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Vatican heard Lubbock diocese, bishop says
By MICHAEL GAFFNEY LubbockOnline.com

Who knows why an event unfolds the way it does?

The journey that led to a Vatican art exhibition scheduled for display in Lubbock followed a convoluted path.

The journey's end came with an agreement between Vatican Museums officials, Lubbock clerics and residents to house and display 31 ancient frescoes in the Museum of Texas Tech from June through mid-September.

The process might have ended on a different note.

The frescoes were not the first choice of Gary Edson, executive director of Tech's Museum. And the university was a key player on the team that worked to convince the Vatican that Lubbock was qualified to host a prestigious art exhibition.

Edson envisioned a show that did not focus on 900-year-old frescoes, he said.

The story of why Lubbock acquired Vatican art and how the frescoes were selected for the show varies slightly from speaker to speaker with each telling.

But all agree that the story began in 1988, when the Rev. Malcolm Neyland visited Rome and was awestruck by the beautiful art works he saw in the Vatican Museums collections.

"I got the idea of bringing 1/1000th of the Vatican Museums' collection to a small metropolitan area which had never had the opportunity to host a Vatican exhibit," Neyland said. "If you live in a city of 2 million or more, you probably get to see a lot of beautiful things. But I had been inspired, first in my soul, then in my mind, to give people who didn't have the opportunity a chance to see such wondrous art."

Neyland spent the next decade convincing people in Lubbock and Rome that a Vatican exhibition was possible in the Hub City, he said.

"I met with justifiable skepticism," Neyland said. "This had never been done before. This was impossible. But this is a process like waves on the ocean, and the waves are powerful."

After years of exploratory work, Neyland presented his vision to Bishop Placido Rodriguez, leader of the Catholic Diocese of Lubbock. He needed the bishop's approval, and Rodriguez welcomed the priest's dream.

"Once Father Neyland communicated to me his desire, we prepared and went to Rome in 1997 and asked the proper permission from the Vatican," Rodriguez said.

Preparation included obtaining a pledge from Texas Tech University officials that the institution would support a Vatican exhibit, Rodriguez said. And, in order to give the clerics a legitimate shot at success, a non-profit organization was created to raise funds to pay the expenses associated with transporting and protecting precious art works from Rome.

"First, I asked Cardinal (Angelo) Sodano, the secretary of state for the Vatican, for permission to host a Vatican Museums art exhibit," Rodriguez said.

Despite the fact that no city as small as Lubbock had ever hosted a Vatican art show, Rodriguez said that he was confident the Catholic city-state would agree.

"I spoke on behalf of the Catholic Church in Lubbock," Rodriguez said. "The key to understanding why this exhibit is possible is to understand the important role of a bishop.

"The entire Catholic Church hinges on the bishops, and even though we're a young diocese - only 18 years old - nevertheless, we're truly respected as a local church -- as a diocese. I knew that the Vatican would hear the diocese's request."

After petitioning Cardinal Sodano, Rodriguez and Neyland met with Francesco Buranelli, acting director general for the Vatican Museums.

They told Buranelli that the Museum of Texas Tech had agreed, in principle, to house a Vatican exhibit, and also to provide security.

Within a few months of their visit, Rodriguez received a positive answer. The Vatican would send art works to Lubbock, but the event would have to wait until 2002.

Neyland, Rodriguez and Edson all had hoped to present the exhibit in 2000 as a millennium observance.

"But Buranelli said that sending an exhibit to the U.S. in 2000 was impossible because "they were expecting so many visitors at the Vatican Museums during the celebration of the millennium," Edson said.

Nonetheless, "We started working on the serious preparation," Rodriguez said.

The bishop appointed Neyland director of the Vatican Exhibit 2002 Foundation, the non-profit group created to organize and fund the event.

The Museum of Texas Tech agreed to petition other museums for additional art works to enhance the exhibit, Rodriguez said. And Edson convinced the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation in Houston and the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City to provide art from their collections, Rodriguez said.

But which art works would the Vatican send?

Though the Catholic hierarchy had agreed that the Lubbock Diocese could host an exhibition, no one had determined which works would be shipped, Rodriguez said.

"We asked ourselves, what kind of art pieces did we want and what is it that we wanted to cover?" Rodriguez said. "One of the main themes was the theme of evangelization and cultural identity."

The bishop wanted art that would reflect the transition from the Old World of medieval Europe to the New World of the Americas, he said.

"We wanted to cover that period of evangelization (on) this continent - the introduction of Christianity to the New World," he said. "But the second focus was cultural identity. The Christian roots are so profound in this region, so that was the basis for exploring the region's cultural identity, not only for Catholics, but for all Christians."

In other words, the exhibit had to be inclusive, Rodriguez said. Therefore, it was decided that admission to the exhibit would be free of charge, he said.

And still, no decision had been made about which art works would be displayed.

Edson wanted art from well-known figures, such as Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo.

"I guess we all had pre-conceived notions of what we wanted. Certainly I did," Edson said. "I was hoping for names that other people would recognize and flock to see."

But Buranelli offered three choices: A collection of Etruscan art, a micro-mosaics exhibit - images created by tiny, colored glass pieces -- or 31 ancient frescoes that were being cleaned by Vatican specialists.

Upon seeing the offerings, Edson decided to try a second request.

"At my urging, Dr. Donald Haragan, then-president of (Texas) Tech and myself set up an appointment to go meet with Dr. Buranelli," Edson said. "And we said, 'We appreciate what you've offered, but our vision of what we might have ... included some of these other (well-known) works."

But Buranelli told Edson that the works he was requesting were the very pieces that draw people to the Vatican. And he encouraged Edson to take a look at the frescoes. What he saw changed his mind.

"I saw the opportunity to have something that could be very special," Edson said.

The 12th and 13th century frescoes, slabs of plaster embedded with colorful pigments, once adorned the walls in two of the oldest known Christian churches in the world - St. Nicola in Carcere (St. Nicholas in Prison) and St. Agnese fuori le Mura (St. Agnes Outside the Wall). Both still stand in Rome.

In the frescoes, Edson saw a melding of spiritual beliefs and a timeline suggesting a progression from paganism to Christianity.

"You see in some of the motifs ... pre-Christian references," Edson said. "Certain birds, the flowers, the rabbits, the animals, those are pre-Christian references. But they're placed within the context of the Catholic Church and I think that is a very interesting juxtaposition of beliefs and attitudes."

St. Nicola originally was a Roman temple "before it was Christianized," Edson said. "During that time there were a lot of beliefs that coexisted, and a lot of what we would call pagan beliefs coexisted alongside the Christian beliefs.

"Eventually, those elements were absorbed into Christianity and became a part of that whole (Christian) package of beliefs."

The frescoes from St. Agnese, the younger of the two churches, reveal the evolution of perspective in art, Edson said.

"The interest is really the structure of the images, that is, the overlapping of the figures and the three-quarter faces," Edson explained. "The use of the three-quarter face is a very important transition in the history of art.

"With the three-quarter face you've got perspective, you've got the nose that isn't either in profile or straight-forward, the eye that isn't either straight from the side or looking straight ahead, the mouth that is not just a little Cupid bow, easily stylized."

In part, the evidence of the evolution toward perspective in art is why the 800- to 900-year-old frescoes were selected, he said.

"These pieces are at a transitional period in the art of Europe and, consequently, in the art of the world," Edson said. "They fall at that time between the Byzantine or the old style of painting -- basically flat, single-dimensional, what we call more of a cartoon, in the artistic sense, not in the funny-paper or comic book sense.

"And we see this in the earlier pieces from St. Nicola, which were painted in approximately 1120 or 1130 A.D."

About 150 years later, the artists who painted the frescoes in St. Agnese began turning toward detail, toward realistic representations of the human form, Edson said.

"The St. Agnese works show more attention to the three-dimensionality of the figures," he said. "Not everyone is standing there on the same level looking straight forward with this fixed expression.

"That is the beginning of the transition from the Byzantine, the Middle Ages, into what we call the Renaissance, one of the greatest times of discovery of the human form and a complete change in the way art is represented and the purpose art fulfilled in society."

The exhibition will illustrate five centuries of evolution in art, Bishop Rodriguez said.

Combined with the paintings, sculptures and precious metal objects from the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation and the Franz Mayer Museum, art works dating to the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the exhibit will reflect the transition from Old World to New World viewpoints and attitudes, Rodriguez said.

"The sentiments reflected by the images and artifacts are open to everyone," Rodriguez added. "The non-religious person will be moved because art is universal. Whether that person is religious or not, it will affect that person because, through aesthetics, art touches all.

"Art in itself, by its very nature, touches the deepest values in a person."

Neyland said that a "higher power" fueled his fervor to obtain the Vatican's agreement.

"I think the spiritual presence I felt when viewing the frescoes helped with the perseverance I needed," Neyland said. "The frescoes are mirrors that reflect the hearts and minds of artists whose lives were linked through spiritual commitment."

To answer the question, why Lubbock, "one must point to Father Neyland, Bishop Rodriguez, the university and all the people who volunteered their time and money to make it happen," Edson said.

The 31 Vatican frescoes and the art works from the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation and the Franz Mayer Museum will create an exhibition that bridges the past and present, Edson said.

"If I were an art historian I would be very interested in looking at (the frescoes) ... to see if there are issues there that would be of value in placing or addressing this transitional aspect of art between the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance," Edson said.

Although the Catholic diocese is hosting the exhibit and the art, in many cases, depicts Christian saints and symbols, the bishop said that viewing and contemplating the ancient art will enrich the observer's life.

"The average person will be able to see not only beautiful, religious art for which the senses will be overwhelmed, but it will also spark a great interest for the faith that produced this art," Rodriguez said. "The faith of the artists of 900 years ago will echo through the imagery and, in fact, (the observer's) own very soul as he's contemplating that work of art, because it is appealing to his own personal faith."

The exhibit has ended
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