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Medieval frescoes still possess power to captivate
Vatican exhibit debuts at Tech


"St. Catherine is Beheaded", one of the best known Frescoes of the Vatican Museum is displayed in Lubbock May 31, 2002, at a preview of the " Medieval Frescoes from the Vatican Museum Collection" exhibit at the Museum of Texas Tech which runs from June 2 - September 15, 2002. It will be the only showing of the Frescoes outside the Vatican.
(AP Photo/Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Jim Watkins)
Nothing one reads — or writes, for that matter — truly provides adequate preparation for the impact and emotional lure of the "Medieval Frescoes from the Vatican Museums Collection" exhibit being displayed at the Museum of Texas Tech.

Mind you, that is the impression of a layman, which, I suspect, also will be the status of a high percentage of others visiting the exhibit, which opens today and continues through Sept. 15.

In fact, as I also reflect on history apparent in each of the 31 frescoes preserved from as far back as the 12th century, I cannot fight off the memory of dropping an art history course when in college because it began at 7:30 a.m. and the first thing the instructor did was turn out the lights.

What did this sleepy freshman miss?

But as Gary Edson, executive director of the Museum of Texas Tech, led the morning's first media tour Friday, I often slowed down, spending more time with specific frescoes — and wondering, not so much about the artists who painted these works, but about how many thousands of people viewed them well before the Renaissance.

I wondered what it might have been like to be illiterate, living in a pagan time, and finally being allowed to see the saints others had told me about. If a person in the 21st century can be moved by the faith and commitment of St. Catherine in paintings drawn on fresh plaster, consider how powerful the message might be for those who experienced these frescoes when the art was new.

It is more than I expected.

I am one of several Avalanche-Journal reporters who has been writing about this exhibit since Francesco Buranelli, director general of the Vatican Museums in Rome, informed a persistent West Texas priest, the Rev. Malcolm Neyland, and Bishop Placido Rodriguez of the Catholic Diocese of Lubbock that he would guarantee Lubbock a very special exhibit if they would only wait until the year 2002.

It has been an exciting story.

It is a far more exciting exhibit.

The timing could not have been better. The museum's still relatively new west wing, sculpture court and auditorium provide an excellent and classy location for the works.

The sculpture court is spacious and certainly can adequately handle the approximately 200 people waiting for each tour. Visitors are encouraged to arrive at least 30 minutes before their tours are scheduled to begin.

The exhibit begins with a brief film in the museum's auditorium. The film's sole purpose is to offer just enough background on this exhibit to aid visitors' understanding and enjoyment of the art.

The first screenings are today, so it is difficult to gauge how quickly each tour group will be seated through the west door and then guided out through the east door.

Visitors also have the option of renting a digital audio guide.

My advice? Take exact change ($3.25) and rent one. The price is far below that at most major exhibits and, with the help of that recorded voice, one can comprehend the 'who' and/or 'what' of each fresco without having to reading each plaque or text panel.

Visitors will be allowed to progress at their own pace, which is wonderful. Some may maintain a steady pace, only glancing at art works. More, undoubtedly, will linger and learn.

The museum staff has created a complementary environment. An enlarged map of "modern Rome," circa 1570, reveals locations of the two churches where the frescoes were unearthed. With one being near the Tiber River, a mural of Tiber Island on an opposite wall also is fitting.

A glass case with rare books opened to maps of ancient Rome is located across the room from the frescoes depicting prophets Haggai and Jeremiah.

Protection of the frescoes dictates that very soft lighting be used in each gallery. The width of the gallery appears apt for tours, with the expectation that visitors eventually will spread out. By contrast, galleries must be kept at 70 degrees.

What will amaze everyone — first-time gallery visitors and those who have visited major exhibitions — is how close the Vatican Museums and Museum of Texas Tech allow visitors to stand to frescoes.

Works are roped off, and there are guards in each room. But frescoes are not behind glass, allowing visitors an opportunity to view them in the same proximity as worshipers centuries ago. This is a fantastic opportunity and raises appreciation.

Text panels are concise, yet informative.

The exhibit becomes more thrilling after visitors pass through an arch into the next gallery.

Larger frescoes are on view, and a series serves as a story about St. Catherine — a dramatic visual telling of the 18-year-old Catherine pleading with Roman Emperor Maxentius to halt his persecution of Christians, her conversion of his lawyers and a furious Maxentius having her whipped, tortured on the wheel and beheaded.

Another series relates the story of St. Benedict.

Not every figure in these frescoes has been identified. Nor is each fresco intact; parts were damaged and unable to be found or preserved.

Color from natural pigments is apparent, and, in some frescoes more than others, expressions reveal emotions, there are folds in clothing and detailed architecture.

The museum's other galleries can be visited after walking through the display of Vatican frescoes. Browsing the gift shops also is a pleasant option.

More than 148,000 reservations now have been made to see this special exhibit from Rome, which really is so good it doesn't need to be hyped.

The masses were unable to read and write when these frescoes were painted. These particular frescoes allowed them to see a wayward monk encounter a symbolic dragon upon growing weary of the Benedictine order's rules, and the lengths to which Cath erine defended her faith.

I left the exhibit with a renewed acceptance of the power of art. I suspect many will.

wkerns@lubbockonline.com 766-8712

The exhibit has ended
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