Light Amid Hidden Things; a Secret Discovered

«Lux in Arcana» Worth a Trip to Rome

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MARCH 15, 2012 ( The Vatican Secret Archives evoke all kinds of mysterious associations in people’s minds. Some think conspiracy, others, the deepest mysteries and revelations of the universe. Others see it as history tantalizingly preserved on scraps of parchment and leather-bound tomes, or sometimes peeking out from a few faded lines of ink.

For the first time in its 400-year history, the treasures of the Vatican Archives are on display in a captivating exhibit at the Capitoline Museums. The show, romantically titled “Lux in Arcana» (Light Amid Hidden Things), alludes to light as truth and reality, illuminating things that are hidden by age, ignorance or a nebulous context. The venue, the world’s first museum, opened by Sixtus IV, next door to the office of the mayor of Rome and the place where the European Union treaty was signed into existence, hints at the colliding of worlds, secular and sacred, as well as the common body of knowledge and experience that the West shares through the written word.

From the 85 kilometers (53 miles) of shelves, 650 archival fonds and the millions of documents of the Vatican Secret Archives, 100 were selected for this exceptional show, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to look at history in the making.

The first room opens with a flourish. Twenty four documents from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, printed on paper, silk, bark and parchment, show the wealth of creativity and the vast reaches of man and his desire to communicate.

Each case is a treasure trove, with something for everyone. A document by Emperor Otto I on purple parchment with gold letters, a letter from 1603 written in the Quechua language by Pope Clement VIII to the Peruvian city of Cuzco, or a letter written on silk from Empress Helena of China, make visitors feel like they have been transported to an epistolary candy store.

Famous personages parade through the displays: Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador, Bernini’s accounts, Michelangelo at work on the basilica, and the brief yet memorable passage of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart through Rome.

The convocation of Church councils is recorded among these documents as well as papal bulls dating back to the 10th century, when Pope St. Gregory VII battled Emperor Henry IV in the investiture controversy.

Several documents are perpetually surrounded by a giant cluster of onlookers. The first is an immense parchment almost three feet long. Sent by the members of the English parliament to Clement VII, it regards the “Secret Matter” of Henry VIII and his desired divorce from Queen Catherine to marry Ann Boleyn.

Another visitor magnet are the proceedings of the trial of Galileo Galilei. Sadly, as with most presentations of the ambitious Florentine scholar, the didactic accompaniment smacks of the stereotypical “persecuted scientist” refrain.

A special set-up is reserved for the section on Crusades, Heretics and Knights. A video screen projects flames around the room, no doubt intended to allude to the perceived constant menace of the stake during the years of the Papa Rex. Here one finds the bull of excommunication for Martin Luther, who declared in response that he “despised alike Roman fury and Roman favor.» The 180-foot scroll containing the trial of the Knights Templar with its 231 depositions is stunning, as is the list of the heretical teachings of Giordano Bruno.

The next room is reserved for the gentler sex. The hopeful letter of Bernadette of Lourdes to Pope Pius IX recounting her vision of Our Lady sits across from the despairing note from Marie Antoinette a few weeks before her execution. Saints and superstars share the stage in this wonderful space.

The exhibit does not only focus on the collection, but also the efforts made to preserve the documents. The third floor reveals the variety of damage threatening manuscripts: insects, water, rodents, fire and mold are constant threats to the fragile written word, but the archive has battled valiantly to preserve these works. One can also see a day in the life in the archive, both above in the reading room and below in the stacks. The show cast light in every aspect of the archive, its treasures, its custodians and its students.

The Vatican Archive was founded by Pope Paul V Borghese in 1612, and opened to scholars in 1881 under Pope Leo XIII. But now, 400 years later, all visitors can feel the excitement of history and thrill of knowledge by visiting the diverse and encyclopedic collection of documents in this exhibit.

The Lux In Arcana show will run until Sept. 9, 2012. Don’t miss it. Indeed, come to Rome for it!

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People are always looking for the best-kept secret in New York whether a restaurant, boutique or day spa. New York also has a best-kept secret museum, the MoBia, or Museum of Biblical Art. Housed on the second floor of the American Bible Society building on Broadway at 61st near Lincoln center, it boasts a fascinating collection of rare Bibles in different languages, but its exhibitions display the real genius of the museum.

The MoBia has organized exhibitions on the biblical art of Chagall and Roualt, as well as a spectacular exhibit on the Passion in Venice, but it is their present show, on the art of Marie Hildreth Meière, that has me fascinated. This extremely gifted, remarkably successful 20th-century woman artist devoted much of her talent to beautifying sacred spaces.

As an art historian, I am ashamed to admit I had never heard of this artist until the MoBia brought her to my attention. But upon learning of her life and work, I hope there is an art history doctoral thesis and a movie on its way to introduce her to the world at large.

Born in New York City in 1892 to a distinguished family of French origin, Hildreth followed her mother’s footsteps in studying art. She studied at the Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart and dreamed of becoming a portrait painter, but her mother encouraged her to study in Italy instead of the more fashionable Paris. After a year among the great fresco cycles, Hildreth said she knew that she “would never be satisfied with anything less than a big wall to paint on.” A mural artist was born.

So began her artistic odyssey. She went to California where she worked with theater and ballet companies and then returned to New York for a stint with the Metropolitan Opera. Ironically, in those same years, Picasso was designing the sets and costumes for Sergei Diaghilev’s ballet Parade.

In 1917, Meière joined the war effort working as an architectural draftsman for the Navy. After her discharge in 1919, she was “discovered” by architect Bertram Goodhue and given her first big break. She was commissioned to do the altar wall of St. Mark’s Episcopal church in Mt. Kisko, New York.

Like Raphael, this stunning debut catapulted her to success. She was hired for the National Academy of the Sciences building and then put in charge of decoration of the Nebraska state capital. Like the painter from Urbino, she was unafraid to learn new techniques and media. Raphael and his workshop reinvented the Roman grotesque style, Hildreth reinvented the mosaic with her own technique of gesso on tile.

She worked a great deal in the secular sphere, but sacred spaces were her preferred playground. She decorated mosques, temples and dozens of churches, evoking the transcendent forces of faith amid brick and concrete.

Much in demand in Catholic settings, her work can be seen from the Assumption Church in Westport, Connecticut, to the Cathedral of St. Louis, to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. She also decorated a chapel in the National Shrine of Washington DC.

The exhibit at MoBia titled “The Walls Speak” focuses on Meière’s liturgical art. Hildreth herself noted that about half of her commissions were for religious spaces. Given that the large scale murals cannot be m
oved from their original sites, the exhibit has done the next best thing, bringing together several preparatory drawings and models for her most important works.

The careful finish of the models underscores the craftsmanship that Meière shared with her Renaissance counterparts. A sample mosaic for the church of St. Bartholomew shows the Transfiguration. Meière used glass mosaic for the first time here, exploiting its reflective quality for this story of Christ revealing Himself as light. Her painstaking arrangement of tiles drew on the Byzantine tradition where this subject has been wondrously represented.

The scale model for the dome of the St. Louis Cathedral transports the visitor to the same sense of excited wonder that the patrons of the work must have felt when they first saw the glorious design.

There is also a lovely triptych for the armed services, one of 500 made of oil on wood as portable altars for U.S. military chaplains. Seventy of these liturgical objects were designed by Hildreth herself, a way of bringing the consolation of beauty to the horror of war.

MoBia has also mapped out a self-guided walking tour of New York City to allow the new fans of Hildreth Meière to see her work in situ, especially her mosaic arch in the main sanctuary of Temple Emanu-El, the largest synagogue in the world.

Hildreth Meière may have been the best-kept secret in art history, but thanks to MoBia, not for long.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. Her new book, “The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici” was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this Fall. She can be reached at

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