a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A display of faith

A visitor pauses before a reproduction of Michelangelo's 1499 Pieta on display at Sen. John Heinz Regional History Center, Pittsburgh (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH – Artists debated for 20 minutes about how to cast a plaster mold of Pope John Paul II’s hand without dirtying it before his death.
They discussed slipping a thin plastic or light cotton glove over his right hand before slipping it into wet plaster until the pope intervened, said Monsignor Roberto Zagnoli, curator of the “Vatican Splendors: A Journey through Faith and Art” traveling exhibit at Sen. John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh.

“He said, ‘I might be old, but I still know how to wash my hands by myself,’” said Zagnoli, who also is Vatican curator. 

The October 2002 bronze cast of the pope’s hand is one of the most special artifacts in the display, Zagnoli said, and the last thing visitors see after touring the exhibit of items collected over the centuries by Roman Catholic popes. It’s also the only artifact visitors are permitted to touch among the more than 270 rare works of art and other objects in the exhibit.

The collection, which includes the works of Michelangelo, Bernini and Guercino, is designed to tell the story of Christianity, faith and Jesus over the past 2,000 years. Also on display is a shrine containing the remains of Saints Peter and Paul that has never before left the Vatican.

“I think people will be making pilgrimages here over the holiday season,” said Andy Masich, president and chief executive officer of the History Center.

The tour begins at a walkway to the “tomb of St. Peter,” where objects are displayed that were left behind at his burial site in Rome. The ancient basilica would later be built around the tomb.

“The shrine soon became a place of public worship,” said the Rev. Charles Hilken of St. Mary’s College of California, Moraga, Calif.

Also on display is a crude sixth-or seventh-century reproduction of a gold votive plaque bearing a cross and two large eyes that had been placed on the tomb. Nearby is a cast of a sarcophagus sculpture of Mary holding her child to be venerated by the Wise Men of the East bearing gifts.

“The Roman style of art becomes Christian,” said Hilken, while leading a group of writers through the exhibit before it opened.

A mosaic of St. Peter dating to about 700 hangs from an opposing wall, showing him in the Byzantine style of art with a white beard and hair. He also is depicted with three fingers raised to symbolize the Trinity, Hilken said.

The mood switches to about 1506, when the church began construction of the new basilica, of which Michelangelo was among the architects involved in the building of the shrine over the course of a century.

The focal point here is an exact replica of the artist’s Pieta, a sculpture completed in 1499 showing Mary at the same age as her son, Jesus, when his body was lowered from a cross into her arms.

“It’s the only piece Michelangelo signed,” Hilken said.

The exhibit also includes art showing Christ as Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese as the popes’ taste for art evolved and the church expanded across the globe in the 13th century.

Further ahead is a room lined with large paintings of various popes completed in the 20th century by unidentified Franciscan nuns.

Around the corner Pope John Paul’s portrait hangs above the display of the cast of his right hand, extended as if about to shake the hands of visitors. 

The exhibit at 1212 Smallman St. is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Jan. 9. The exhibit will be closed Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day, and open New Year’s Day.

A crude 6th or 7th century reproduction of a gold votive plaque bearing a cross and two large human eyes that had been placed on the tomb of St. Peter.

(This article first appeared in Living Washington County Nov./Dec. 2010 issue, a publication of the Observer-Reporter.)

No comments: