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Decorative fragments give lessons

Detail from "Decorative Fragment," found in San Nicola in Carcere (St. Nicholas in Prison Church), shows a bird, which represented the soul or the Holy Spirit to early Christians.
Ten of the frescoes that will be displayed in "Medieval Frescoes from the Vatican Museums Collection" depict a series of images that include birds, dolphins, dragons and palm fronds.

The images were symbolic messages for early Christians, said the Rev. Malcolm Neyland, director of the Vatican Exhibition 2002 Foundation.

Most of the decorative frescoes originally adorned the walls of San Nicola in Carcere (St. Nicholas in Prison Church) in Rome.

"Everything in the early Christian church has deep, significant meaning," Neyland said. "What the Christians did was take pagan symbols and interpret them into art, giving them new meaning."

photo: religion

 "Decorative Fragment" features dolphins, which represented the resurretion to early Christians.

The image of a winged dragon represented evil, he said.

Palm fronds or palm trees were early Christian symbols of resurrection because the way palms spread out, with the fronds stretching from the top of the trees, evoked the idea of reaching across the earthly realm into the spiritual world, Neyland said.

Images of birds represented the soul or the Holy Spirit, particularly white doves, which began to appear after the third century, more than 300 years after Jesus Christ's death, he said.

"It wasn't until around 354, during the reign of (Emperor) Constantine, that Christians were allowed to openly profess their faith," he said. "When we reach the fourth century, doves enter the motif, the symbolism of Christianity, and when dragons appeared in frescoes or paintings they always were associated next to but beneath a peacock, which represented heavenly life.

photo: religion

 Frescoes from San Nicola in Carcere (St. Nicholas in Prison Church) were found in the crypt beneath the church in 1591.

"In religious art, the kingdom of God, represented by a peacock, a dove or other bird, always would be placed above the symbol for evil, showing God's kingdom above the symbol of evil — suggesting God's domination over evil."

Dolphins symbolized resurrection because "dolphins were known to save people who fell overboard at sea," Neyland said. "The dolphins lifted them up, saved them, so they were symbolic of new life."

One of the frescoes, titled simply, "Decorative fragment with mask and two dolphins," conveyed a specific message to early Christians, as did all the decorative motifs.

From the Vatican

• Exhibit: "Medieval Frescoes from the Vatican Museums Collection."

• When: June 2-Sept. 15.

• Where: Museum of Texas Tech, Fourth Street and Indiana Avenue.

• Museum hours: 1 p.m.-7 p.m. Sundays, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays and Fridays-Saturdays, and 9 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Thursdays. Closed Mondays.

• Tickets: Free. However, tickets must be reserved in advance by calling 742-6800 or toll free (866) 803-6873. Those reserving tickets must know the date and time of day that they want to attend. Approximately 200 ticket-holders will be admitted each hour.

• More information: vaticanexhibit.com.

In a nutshell

• Winged dragon = evil
• Palm front = resurrection
• Birds = soul or Holy Spirit
• Doves = soul or Holy Spirit, Kingdom of God
• Peacock = Kingdom of God
• Dolphins = resurrection

• Masks = Two sides of man, free will

"You'll see a lot of frescoes where there's a face and a mask, like the masks seen in Greek theater," Neyland said. "The mask represents the two sides of man — man's potential for good or evil, and in other depictions a mask represents free will, the ability to choose one's behavior or lifestyle, which was reflected in the image of the face.

"The dolphins represented resurrection. So the fresco is teaching its message: The mask represents free will and the dolphins symbolized resurrection or new life. So choose life."

Most of the frescoes never have been studied or even publicly displayed and, therefore, hold mysteries that Biblical scholars, art historians and theologians likely will try to plumb for the next three or four decades, Neyland emphasized.

He said of the frescoes' original audience: "These were not educated people. The early Christians (the frescoes were painted in the 12th century) would use what they observed in the natural world to represent the supernatural world."

The fragments from St. Nicolas are the remains of decorations found in the crypt beneath the church in 1591. The collection includes the only pieces that survived the demolition of the crypt in the mid-19th century, according to the Vatican Exhibit 2002 Foundation.

mgaffney@lubbockonline.com 766-2185

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