Approximately 400,000 people - twice the current population of Lubbock - will visit the city in the summer of 2002 to view the Vatican Museums Exhibit, according to the Rev. Malcolm Neyland, judicial vicar of the Tribunal Diocese of Lubbock and director of this exhibit.
''In my opinion,'' he added, ''this will be the most important, significant single event in the history of Lubbock.''
The official title of the promised exhibit is ''Traditions and Renewal: Medieval Frescoes from the Vatican Museums.''
Though in the planning stages for 13 years, the contract confirming the exhibit is expected to be signed in Rome today by representatives from the Vatican State Museum and the Museum of Texas Tech, which will display the artwork from June 1, 2002, through Aug. 31, 2002.
Neyland returned to Rome this week to witness the signing, accompanied by Tech museum director Gary Edson, U.S. Congressman Larry Combest, exhibit media liaison Dave Walker and ''major supporters'' Giles McCrary, Doug Sanford, Mark Scioli and Fred Underwood.
Neyland said Thursday that Combest is serving as ''official liaison between the United States government and the Vatican City State.''
The 31 medieval frescoes in the exhibit were discovered in 1528 and kept in storage until 1995. They never have been displayed for the public.
''It was only four or five years ago that scientific methodology was invented that allowed these frescoes to be removed from walls,'' Neyland said.
Fresco painting involves paint applied to wet plaster. The water soluble pigments combine chemically with the plaster as it dries. As the plaster dries, the pigments become a part of the hardened plaster.
Neyland said, ''This type of art rarely is put on exhibit someplace that demands an ocean crossing. They are very delicate paintings made on plaster or walls.''
This is not a touring exhibit, Neyland said. Rather, it will be transported from Rome to Lubbock, where it will be displayed for three months, and then returned directly to the Vatican Museum.
''After the Lubbock showing, these frescoes will not be made available for viewing again until 2025,'' Neyland said.
For this reason, he said, Lubbock's visitors will include ''cardinals from Rome, presidents of large countries, and art
historians, educators and critics.
''It will be the subject of national and international discussion. Already, we have heard from large contingents in Canada and Mexico wanting to see this exhibit.
''After this, if there still is someone who does not know exactly where Lubbock is, he or she will at least know that Lubbock housed an exhibit of priceless art,'' Neyland said.
Frescoes headed to Lubbock originally were donated to the Vatican by the Church of St. Nicoli and the Basilica of St. Agnes, both in Rome. The artworks were painted in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Frescoes from St. Agnes include ''Stories of St. Catherine,'' ''Stories of St. Benedict,'' ''Holy Princess,'' ''St. Peter,'' ''Six Saints,'' ''Two Saints,'' ''St. Deacon,'' ''Story of a Saint'' and ''Marriage of the Virgin.''
Those from the Church of St. Nicolai include decorative fragments of a fasan, a bird, pot and birds, winged dragon, peacock, mask and two dolphins, a heron and ''The Prophet Amos,'' ''The Prophet Jeremiah'' and ''The Prophet Aggeus.''
Neyland revealed Thursday that the exhibit also will include the ''first Christian instructional,'' depicting - in pictures - the manner in which one was expected to teach Christianity.
''What you have to remember,'' Neyland said, ''is that this instructional had to be created in Rome by people who had no idea what new languages might be encountered.
''So they used pictures.''
In addition, ''side exhibits'' also have been confirmed.
Opening alongside the Vatican exhibit will be another 40 pieces on loan from the Biblioteca and the Museo Franz Mayer, all selected by Edson.
Both museums are in Mexico City and are extensions of the Vatican museums in Rome.
Art arriving from Mexico will include paintings, icons, retablos and gold sculptures from the Americas.
Also included will be a preserved, hand-written letter from Christopher Columbus to the queen of Spain, requesting additional funds to finance his search for the West Indies.
The letter by Columbus is dated Feb. 25, 1493.
Correspondence from Coronado, DeVaca and other explorers of the New World will be present, as well.
Neyland, who also heads the Vatican Exhibits 2002 Foundation, continues to raise funds via tax-deductible donations from private citizens and sponsorships of varying financial levels.
University Medical Center, for example, is the sponsor named Official Medical Facility for the Vatican Exhibit 2002.
As such, wrote James P. Courtney, the president and chief executive officer for UMC, the facility ''will provide services to Vatican personnel, diplomatic envoys and official dignitaries throughout the planning process and the 92-day event itself.''
Four doctors have been designated the exhibit's ''official physicians.''
Representatives from the city, all of Lubbock's chambers of commerce, Market Lubbock Inc. and Visitors & Conventions Bureau, have agreed to promote the exhibit, Neyland said.
''I am most appreciative of (Texas Tech) Chancellor John Montford and (former Tech president) Don Harrigan who, more than four years ago, agreed to house this exhibit,'' Neyland said.
''Without their superb administrative work, I think the Vatican City would have turned to a major metropolitan city instead of Lubbock for this exhibit.''
William Kerns can be contacted at email@example.com or 766-8712.