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Vatican treasures in the United States.

The Catholic cultural heritage is the most extensive in the world. The Holy Father has commented frequently on how it can nourish faith. In November 1997, for example, he stated: "Faith in Christ ennobles man, inspires his creativity and leads him to express God's inexhaustible beauty in works of incomparable artistic value."

The Pope added:

"It is important that the cultural and artistic property of churches, especially sacred places and objects, should not remain mere relics of the past to be passively contemplated. We must remember and retain as far as possible their original purpose. . .

"This rich heritage also serves the Church as a precious means of catechises and evangelization. Today, as in the past, it is a strong incentive to anyone who sincerely seeks God or wants to meet him again. . ." (To Spanish bishops, O.R. Dec. 3/97)


To celebrate the 150th anniversary [of the founding] of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio, April 23, 1847, an entire year of events has been planned under the theme of `Celebrating God's Blessings'. The year began with an opening Eucharistic Liturgy at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist on April 23, 1997 and will conclude with a closing commissioning service on April 23, 1998.

With the participation of the Cleveland Museum of Art, a special art exhibit seemed reasonable. To be able to show the finest in the beauty of creation, coupled with the beauty of holiness, the organizers went to the topmost authority, the Vatican.

In a letter dated on St. John the Evangelist's feast day, the Secretary of State of His Holiness Pope John II, Angelo Cardinal Sedano, wrote of the works in the exhibit that "They illustrate the ageless dialogue between the message of the Gospel and its cultural expression . . . [and enable] us to perceive the infinite interior harmony of the Divine in the beauty of the universe and in the beauty of human creativity."

The exhibit represents a clear case of ask and you shall receive. Thirty-two of the most revered and precious objects from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticano, Museo Sacra, the Pinacoteca Vaticana, the Tesoro della Sagrestia Pontificana, and the Cross of Justin II from the Treasury of St. Peter's are making the journey to the Cleveland Museum of Art, many of them leaving the precincts of the Vatican for the first time since they were deposited. Opening day was February 8 and they all get packed up and returned to the Vatican on Easter Monday.

The works in this exhibit all exemplify perfectly what Cardinal Sodano has called the "infinite interior of the Divine . . . in the beauty of human creativity."

The 1,400 year old gem-encrusted gilt silver Cross of Justin II, 565-578 AD, originally a gift from the Holy Roman Emperor to the Pope, made with utmost care and reverence by the foremost goldsmiths of Constantinople as a reliquary, is regarded as the centrepiece of the Treasury of Rome. The Cross of Pope Pascal I, (817-824), a reliquary for splinters of the True Cross, made of gold, cloisonne enamel outlined with precious stones, is lavished with superb craftsmanship as well as the dedication and reverence of those who worked on it.

A wooden reliquary box, decorated with gold leaf and tempora illustrations associated with the key moments in Christ's life from the Nativity to the Ascension, is the most important early cycle of pictures of holy sites known. The reliquary contains stones from each of the holy sites and we can imagine that the pilgrim of fourteen hundred years ago would be gratified that the collection is still cared for and so highly treasured.

Manuscripts in this remarkable exhibition were meant for use in the Sistine Chapel. One is a book of statues governing the use of the chapel by the papal household. Another, an antiphonary, was used in the service of the Mass in the sixteenth century. The Christmas Missal of Alexander VI (1492-1494) is considered to be one of the Vatican Library's finest illuminated manuscripts of the Renaissance period.

The finest liturgical garments and altar cloths extant from the Renaissance period, thirteen of them, were presented to Clement VIII (1592-1605), by Ferdinand 1 de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Woven in the Medici family tapestry works, using gold, silver and vivid silk threads, they illustrate Christ's ministry and Passion, like glowing miniature paintings, suggesting that they were intended for use in Holy Week. As it took a team of male embroiderers over three years to complete a cope, the extent of Grand Duke Ferdinand's gift is all the more impressive. Work began on these objects with an artist sketching and then painting the design. When that was approved, the weavers created the cloth and then embroiderers took over. The work proceeded slowly; the gold threads were made by coiling a long filament of gold around a silk core. The gold thread was laid on the fabric and attached by a couching stitch to hold it in place. The end of the thread was bent under and secured with a double couching stitch so that no end was visible. Each stitch had to be perfect, and knowing that the pope himself would be wearing the work of their hands contributed to each man's dedication and pride.

One can contemplate the intricate workmanship, the reverent care and infinite patience embodied in the manuscripts, the vestments, the gold work and the sculptures. However, the climax of the exhibit is Caravaggio's masterpiece The Entombment of Christ, from the Vatican Art Gallery, a magnificent and mammoth painting, three hundred centimetres high.

Bishop Anthony Pilla of the Cleveland diocese observed, "Down through the centuries, art and religion have been deeply entwined. Many of our greatest artworks also have great spiritual significance. The Catholic Church has assembled one of the most important collections of Christian liturgical art on earth."

For an eight-week period covering two weeks prior to and all of Lent, these works, the product of human ingenuity, devotion and reverence, will refresh the spirit of all who make the pilgrimage to Cleveland.

Mary Willan Mason, of Toronto, has just completed a biography of Samuel Edward Weir, QC, who amassed a treasury of Canadian art which he bequeathed to the public. Mrs. Willan Mason is the daughter of well-known Canadian liturgical composer, Healey Willan. Her book will be published in the spring.
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Author:Mason, Mary Willan
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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