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The Invisible Mask Visible Angels from the Vatican.

Thanks in large part to a group known is Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, who have thirteen chapters in the United States, an exhibit comprising nearly one hundred works of angelic beings has been touring across the United States. It opened for its only appearance in Canada at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto on April 24 and will continue on view until June 20.

His Holiness John Paul II has given his blessing to the project and has written a preface for the catalogue of the exhibit. In part he writes:

"Through the angels, the invisible world plays a vital--though hidden--role in the visible world of man's history. The fallen angels tempt us away from our filial inheritance. The good angels, our friends and allies in every suitable action done for God and neighbour, lead us on the path of holiness, justice, and peace with every other human being. Each one of us has a 'guardian angel', our silent and discreet counsellor, whose intercession and watchful care bring us immeasurable assistance in facing the challenges of life....

"May the members of the Church know the angels better and love them more. May each of us cherish the friendship of the angel who is at our side 'to light, to guard, to rule and to guide.' May we each echo on earth the song of the angels in heaven as they praise God's glory for ever and ever: 'Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might:"

Many of these treasures have never left the Vatican heretofore. Many are never on view to the general public. Chalices, monstrances and papal processional crosses from the Pontifical Sacristy have never been on public display, but they and the other works included in Angels from the Vatican all share a motif in common: the depiction of angels by some of the most inspired artists of all time, truly the invisible made visible.

The exhibit opened, appropriately enough, in Los Angeles in February of 1998, and travelled to St. Louis, Detroit, Baltimore, and West Palm Beach, and it finally comes to the end of its journey in Toronto. The Vatican director of the exhibition is Dominican Father Allen Duston. At the Detroit opening last August, he told us that he was frequently asked if he believed in angels.

"I always answer that I believe in prayer," he told us with a most beguiling grin. "I prayed that the treasures I wanted for the show would be available, and they were. I prayed that financial backing would be available, and it was. I prayed for safe travel and that the angels would meet with a good response, and they have broken attendance records wherever they have been shown. My prayers were all answered."

In a survey conducted by the Chrysler Corporation (the answer to Father Duston's prayer for financial backing), an overwhelming majority of those polled claimed that they believed in angels--in part of the U.S. southern states, an astonishing 94 per cent. Is this really a belief in spiritual beings, or is that belief tainted with interest only in television programmes? Or do these poll results signify only a familiarity with little cherubs who are portrayed on everything from umbrellas to playing cards, pleasing perhaps, but unable to lead us to ponder on the activities of the real angels?

Two "putti" come to mind, the ones by Raphael on the lower part of the much beloved Sistine Madonna in the Dresden State Museum. In Raphael's painting, they are gazing with enraptured concentration on the Holy Mother and Child above them. Separated from their source of wonderment, as has so frequently been the case for anything from address labels to a restaurant decoration, they look as though they could be considering a menu choice.

Angels from the Vatican puts the renderings of the angelic host back where they belong, as guides, guardians, and helpmates of mankind. Two angels welcome us to the exhibit as they hold up the wreath with the coat of arms of Pope Innocent VIII, made of glazed terra cotta around 1484-87 by Benedetto Buglioni.

"What is an angel?" we ask, and a few examples from the fifteenth century to a contemporary figure prepare us for their various missions.

Next we study the origins of angel iconography from the ninth century B. C.; a "winged genius" from the Kingdom of Assurnasirpal II (983-859 B.C.) who seems to be caressing the Tree of Life; winged creatures on Etruscan mirrors; a marble Eros; a winged being on a shaft a metre high surrounded by candle holders made five hundred years before the birth of Christ; alabaster fragments from funerary urns and sarcophagi.

Then we approach "Angels in the Life of Christ" and there are superb examples, many half a millennium old, depicting angels at the birth; the baptism; angels in attendance in the Garden of Gethsemane; a baroque reliquary of angels made of silver, surrounding what is thought to be the miraculous Mandylion of Edessa, the oldest known image of Christ, possibly made in the third century. It is normally kept in the Pontifical Sacristy. Three small wooden angels from the workshop of Bernini carry instruments of the Passion. These are thought to be preliminary sketches for the marble angels on the Ponte S. Angelo, produced by Berini in the hope that Pope Clement X would award him the commission for this "Bridge of Angels" in Rome. Christ on the Cross is shown with weeping angels, and being borne by angels to Paradise.

Next we enter "Angels in the Life of the Virgin", with a striking sculpture of the Annunciation, made in 1967, and then to more traditional enactments, paintings of the Holy Family and the Madonna and Child. Angels flank the Apostles in the burial of the Virgin and accompany her in the Dormition, and angels sing their praises at the Assumption.

"Angels in the Life of the Community: Saints" follows next with a superb painting by Guido Reni of St. Matthew and the Angel, 1635-1640. Here the elderly Evangelist seems to be heeding instructions from an earnest young angel--a reminder, as Father Duston pointed out, that one is always in a position to learn, whether from a youth or from an older mentor. There are saints adoring the Madonna and Child accompanied by angels praising God, and a sleeping St. Helena with a "putto" indicating to the empress where she will find the true cross--a magnificent painting of the mother of Emperor Constantine in a sixteenth-century gown and crown, painted by Veronese around 1580. Various legends of the saints are pictured in this section, always accompanied by angels. From the Pontifical Sacristy, a twentieth-century reliquary casket of Saint Francis Xavier is a remarkable piece of work from Goa in silver-plated metal with silver, precious stones, and glass surmounted by a host of silver angels. Angels support an eighteenth-century reliquary of gilded bronze and silver from the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

"Angels in the Life of the Community: Guardians and Consolers" comes next. From a fresco of Raphael's to a contemporary painting, Angel in the Night by Felice Casorati, painted about 1961, depicting a guardian angel with widespread dark blue comforting wings bent over a troubled sleeping figure, we are reminded of angels who touch our lives. Then to "Angels in the Life of the Community: Messengers", who are depicted as sometimes interceding on our behalf, and to" Angels and the Liturgy," where again there are monstrances and chalices from the Pontifical Sacristy and a nineteenth- century pyx of silver, partly gilded with enamel and gold, processional crosses of exquisitely fine workmanship and then on to Christ the Judge, portrayed by the Last Judgement, a solemn collection and a pertinent reminder of our mortality. Finally there is The Holy Trinity, exhibit number 98, Ludovoco Carraci's The Trinity with the Dead Christ, painted around 1590, a reminder of our redemption. Thus comes the end of a survey of the invisible which, through the creativity and the inspiration of the specially gifted, has been made visible--a remarkable journey.

Father Duston pointed out that this mammoth and magnificent collection has three goals:

First, to allow many people from the United States and Canada an opportunity to benefit from some of the works of art in the Vatican collections;

Secondly, to thank the Patrons of the Vatican Museums not only for their ongoing generosity and dedication to the cause of helping to conserve what has been entrusted to all of us, but also for their service as articulate ambassadors for the Vatican Museums;

And thirdly, to provide through this exhibition (which originated at the request of the Patrons) a catalyst for publicizing the activities of the Patrons.

As we go through this extraordinary and magnificent selection of but a tiny fraction of the wonders made by human hands and inspired by human hearts and souls that lie within the Vatican repositories, we are filled with awe and gratitude at this chance to kindle anew our faith in angels, the real ones whose mission is to guide, guard and protect us.

Mary Willan Mason is a Toronto freelance writer who specializes in art appreciation.

Note: Angels from the Vatican has toured across the U.S. to five cities through 1998 and 1999. Hundreds of thousands of visitors have come to see the exhibition in each city. Tickets for the Exhibition are $10.00 with student and senior discounts available. There are also group rates available.
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Title Annotation:'Angels from the Vatican' exhibit touring the US and Canada
Author:MASON, MARY WILLIAM
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:May 1, 1999
Words:1584
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