(Editor's note: This Associated Press article ran in The A-J on June 24, 2001.)
Although the arrival of 31 medieval frescoes from the Vatican Museums is still months away, scores of area residents and officials are working overtime to prepare to host the rare and special art exhibit at Texas Tech University.
"Anytime you put on the Vatican anything, a lot of people come," said David Sharp, head of Market Lubbock Inc., a city-appointed economic development corporation.
"I think the lingering thing from our standpoint ... is that five years from now, 10 years from now, everyone's going to say, 'Lubbock, that's where they had the Vatican exhibition.'"
Committees handling publicity, education, hospitality and special events are meeting regularly.
An outreach committee that includes state Sen. Robert Duncan and U.S. Rep. Larry Combest, both of Lubbock, will spread word of the exhibit to politicians and dignitaries across the state and country.
A Lubbock-based media consultant, Walker Communications, has been hired. Contacts are being made in cities in a 150-mile radius to get a feel for hotel and motel availability.
Work is also under way to put together a printed catalog that details each fresco. Organizers anticipate the exhibit will generate publicity for both Lubbock and the university.
They conservatively estimate that 4,000 visitors will view the frescoes each day.
"I think people perceive the magnitude of this and that it is indeed going to present an educational opportunity," said Dr. Donald Haragan, former president of Texas Tech University and chairman of the exhibit's steering committee.
"I believe none of us really realize the impact this is going to have, not just on Texas Tech but on the entire community."
The story of how Lubbock won the right to exhibit the frescoes begins in 1988, when the Rev. Malcolm Neyland first toured some of the vast collection at the Vatican Museums in Rome, adjacent to St. Peter's Basilica.
"It was so powerful to me," said Neyland, who pastors churches in Post and Wilson, two small towns near Lubbock. "I was so impressed and so awed that I said, 'If I could bring one-one-thousandth or one-one-millionth of this feeling I have, wouldn't it be nice if others could experience this.' "
The priest's vision was to bring home the Vatican art, so West Texans who might never travel to Italy would get to see some of the extraordinary work.
Neyland believes the exhibit will have appeal far beyond Catholics.
"This is everyone's history," he said. "I think each individual will gain something. You can't look at these without finding something that helps you identify yourself."
At first, few curators in the Vatican Museums had a clue about where Lubbock is. Major art exhibitions usually go to museums or galleries in large metropolitan areas.
Until the 1990s, it was unusual for the Vatican to share its treasures, especially those in storage. But the upcoming millennium softened curators, and by 1990, Neyland had sold them on the idea of a West Texas exhibition of the unique frescoes.
Still, he was told that the time and manpower needed to prepare for the celebration in Rome in the years leading up to the millennium would make the event difficult to pull off before 2002.
He was patient and perseverant. Neyland traveled to Rome 14 times to facilitate the agreement between officials at Tech and museum.
He set up a nonprofit foundation to underwrite and promote "Traditions and Renewal: Medieval Frescoes from the Vatican Museums."
He took a two-year leave as judicial vicar of Lubbock to work on the project.
"It was his effort that got this going and obviously his tenacity and push has made it happen," said Gary Edson, executive director of the Texas Tech Museum.
Painted nearly 900 years ago by unknown artists, possibly under the tutelage of Italian artist Pietro Cavallini, the frescoes once adorned the walls of St. Agnese and St. Nicola, two early Roman churches.
They were removed during renovations in the mid-1800s, probably 1850 or 1860, according to Vatican records. No one knows exactly where the frescoes were stored for 80 to 90 years, but they were placed in the Vatican Museums in 1930.
Frescoes are created on walls or ceilings. The painting is done while a special plaster is still wet. The water-soluble pigments combine chemically with the plaster and seep in as it dries.
The results are brilliant colors that appear transparent and almost three-dimensional.
Rarely seen by the public, the Vatican frescoes largely depict the lives of saints and martyrs. They have never been viewed as a group and have never left Europe.
"It's jolly difficult to see these in Italy," said Julian Gardner, a professor of art history at Warwick University in England and an expert in medieval Italian painting.
"They are of huge historical importance in that they show that much of what we now understand as modern painting had its roots in Rome.
"It's a tremendous privilege that you have all these in one place and can look at them in peace."
The value of the frescoes is impossible to gauge, said Herbert Kessler, a professor of art history at Johns Hopkins University who helped organize a recent Vatican exhibition.
"In today's dollars they are priceless," Kessler said. "There's no way to put a value on them. Even compared to Raphael and Monet, these are so exceptional. This is a chance of a lifetime."
In conjunction with the Vatican exhibition, which Edson described as the most ambitious undertaking in the museum's 70-year history, a second gallery will display art of the same era from North America. The purpose, Edson said, is to show the relationship between the development of art in Europe and the New World.
The Blaffer Foundation in Houston and the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City are among the institutions that will lend additional art pieces.
The exhibit will run June 2 through Sept. 15, 2002.
Admission will be free but tickets will be required.
After the exhibit's run, the frescoes will return to the Vatican.
(LubbockOnline.com reporter Michael Gaffney contributed to this article.)