THE didactic "Vatican Treasures" exhibition currently on view at the Denver History Museum through August 31, offers more in the way of interesting cultural artifacts than great works of art.
Though there are a number of fine pieces, few of the great names of Western art were entrusted to the care of traveling custodians. Instead, the work was chosen to illustrate Roman Catholic beliefs and the history of the Vatican, underscoring the Pope's visit here last week.
Consequently, the show includes a number of copies and lesser works of art; many architectural drawings of St. Peter's Basilica as it was designed and changed over time; and a number of liturgical instruments and vestments. Tapestries and primitive medieval sculpture are among the most interesting artifacts.
As the museum world has become more aware of art from the world's many cultures, more exhibitions are designed to be culturally sensitive. So "Vatican Treasures" has been designed to take the viewer back to another time, a distant culture. The viewer descends the stairs of the museum and enters a beautifully designed labyrinthine exhibition space.
Many of the gallery walls have been painted dark gray. One can look through a window cut into a wall to see a particular work of art at a great distance. A magnificent 12th-century mosaic of the Apostle Peter is thus framed. A copy of Michelangelo's "Pieta" can be seen through a series of doorways almost at once - and from a distance, the form is striking. The exhibit has been lit to preserve ancient textiles and paint made delicate by age.
Pin spotlights replace the brighter lights of the gallery, highlighting gold threads and glistening silk or jewels and ornaments. The overall effect is meant to simulate the reverential atmosphere of a church or cathedral - a cultural approach similar to that taken by the Denver Natural History Museum with last year's Aztec exhibit. One important difference is that the show's catalog, signage, and audio tour have been written by Vatican staff; the approach is not meant to be objective.
The show is arranged thematically, beginning with the story of Jesus passing the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven to Peter - a metaphor given a literal interpretation in several works of art. One of the finest pieces here is a page from an illuminated manuscript by the great Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio (1473), the master under whom Michelangelo first studied. The miniature image places Jesus in a tranquil countryside, an exquisitely detailed landscape stretching out behind him. Peter clings to t he key and a book.
Nearby, a 1st-century bust of the Emperor Nero glares down at the viewer - the artist captured the cruel features in the same refined detail with which he captured the curly beard. Nero was infamous for his persecution of Christians. Peter and Paul were both executed under his rule. The bust has been lit from above, making the figure look maniacal and cruel.
Christian art began to appear in the 3rd century, but it is not until the 4th century, after the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, that the production increased by leaps and bounds. The entire character of the church changed with the advent of Constantine, as the wall signs point out. The earliest piece offered in this collection dates from the 4th century. It is a small glass roundel emblazoned with stylized figures of Peter and Paul.
One of the true treasures of the exhibition is a small marble bas-relief by Michelangelo. Displayed in the same room with the plaster copy of the large, more famous "Pieta," this small "Pieta," made toward the end of his career, demonstrates the great artist's power. Even unfinished, the composition radiates energy.
A bronze bust ("Pope Urban VII") and several architectural drawings of the Basilica of St. Peter by another genius of the Renaissance, Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, helps broaden the scope of the exhibit, showing how a Renaissance artist like Bernini was not only a master sculptor, but also a brilliant architect, as were other artists of the same period.
This show, like many others, shows a change in perception over time. A medieval Madonna is likely to be dour and suffering, while a Renaissance Mary (like Antonello Gagini da Messina's "Madonna and Child" of 1508) may be tender and serene.
There are several exquisite tapestries - one 17th-century antependium is a fabulous piece of needlecraft. A tapestry showing a deep perspective of an interior with colonnade looks out to a landscape beyond. Stitched into the woven landscape are trees, houses, and flowers in the distance. In the foreground and middle ground, coral and garnet beads raise the surface and create texture that increases the depth of the perspective.
"Vatican Treasures" was not intended to give Americans a sweeping look at the history of Western art since Constantine - a disappointment since the title raises some expectations. The many portraits of former popes and commemorative Vatican coins, along with the rather narrow thematic development underscores the religious purpose of the show. Still, there are many works of art that merit attention and will not be seen outside of Italy again soon.