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History of saints, prophets, veiled in fog of time
By MICHAEL GAFFNEY LubbockOnline.com

Beginning June 2, 2002, a set of 31 frescoes from the Vatican Museums will be displayed at the Museum of Texas Tech.

The 91-day free exhibit will showcase 31 medieval frescoes painted by unknown artists between 800 and 900 years ago.

The paintings were taken from the churches of St. Nicola in Carcere (Nicholas in Prison) and St. Agnese fuori le Mura (St. Agnes outside the Wall), in Rome.

The artworks removed from the plaster walls of St. Nicola date back to A.D. 1120 to A.D. 1130, according to Vatican art experts. The frescoes removed from the walls of St. Agnese date back to A.D. 1280 to A.D. 1300.

Frescoes, paintings created by applying water-soluble pigments to wet plaster, are durable because the paint combines with the plaster as it dries. Such works were common in churches throughout Europe during the Medieval Period.

According to Vatican art experts, the 31 frescoes bound for Lubbock were removed from the church walls and covered with a crude concoction, possibly between the 15th and 16th centuries. They probably were placed in unused rooms in the churches until the mid-1800s, said the Rev. Malcolm Neyland, director of the Vatican Exhibit 2002 Foundation.

"These things originally were in catacombs (burial chambers beneath the churches)," Neyland said. "The frescoes are ancient and they hadn't been cleaned for nearly 1,000 years.

"But somebody must have seen something in them, and decided we needed to hold on to them for some reason. So they made glue from mule and horses hooves and kind of plastered over them. Then they took long, sword-like instruments and cut or pulled the plaster off the wall."

The backs of the excavated frescoes also were coated with glue, and the whole fragment was wrapped in a tough fabric, then "tucked away in an unused room ... for a long time, hundreds of years," Neyland said.

Probably between 1850 and 1860, according to Vatican documents, the frescoes were placed in the Vatican Museums collection.

Exactly where they were stored is a mystery. In fact, much about the frescoes is based on speculation.

The pieces probably were stored in a basement area of the Vatican Museums, Neyland said.

In 1923 attempts to clean them began, he said.

"But the attempt ended in 1924 because they didn't have the technique, the skills or the technology that we have today, so they stopped," Neyland said. "They were packed up and put away again."

Advances in art restoration allowed Vatican Museums restorers to begin cleaning the ancient art works several years ago, Neyland said.

"The Vatican is allowing this exhibit so parties from around the world will have an opportunity to see and study these works," he said. "This kind of art, this style of art, was not supposed to exist in the 11th and 12th centuries.

"Art historians throughout the world will study and research these frescoes for the next 20 or 30 years."

The Church of St. Agnese fuori le Mura is believed to be the place of her burial.

Agnese, or Agnes, was a 12- or 13-year-old virgin martyr, according to legend, who was stripped naked in front of the court of the Emperor Diocletian, who was angered by the girl's rejection of a young man at his court. Though naked, Agnese's hair grew miraculously fast in order to protect her modesty.

Writings of St. Ambrose give an account of her execution by sword.

But as is true with many of the saints and prophets of early Christendom, consistent tales of their lives and deaths are hard to find.

Pope Damasus wrote that, immediately after the promulgation of the Roman emperor's edict against Christians, Agnes openly declared herself a Christian, and suffered martyrdom by fire.

In this account, Agnese was concerned only with veiling, by means of her flowing hair, her naked, "chaste body which had been exposed to the gaze of the heathen multitude."

The Bishop of Turin (A.D. 450-470), evidently told a version which described Agnese's bondage at a brothel, where a lusty young man was rendered "as if he were dead" when he gazed at her with desire. The bishop told that the virgin was partially decapitated after remaining untouched by the flames of her pyre.

No single, definitive record exists to explain why Agnese won the martyr's crown. It was customary to assign her death to the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian (A.D. 304), but others argue, based on an inscription by Damasus, that her martyrdom occurred during one of the earlier third century persecutions.

As mentioned, St. Ambrose gave her age as 12, St. Augustine as 13.

What is certain is that tomb bearing a relief of a young woman is found on a marble slab that dates from the fourth century and was originally a part of the altar of the Basilica of St. Agnese.

The sculpture depicts a young girl, nearly decapitated, lying on her side.

The original slab covering her remains, with the inscriptions Agne sanctissima, is probably the same one now preserved in a Museum at Naples.

During the reign of Constantine, through the efforts of his daughter Constantina, the basilica of St. Agnese was erected over the grave of the young saint, which was later entirely remodeled by Pope Honorius (A.D. 625-638), and has since remained unaltered, according to Vatican records.

In the apse of the church, a semi-circular area between the alter and the nave, is a mosaic showing the martyr surrounded by flames, with a sword at her feet.

The exhibit has ended
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