where I was discussing Michelangelo's lone panel painting, the "Doni Tondo" with my students. This work was painted right after Michelangelo carved "David" in 1504.

The background of the work is notoriously devoid of landscape, the trees and monuments substituted by five nude figures, completely absorbed in each other. This has long been interpreted by scholars as the pagan world, where beauty was an end in and of itself, and man worshiped his own sensual form.

 The advent of Christianity, rendered in the vibrant color and dynamic foreshortening by Michelangelo in the work, gave man a greater beauty to adore, that of the Incarnation. Michelangelo would have had no more use for Mapplethorpe's photographs than he would have had for Playboy magazine.

That the organizers of this exhibit have tried so shamelessly to equate the photographs of a man who has become the poster child of homosexual activism with the art of Michelangelo, is a sad reflection on the city that has produced so many heroes of the Church, from Dante to St. Antoninus.

Michelangelo wrote a sonnet in his later years to express his love for the human figure; these words were sadly never echoed by Mapplethorpe.

"Nor hath God deigned to show Himself elsewhere More clearly than in human forms sublime, Which, since they image Him, alone I love." Michelangelo son. LVI

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic studies program. She can be reached at