On not enjoying the Vatican Museum

A bronze relief panel of the meeting of Paul VI and the Patriarch Athenagoras (probably), in the Vatican Museum

In 1964 there was an historic meeting in Jerusalem. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches had been formally separated for nine centuries when Pope Paul VI and Athenagoras, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, met in that most symbolic of cities. The meeting was a significant step towards the Joint Declaration of 1965, which rescinded the reciprocal excommunications of 1054 that are often taken as the trigger of the Great Schism.

In the Vatican Museum, there is a relief panel that depicts the meeting of the two men. At least, I think there is; I think I saw it there in June of this year. But I was at the time in the grip of the ceaseless torrent of visitors that surges through the Museum to reach the Sistine Chapel, therein to be prodded and scolded into prayerfulness by the staff. I saw the panel at the top of a staircase but was swept away downstream by the flow, and had to press myself against the wall of the stairwell to take this picture.

Maquette for Jacob Epstein’s Madonna and Child (Cavendish Square) in the Vatican Museum

Similar contortions were necessary to see another piece of particular interest to me: this maquette for the large statue of the Madonna and Child that hangs in Cavendish Square in London. To take this picture, I was pressed against the display case as the throng streamed past behind me, able neither to step back nor to stoop down to look at it. ‘There are some paintings by Chagall in this section’ I heard one guide say, ‘but we don’t have time to look at them.’

Galleries are often busy, I understand that; the private contemplation of great works of art in cool hushed galleries is a luxury which was for too long unavailable to most people. But Christian organisations have two particular reasons to take their art seriously, neither of which seems to be at all influential in the Vatican Museum. Much of the collection in Rome is specifically Christian art: treatments of Christian subjects, like Epstein’s Madonna. Such art is largely made to prompt reflection both in the believer and in those who are not: edification and evangelism together. It is hard to imagine conditions less conducive to either kind of reflection than those that I found in the Vatican Museum.

And as for the vast stock of works that are not on Christian themes, catholic theologies of art have often tended to stress that any beautiful thing can point beyond itself, to the creator God without whom there could be nothing of beauty. But that pointing also requires that the viewer has time and space in which to see the thing properly. This test, too, the Vatican Museum sadly failed. If its custodians took the reasons for the existence of their collection seriously, it would not have failed that test.

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