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Beating the odds, West Texas priest convinces Vatican to release art for Lubbock exhibit
By MICHAEL GAFFNEY LubbockOnline.com

Come June 2002, Lubbock will be the center of an historical event.

Art experts, historians, religious leaders, heads of state, as well as federal and state lawmakers and international dignitaries, are expected to converge on the Hub City to view a series of 12th and 13th century frescoes.

South Plains schools are expected to bring classrooms of students to the exhibit, and many Texas Tech students likely will take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view the ancient art works.

The excitement, if the predicted influx of visitors occurs, will be the result of the efforts of a Catholic priest who calls West Texas home, and who put years of effort into bringing Vatican treasures to the South Plains.

The Rev. Malcolm Neyland poured heart and soul into his dream of bringing rare, ancient art works from the Vatican Museums to West Texas.

He hopes that Texans, in particular, will experience something akin to the flood of emotions he felt when he first viewed the nearly 900-year-old frescoes at the Vatican Museums.

A spiritual leader for two congregations, Holy Cross Church in Post and the Blessed Sacrament Church in Wilson, Neyland said that he felt compelled to bring a Vatican City exhibit to Lubbock after viewing the many wonders on display in the Italian city-state's collection.

A bespectacled, energetic 58-year-old, Neyland visited Rome in 1988 and, during that visit, found himself awestruck by the beauty and historical significance of the art works inside the Vatican Museums. The Vatican's art and relics collection fills 13 large facilities and contain some of the world's most rare and priceless ancient items.

"During that time when I was walking down the long corridors of the Vatican Museums by myself I got a very strong feeling that if only one-one-thousandth of this could be shared by people in my hometown, it would be wonderful," Neyland said. "The inspiration of that moment never faded. It grew stronger over the years."

After his 1988 visit, Neyland - better known as Father Malcolm among his friends -- began working to convince Vatican officials, and ultimately the pope, that releasing art works for display in West Texas was a good idea.

But the going was slow.

Vatican Museums exhibits outside Vatican City are difficult to procure, even for world-renowned museums, he said. And convincing Vatican art directors and church officials that Lubbock had a world-class museum took time.

"Rome doesn't move its exhibits just anywhere," he said. "The museum has to have very high quality standards and meet guidelines comparable to a nationally recognized museum."

But when he met Francesco Buranelli in 1991, the priest from the South Plains was blessed with good fortune.

A chance encounter with Buranelli evolved into a firm friendship that, ultimately, was key to Neyland's successful effort to procure a sample of the art housed in the Vatican for display in Lubbock.

"When I met (Buranelli), he was in charge of the Estruscan and Roman exhibit at the Vatican Museums," Neyland recalled. "I initially asked him how many international exhibits did they have, and he said very few, no more than three or four per year."

Neyland was undeterred.

He continued talks with church and museum officials in Rome, visiting the Vatican City 14 times over the next decade in pursuit his goal.

When his friend, Buranelli, was appointed to finish directing the restoration of the Sistine Chapel, things began to change.

The Vatican Museums director died, and Buranelli, was appointed acting director in 1997, Neyland said, "and he's been acting director ever since."

It seemed as though his chances had brightened, but when he asked his friend if a Vatican exhibit in Lubbock in the year 2000 was possible, the answer was no. However, he did get a tacit promise, couched in mystery, from Buranelli.

"I asked him in 1997, and he said he was going to be so busy in the year 2000, if I could wait until 2002 he would have something very special for me, and it would be worth my wait," Neyland said. "He told me, 'You and the world will be grateful and pleased if you do.' And I said, 'so be it.'"

Three more years passed.

When Neyland returned to Vatican City in 2000, he pressed his friend to reveal what he had in mind for the Lubbock exhibition.

Buranelli led Neyland into the conservatory basement of the Vatican Museums and pointed to a group of ancient frescoes, some dating back to A.D. 1120, some painted probably late in the 12th or early 13th century.

The frescoes had never been shown together, and some had never been seen by anyone outside the Vatican for more than 150 years. Some needed more restoration work, but all were priceless.

"He asked, 'Are you interested in this?' " Neyland said. "Since I had persevered for so many years, I said, 'Definitely!'"

So, for months art restorers in Rome labored to return the frescoes to a semblance of their original color and beauty, preparing them for a debut exhibition at The Museum at Texas Tech on June 2, 2002.

An estimate by museum officials predicts that between 100,000 and 200,000 people will visit The Museum of Texas Tech to view the exhibit, Neyland said. Some expect as many as 400,000, though that number is unlikely, according to Gary Edson, executive director for the museum.

The art works, originally painted on the wet plaster walls of two churches in Rome -- the Church of St. Agnese fuori le Mura (St. Agnes outside the walls) and the Church of St. Nicola in Carcere (St. Nicholas in prison) -- depict stories of saints, decorative imagery and portraits of some of the Old Testament prophets.

"Francesco was very up-front and straightforward about exactly why they were special and why this venue would be very attractive to art historians and art critics throughout the world," Neyland said. "This probably pushes the Renaissance back 200 to 300 years, meaning art historians didn't know this type of painting existed during the time period they were done, not for another two or three centuries."

The Renaissance, generally thought of as the time period between the 14th and 16th centuries when art works anchored in realism and the accurately portrayed human aspects, spread from Italy throughout the European continent.

The painters of the images on the frescoes may have found their roots in the Roman School of Art, Neyland said.

The frescoes, particularly those from the Church of St. Agnese, express attempts by the unknown artists to "mirror" the world and nature, a style distinct to Renaissance works, but not the medieval era, he said.

Looking back, Neyland is astonished that he managed to gain approval from the pope and the Vatican government.

"It's a first," he said. "It's a first to have a Vatican exhibit in a populated area of less than 200,000 people, to have never-before-displayed frescoes and trigger an historical avenue of study that's going to deal directly with the time period of the Renaissance; there're so many benchmarks it makes me nervous."

The exhibit has ended
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