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Vatican exhibit: Voices from a distant world
By MICHAEL GAFFNEY LubbockOnline.com

A labor of love.

That's how the Rev. Malcolm Neyland describes the medieval art painted nearly 900 years ago on still-wet plaster walls of two churches in Rome.

Neyland was referring, of course, to the 31 frescoes scheduled for display in Lubbock in 2002, on loan from the Vatican Museums.

"The artists had to have a laboring desire to share that imagery with others, and a love for communicating what they were feeling deep within," Neyland said.

When the frescoes were painted -- between A.D. 1100 and A.D. 1200 -- an era of unity and devotion reigned in Christendom, he said.

"This was a time of oneness in the societies," Neyland said. "First of all, these were painted before the Protestant Reformation, before the East-West schism (which created the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church).

"They were painted when Thomas Beckett was archbishop of Canterbury, during the time and lives of Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi."

The images on the ancient plaster fragments reflect knowledge of saints and prophets, and represent a historical record of Christendom during a time when the Catholic Church was unified, Neyland said.

For their historic value alone, the frescoes are priceless, he said.

"It was a time of intensity in expression," Neyland said. "The pieces will be very educational.

"We're going to have art historians from all over the world, I'm sure, at least reading about the exhibit."

No one knows who painted the frescoes that will be exhibited at The Museum at Texas Tech. Many art historians suggest that they were done by students of the Roman School, believed to be strongly influenced by Pietro Cavallini, an Italian painter and mosaic designer, mainly in Rome, where he probably was the leading artist of his day.

Active between 1273 and 1308, Cavallini probably was responsible for the earliest stylizations of human figures that convey a sense of weight and three-dimensionality, characteristic of Renaissance art that began 100 to 200 years after his time, Neyland said.

Because illiteracy was widespread during the time period when the frescoes were painted, the art works really are stories told through imagery rather than words, Neyland said.

Much of what people knew about the early prophets and saints was transmitted through storytelling, and artists used images from those stories to remind people of the morality tales, he said. Thus, art played an important role in the spread of Christianity and Catholicism.

"What appeals to me, and what I hope most people will find in viewing these beautiful pieces of artwork, is putting them into the philosophy, the literature and the history of the time," Neyland said. "During this time, there was a lot of peace and tranquility, more or less, compared to the centuries that followed."

Viewing the frescoes will affect everyone a little differently, depending on their knowledge of archaeology, history, art history and Christianity, Neyland said. "If it is a Catholic exhibit, it's Catholic with a little 'c,' " he said.

Gary Edson, executive director for The Museum at Texas Tech, is working to make sure the atmosphere, the "feel" of the time period is conveyed to visitors at the exhibition, Neyland said.

"When you walk into the gallery, you're automatically going to feel like you're in the middle of the 11th Century," he said. "I think people will leave the museum not saying, 'Weren't these wonderful and beautiful paintings.' They will leave having gone through a quality experience."

The exhibition will be the most important show ever hosted by The Museum, Edson said.

"It sets a new level of achievement for The Museum," he said, "and certainly says we are in a league with those people who are dealing with international exhibits of a very important level."

Official estimates suggest between 300,000 and 400,000 people will attend the exhibit, based on a projected daily attendance of 4,000 visitors, Edson said.

The exhibit will be open to the public 91 of the 105 days the works are scheduled to be in Lubbock. Which means, if the 4,000-per-day figure turns out to be accurate, 364,000 will pass through the exhibition.

"What we're trying to do is to make available a certain number of tickets to begin with," Edson said. "We're starting with about 175,000 to 200,000, and we're setting certain times aside for school groups.

"As we get closer to the opening of the exhibition we'll collapse what isn't used by schools and make those tickets available to the public."

Whatever the demand, The Museum will accommodate it, Edson said.

"Right now we've got a lot of people who want to be there the first two weeks," he said. "

The exhibition will be choreographed from the moment a visitor enters the doorway at The Museum, until that visitors leaves, although no time limit will be set for viewing the art works, Edson said.

"First of all, we are allocating 200 tickets per hour at this time, and our intention there is to spread the traffic flow over the entire time of the exhibit, so that we don't have 300 or 400 coming one hour and nobody coming at a later hour," he said. "There's no point having 200 people go through in the 10 minutes of the hour and then nobody in the last 15 minutes of the hour."

Edson added, "We want to keep people, as much as possible, close to their assigned times because we'll offer the introductory video on the hour."

Museum security will be bolstered during the exhibition to limit the potential for disaster, Edson said.

"We have fairly extensive security anyway, in that we have not only closed-circuit TV in all of our galleries, we also have motion detectors and guards," he said. "In addition to that, we are upgrading some of our equipment for the Vatican exhibit and we also will hire additional personnel in significant numbers to be in the museum around the clock, 24-seven.

"Security will be discreet, although a presence will be evident. One of the items in the contract with the Vatican is providing appropriate security."

Since the frescoes are priceless, appropriate security means high-intensity security, he said. But the aim is to create a memorable experience for visitors, he added.

A redesigned floor plan approved for the Diamond M Gallery, where the ancient frescoes will be displayed, is only one aspect of the elaborate measures in the works to enhance the presentation, Edson said.

"Anybody who makes an effort to get here will be taken care of," he said. "We're going to make sure that they get to see what they came to see.

"We want people to go away from The Museum, away from Lubbock, saying this was a good experience."

The exhibit has ended
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