The Antiquities of the Vatican Museums

By Mike McLeod

A glimpse into one of the greatest collections in the world-if not the greatest-will be arriving in the U.S. in the coming months. More than 300 works of art and historically significant objects on loan from the Vatican, the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel will be exhibited at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in March, and later in the year at the Ft. Lauderdale Museum of Art, the Cincinnati Museum Center and the San Diego Museum of Art.

The exhibit entitled, "Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes," includes rarities encompassing 2,000 years: a reproduction of the Tomb of St. Peter and a gold plaque found in the area of the tomb; the Mandylion of Edessa, a 3rd-5th century image on linen considered by some to be the oldest known representation of Jesus; a mosaic bust of an angel by the 14th century master, Giotto; drawings by Michelangelo, including figural studies for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; Bernini's exquisite terra-cotta sculpture, Charity with Four Putti, which has the artist's thumbprint in the clay; and the Papal Tiara of Pope Pius IX made of silver, gold, pearls, diamonds, emeralds, and other precious stones. Much of this collection has never left the Vatican.

While this collection is exquisite, there still resides in Vatican City the world's greatest collection of masterpieces and artistic treasures concentrated in one place. Art, sculpture, mosaics, pottery, silver, coins, tapestries, maps, documents and books spanning 4,000 years are kept and displayed in a series of museums collectively known as the "Museums of the Vatican." In reality, the museums also include corridors, libraries, courtyards, halls and rooms that display artistic wonders. In addition, the Sistine Chapel is considered part of the collection.

Vatican City grew up around where tradition says Peter the Apostle was buried after being crucified upside down (not deeming himself worthy to die in the same manner as Jesus Christ). St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City was constructed over his grave, which is walking distance from the museums of the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel.

Vatican City itself is an independent country measuring just 109 acres with a population of about 1,000. It has its own currency, its own army (of about 100 Swiss Guards), diplomats, and even license plates for cars.

The origin of the Vatican Museums is traced back to the 1400s, starting with various popes displaying their personal collections. Donations, commissioned work and continued collecting by church authorities have led to the current massive collection.

Every work of art in the Vatican Museums has a story to tell, but space here allows for only a few. One of the prized paintings with an incredible provenance is Michelangelo's St. Jerome. Created in tempura on wood before 1482, this dark painting in brown tones depicts St. Jerome with a lion that, after removing a thorn from its paw, remained faithful to him. (Sound familiar?) The painting eventually passed into the hands of a Swiss painter and then was lost early in the 19th century. Later, the painting was found twice-because it had been cut into two pieces. The lower portion was discovered in a secondhand shop being used as a cover for a chest. The upper portion with St. Jerome's head was found five years later in a cobbler's shop where it was part of a stool.

Apparently, Michelangelo visited the collection during his day and appreciated the works of art displayed there. He particularly admired one of the most famous sculptures, the Apollo Belvedere, because he used the face and hair for his representation of Christ in the Sistine Chapel's The Last Judgment.

The sculptures record not only great artistry, but also great people and events. A bust of Socrates reveals the great Greek philosopher as having an unremarkable appearance-a domed head, pug nose, small eyes and full beard. Another sculpture, Laocöön, depicts two snakes attacking and killing a priest of Apollo, Laocöön, and his two sons. This sculpture records an event at the end of the 10-year siege of Troy in which King Menelaus rescued his kidnapped wife, Helen. As you know, the Greeks constructed a giant wooden horse and then set sail for home as a ruse. As the epic story goes, Ulysses and his men were hidden inside the Trojan Horse. Laocöön strongly warned against bringing the Greeks' offering into the city. But the goddess Athena, who favored the Greeks, sent the snakes to silence him.

The magnitude of the artistry of sculpture on display is equaled by the size of the collection. The Chiarmonti Museum alone holds more than one thousand statues and reliefs.

Some other highlights in the collection are: the sarcophagus of Emperor Constantine's mother; the sculpture Head of Hadrian, Emperor of Rome about 200 A.D.; and the Statue of Hercules. This 13-foot high giant was discovered in 1864, carefully buried. An inscription explained that it had been hit by lightning cast down from Jupiter.

The oldest image in the collection is the Head of the Pharaoh Mentuhotep II who reigned in about 2000 B.C. It is carved in sandstone and measures about two feet in height. Other Egyptians works include:
*A statue of Queen Tuy, the mother of Ramses II. The statue was brought to Rome by Caligula to honor his mother, whom he adored just as Ramses II adored his mother.
*Tablets, cylindrical seals and writings dating back 3,500 years.
*An extremely rare clay envelope with its cuneiform tablet from the Old Babylonian Period, ca. 1700 B.C.
*Scarabs, canopic vases, mummies, and a pair of child's sandals-3,000 years old.

The Vatican Library, also part of the collection, was established in the 15th century and holds hundreds of thousands of written works-books, prints, papyri, incunabula, music manuscripts (dating as early as the 9th century), codices, drawings, palimpsests (parchment or papyri manuscripts written on twice with the earlier writing not completely erased), autographs (Martin Luther, Michelangelo, Thomas Aquinas, etc.), illuminated manuscripts and letters. One touching letter in the collection is from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn, reassuring her that they would soon be together. As you remember, he later ordered her beheading.

Some works from the Vatican Library can be seen online. Circa Publishing ( ) sells reprints of works from the Vatican Library. The Henry VIII letter can be seen on the website. The Vatican itself has a website ( ) that is still under construction. Some library manuscripts can be viewed there, but you will need to be fluent in Italian to read the commentary.

Of course, no description of the Vatican collection could overlook the paintings and artwork. Many books attempt to detail these works, and three are listed at the end of the article. Much of the artwork is collected, but perhaps the most awe inspiring works are those commissioned by church officials that decorate ceilings, walls, halls and seemingly every inch of available space. That, of course, is a gross generalization, but photos of the great rooms and halls give that impression.

Just listing the names of the artists is a Herculean task; recognizing their names and their work requires the memory of a supercomputer: Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Giovanni Bellini, Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Caravaggio, Cosimo Rosselli, Vitale da Bologna, Giovanni di Paolo, Ercole de' Roberti, Pinturicchio, Melozza da Forli. This does not account for all the untitled and ancient works from Rome, Greece, Etruria, Egypt and the rest of the world.

Space permits the mentioning of only two. Raphael received many commissions at the age of 25 after arriving in Rome. His Stanze (a 213 ft.-long room with painting on all walls and ceiling) and Loggias (a corridor with 13 arches and 52 paintings) are always listed as highlights of the collection. (Of course, bear in mind that masters usually employed assistants in their work, as did Raphael here.)

The most well known artwork in this collection is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, he first began to portray the Twelve Apostles. But acting under inspiration, Michelangelo changed course to give the world an artistic wonder. More than 50 paintings portray the creation of the universe and of Adam, as well as scenes and heroes from the Bible.

The walls of the Sistine Chapel are frescoes portraying the Lives of Moses and Christ (1481-1483) by Perugino, Botticelli, Cosimo Rosselli and Domenico Ghirlandaio, with their assistants.

As you can imagine, books have been written about the great works in this collection, but here is a brief overview:

Egyptian Museum: stelae, inscriptions, sarcophagi, mummies, Roman statuary (from 1st & 2nd century A.D.), Roman ceramics, cuneiform tablets, Mesopotamic seals, Assyrian bas-reliefs from the palaces of Sargon II (722-705 B.C.) and Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.) in Nineveth.

Chiaramonti Museum: statues, busts, sarcophagi, reliefs, about 1,000 Greek/Roman works.

Museum of Popes Clement XIV & Pius VI: Greek and Roman sculptures, such as the Apollo Belvedere, Laocoön, and the statue of Hermes.

Museum of Etruscan Art: urns, pottery, a biga (2-horse chariot), a bronze throne and funeral bed, the bronze statue, Mars of Todi, Greek urns (the Etruscans imported and used them) and the Amphora with Achilles and Ajax depicting them playing dice.

Vase Collection: Greek and Etruscan black figure ceramics.

The Biga Room: contains the famous sculpture, the Discus Thrower by Myron, and a marble Roman biga.

Gallery of the Tapestries: 245 feet long, 17th century tapestries and those by Flemish artist Pieter van Aelst, including Adoration of the Magi and the Massacre of the Innocents.

Gallery of the Maps: the longest gallery in the museums at 395 feet, its maps were painted on the walls in 40 different panels by Antonio Dante between 1580-1583.

Gallery of St. Pius V: tapestries produced in Tournai in the middle of the 16th century by Pieter van Aelst.

Collection of Modern Religious Art: hundreds of paintings, sculptures, engravings and designs donated by individuals and artists (Rodin, Picasso, Francis Bacon Marc Chagall, etc.) and housed in 55 different rooms.

Vatican Picture Gallery: includes works of Giotto, Gentile da Fabriano, Beato Angelico, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Leonardo, Tiziano, Guercino, van Dyck, Poussin, etc.

Museum of Profane Art: Roman copies of Greek originals, Roman sculpture Roman sarcophagi, etc.

Christian Museum: houses Christian antiquities excavated from the catacombs.

Carriage Pavilion: contains the carriages of popes and cardinals and the first automobiles used by the popes.

Medal and Coin Cabinet: holds more than 100,000 pieces of Roman and papal coins.

Books to read include: Vatican Museums Rome (Newsweek, pub.); In the Footsteps of the Popes, Enrico Burschini; and The Vatican Museums (SCALA, pub.).

Photos from the Vatican exhibit, courtesy of Clear Channel Exhibitions and the Trident Media Group, sponsors of the exhibit.

All other photos courtesy of


Apollo Belvedere

Reproduction of the Bishop's Throne of St. Peter.

Mandylion of Edessa, 3rd-5th Century, tempura on linen attached to wood, silver, gold and precious stones. Considered the oldest image
of Christ, faint image of
face in center.

Sculpture of Laocoon's
death from snakes sent by goddess Athena.


Crosier of Pope Paul VI
& Pope John Paul II

Mosaic fragment of
St. Peter, 5th c.

9th c. silver gilt casket or box for holding a cross; image depicts Christ enthroned between Peter and Paul.

Ca. 530 B.C. Greek amphora showing Achilles and Ajax playing a board game;
imported and used by Etruscans.



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