It would be impossible for me to describe all that the Vatican Museums have given me over the years. Explaining its vast collection has maintained my family; studying the myriad works has forged me as an art historian; and discovering the meaning in the art revived my faith. In the many years I have spent within the Vatican walls, the Museums have never stopped sustaining me as a Christian and as scholar.
It is rare to be able to give back a little of what one has received, but this week I had the immense joy of seeing my own little token finally flower.
A year after his election in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI turned his attention to the Vatican Museums. The Museums were celebrating their 500th anniversary and the Holy Father seized the opportunity to reiterate the mission of the papal collections.
At an audience on Dec. 16, 2006, with museum directors from all over the world, the Pope explained that the Museums represent “an extraordinary opportunity of evangelization” because, through their different works, they offer visitors “an eloquent testimony of the continuous intertwining that exists between the divine and human in life and in the history of nations.”
The Pope took the time to express this thought directly to the museum staff on Nov. 23, 2006, when he issued an important challenge to the employees of the Museums: “A temple of art and culture such as the Vatican Museums,” he began, “requires that the beauty of the works on display be accompanied by that of the people who work in them: a spiritual beauty, which truly makes the environment ecclesial and imbues it with a Christian spirit.”
Shortly thereafter, Benedict appointed a new director of the Vatican Museums, Professor Antonio Paolucci, whose own deep spirituality permeates his speeches and writings. He also called in a new managing director, Monsignor Paolo Nicolini, to help get the Museums more user-friendly for visitors. One of the greatest concerns of both Professor Paolucci and Monsignor Nicolini was the untapped potential to evangelize the 20,000 pilgrims and tourists that daily visit the collections.
So began the department of “art and faith” at the Vatican Museums, overseen by Dr. Umberto Utro, curator of early Christian Antiquities, and Sister Rebecca Nazzaro of the Missionaries of Divine Revelation. I was brought on as well as a consultant for projects.
Over the years we have produced “art and faith” themed itineraries through the galleries, a DVD on the Via Pulchritudinis and an exhibition, “Called to Love,” on the Theology of the Body and Art for World Youth Day 2011.
As a professor and longtime tour guide however, I think the first line of evangelization through art are the guides. The Vatican Museums has quadrupled its didactic staff over the past six years and while we have specialists in everything from Etruscan art to Byzantine icons to papal carriages (not to mention experts in tours for the visually impaired, for children, and in sign language), the overarching meaning and mission of the Museums was not emphasized in the guides’ training.
It seemed to me that the Vatican Museums needed a course on its own history and mission to convey a uniform sense of purpose regarding the papal collections. The guides, of course, vary widely in their particular fields of expertise and visitors differ widely in their own backgrounds, so some degree of homogeneity was in order. Monsignor Nicolini and Professor Paolucci welcomed the initiative and allowed me to prepare a course to be implemented for the Year of Faith.
I used much of my own spiritual awakening in the Museums as a guide in writing the course, from the problem of Christians using images to the surprising vision of Christological humanism that ran contrary to my own training at the University of Chicago. I have learned to appreciate the achievements of the Museums during the Enlightenment era and remain fascinated by the reaction of the Church to art in the time of the Counter Reformation, which is my own field of expertise.
The course is divided into 11 segments, which tie together various periods in the history of the Church and art. Each module is taught by an expert, all of whom are members of the Vatican curatorial staff except Dr. Sara Magister, an expert in the collection of Pope Julius II, and myself. Two exceptional invitations to teach were sent, one to Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi, prefect of the Pontifical Council for Culture, and the other to Monsignor Timothy Verdon, an art historian and canon of the cathedral of Florence. To my amazement and delight, they both accepted the invitations extended by Professor Paolucci to speak to the Vatican docents.
The intensive week-long course began on Monday with a mesmerizing talk by Cardinal Ravasi outlining the entire curriculum. “Why do Christians have art?” he asked rhetorically. Weaving a dazzling story of an invisible God who with His words alone created a visible world, and then made man in his own image and likeness, the cardinal brought his listeners to the culmination of divine art: the Word become Flesh.
The Milanese prelate spoke of idolatry and man’s incessant desire to place his own artifacts above his Creator. As he developed this theme it became increasing clear that idolatry is not just a menace of the Old Testament but surrounds us still every day in the modern world. Counter-balancing that disturbing thought, however, His Eminence reminded his listeners that when God creates, it is out of love.
Looking at the packed room, listening to the cardinal lend scriptural erudition and poetic structure to the vague, sometimes scattered ideas that rattle in my head about Christians and art, I felt like I had given a little back to this great institution that has played such a huge part in my development as a Catholic.
* * *
All in the family
Romans are famously “meteoropatic,” a word virtually coined by Italians to describe how their physical state conforms to the weather. It’s sunny, Romans are in a good mood; it’s rainy, they are cranky. For this reason, the Breughel exhibit is a welcome rainbow during these dreary days of winter. “Breughel: The Marvels of Flemish Art” will be on display at the Bramante Cloisters of Santa Maria della Pace until June 2.
The Breughel dynasty of painters ruled Europe with their deft brushstrokes and vast palettes for over 150 years starting from the 16th century.
With an odd penchant for the names Jan and Pieter, they are a bit of an art historian’s nightmare, with Youngers and Elders to tell apart. Fortunately their work was so diverse that once in the exhibit amid the 100 paintings, each Breughel takes on his own distinct personality and style.
Truth be told, most of the works are from private collections so they vary in quality, and only a very small number come from museums such as Capodimonte and the Museum of Tel Aviv. But the erratic quality allows for one to skip over some works and focus on the treasures of the show.
Pieter Brueghel the Elder was perhaps the most well known of the family. Born in 1525, he studied under Pieter van Aelst. His works began with a wannabe Roman quality as he produced large scale altarpieces in the Italian style, such as the Resurrection from 1563 in the exhibit. Pieter was also deeply influenced by Hieronomyous Bosch and thus produced unforgettable scenes such as The Fight Between Carnival and Lent or Peasant Wedding where the busy scene of dinner and service swirls around the still bride, much like a predella panel in an altarpiece.
His son Pieter the Younger picked up his father’s legacy and gave it momentum especially in the winter landscape scenes such as Winter Bird Trap. He also continued the exceptionally perceptive Brueghel trait of capturing human nature in his series of the proverbs (the “flatterer” is unforgettable).
Caravaggio must have known the work of Jan Brueghel the Elder, son of Pieter the Elder and brother of the younger. Jan Breughel’s exquisite brushstroke and meticulous attention to detail made him one of the most successful still-life painters to ever walk on Italian soil. Jan, a Catholic, collaborated with Peter Paul Rubens on several works and was particularly admired by Cardinal Federico Borromeo, who also owned Caravaggio’s celebrated Basket of Fruit.
Jan’s penchant for working on copper with oil gives his surfaces a captivating velvety quality. Noble households bought his works as fast as he could produce them. The Colonna family, the Pamphilj family, and many others still proudly display his works in the most intimate halls of these princely palaces.
An encyclopedic fascination with the natural world characterizes Jan Breughel the Younger. Still life painting and classical nudes in intriguing settings add a new twist in the family business. His Allegories of the Senses are one of the most engaging works of the show.
The dynasty continues with Abraham the floral painter and Anna Brueghel who brought the extraordinary talent of David Teniers into the family through marriage.
This exceptional lineage closes on a high note with this last generation who summed up the acute natural observations, meticulous craftsmanship, and penetrating vision of humanity distinctive to this family. All in all, I found it to be a cheery and uplifting exhibit, but then again, I visited it on a sunny day.
* * *
Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. A new paperback version of her 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.