Finding the Art in Everything

11 March, 2008


Yesterday we took the girls, Punya and Amirah, over to St. Pete for a cultural day out. It was a little rushed, and the gallery for which we were aiming was closed, but we had a nice lunch at Columbia, and instead went to the Florida International Museum, known for its rotating exhibits.

The exhibit on display was called Vatican Splendors, and it was billed as "Michelangelo items and works by Bernini, Giotto, and others. Artwork dating back to the third century. From the venerated relics (bone fragments) of Saint Peter to items from the election of Pope Benedict XVI, this exhibit comprises one of the largest Vatican collections ever to tour North America. Many items have never before been on public view...", which sounded like a decent alternative to the closed Museum of Fine arts.

But that curation of the exhibit was not what we were expecting. As art and history scholars, we were surprised at how much of the exhibit concentrated on religious Catholicism and the authority of the pope. I got the impression we were supposed to revere the artifacts in the exhibit much more than we actually did. The commentary on the pieces left room for them to be imbued with their supernatural powers. Instead of the scholarship we were expecting, we encountered a strange, superstitious medievalism--and this was difficult to overcome. The exhibit was not meant for people who had not familiarity with Catholic ritual and dogma, and I think this caused us to lose the brown girls.

I found myself wishing it were more secularized so it could be universally accessible. Ironically, the meaning of the word "catholic" is universal, but it was precisely the "Catholicism" that made it less universal. And still, it is the Catholicism, as opposed to protestantism, that gave what would have been a fully religious exhibit its historic, artistic, geographic, and sociological significance. Only the Catholic church had the resources to offer these artifacts for public consumption.

Even for a non-religious person, there is no denying the significance of the Vatican. It has the greatest concentration of masterpieces in the world--an unsurpassed amount of beauty and history. The Vatican, as the world's smallest principality, has profoundly shaped the history of the world for 1000 years--arguably the greatest impact of any nation, individual, or religion in history. And this is just at an organizational level. It neglects the role of religion in general as one of the most powerful shaping forces in history (for better or worse). Furthermore, in modern times, the Pope is the leader of an estimated 1 billion people. No other individual exerts such influence. Regardless of religious overtones, any insight into this organization is a worthy exhibit context.

Beyond context, the exhibit displayed some really fun things. For art lovers, we saw a mosaic by Giotto, a Disney-fied recreation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling workshop, the compass Michaelangelo used for his frescoes, a clay study of Bernini's David, and documents signed by Bernini, Bramante, and Michaelangelo. For History's sake, the exhibit had Etruscan and Greek statues; a portrait of Nero; excavation demos, revealing preserved catacombs and tombs under the Vatican; and, more recently, the documents, sample ballots, and actual white-smoke cannister from the election of the current pope in 2005.

Most intresting to me, was the detailed history of the building and space of what is now St. Peter's Basilica. Constantine built the first basilica on the site of what was believed to be the tomb of St. Peter, an important Christian claim. The exhibit discussed the Vatican excavations in the 1950's and 1960's of the area beneath the modern St. Peter's. Archeology revealed remains in tombs in this area from exactly the time of St. Peter's purported crucifixion. While limits on science prevent the specific identity of the remains from being determinable, it still situates remains in the exact place claimed by Christian tradition. Most important, science and archeology, the two things most capable and most probable for disproving ancient Christian claims, are unable to do so. Herein lies the difference between this religion and superstition. Superstition is a set of rules and behaviors extrapolated from limited human experience that defies historical knowledge and scientific law. It also can never be validated by science, but it can easily be disproved.

Just like human experience, the limits on science and archeology prevent it from proving the veracity of the supernatural. Based solely on human observation, time limits their field of view. However, what is impossible in one age may be said to be impossible in all human ages. That the remains beneath the basilica are still possibly those of St. Peter leaves room for one day's improved science and archeology to verify the claims of the bible and the surrounding documents. Conversely, improved science and archeology may disprove it one day, but all reliance on future determination requires a degree of faith.

The location of St. Peter's basilica also points to another significant Constantinian tradition--the first Basilica was a product of his "miraculous conversion." We believe the motivation for the Basilica's construction due to an account by Eusebius, widely considered to be the best source history has on Constantine. Eusebius' account contains a detailed claims regarding the life and work of this 4th century ruler, which have been verified by archeology and other contemporary documentation. But it also contains unverifiable material explaining Constantine's sight of divine direction. This presents supernatural skeptics with a difficult dilemma: Do they accept the document as valid, despite its supernatural claims, or do they reject it and its historical usefulness based purely on their own bias against the supernatural? C.S. Lewis says no:
"We find that accounts of the supernatural meet us on every side. History is full of them--often in the same documents we accept wherever they do not report miracles... No doubt most stories of miracles are unreliable; but then, as anyone can see by reading the [news]papers, so are most stories of all events. Each story must be taken on its own merits: what one must not do is rule out the supernatural as the one impossible explanation."
For the brown girls, maybe the exhibit fell victim to unfamiliarity and the tension between history and the supernatural, or maybe it was teenage boredom combined with encountering hostile old people. But it's extraordinary that we had 17yr-olds who were willing to go at all, instead of doing what other girls their age do on Spring Break. No matter the retention, the exposure was still a good thing. If anything, I hope they get a chance to learn earlier than most that no matter how foreign or boring a thing may seem, one should take hold of it, because every chance to learn is an opportunity for a richer life experience, if not immediately then eventually.

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