Friday, September 23, 2011

Museum Shock

Miscellaneous Ceiling Fresco somewhere in the Vatican Museum
Even the lobby stairs are gorgeous

Nathan & I get overwhelmed by "stuff." Nathan even more so than me, which I suppose is fairly normal. (And I can appreciate this attitude since we do hope to be living on a sailboat in ten years' time.). I face the question of "how much is enough" anew with every visit to the amazing, beautiful, astonishing Vatican Museum. The place is chock-a-block full, including the ceilings, walls, and floors. Just one single room in the Museum could easily hold a day's worth of touring, study, and reflection. Name a famous painter or sculptor of old, and their works are in the Vatican Museum. Look down as you walk through the dozens of salas (rooms/galleries), look up - mosaics, frescoes, paintings, inlaid marble, gilding...just the actual structure of the museum is a treasure. Then there are the sculptures, the artifacts, the paintings. What I don't know, and haven't been able to find out, is just how much of the holdings are not and have never been on display. Museum shock, my term for when one's brain can no longer take in the wonders of art and architecture, happens quickly at the Vatican.

There are 53 salas, not including the Sistine Chapel, and we were on a two hour tour on a day when crowds were quite literally, shoulder to shoulder. Our guide apparently had a nemesis in the Brazilian guide, because she kept saying to us, "Let's move on before the Brazilians catch up." And when they did catch up to us, well, we got to observe Italian facial expressions in action. My two previous visits to the Vatican Museum were not on a guided tour, and I have to say, I much preferred the tour, at least on a day "in season." I would like to return in the dead of winter and take some time to look around with fewer people, but there is no escaping the fact that with so much to see and appreciate, a guide to focus on the best of the best was invaluable. Plus, we got to wear those totally awesome headsets that have become so popular on guided tours.
The Liberation of St. Peter, by Raphael
Miscellaneous Sculpture that looks like she's wearing lipstick
The final stop in a trip through the Vatican Museum is the Sistine Chapel. The Sistine Chapel is beautiful, and stunning, and does have that famous, Hand of God image. But honestly, gorgeous and amazing frescoes are all over Italy, even here in Naples, and we get to see them without having scary looking bouncers shouting "Silence" and walking around threatening everyone. For me, the most interesting thing about the Sistine Chapel was the information we got about it's restoration and cleaning, done in the 1980s and 1990s. After the cleaning, figures and paintings came to light that no one knew were even there under all that grime. For example, as God reaches his hand out to touch Adam, over his shoulder is a circle in the shape of a brain with a woman and children in it. It represents that God is thinking about Eve and her children before creating them. Wish I could show you a picture, but you'll just have to Google it. Do you know why pictures aren't allowed in the Sistine Chapel? Because the Vatican found a private donor to fund the cleaning and restoration, and the funding agreement included royalties on all Sistine Chapel images. That's why the mere hint of lifting your camera in the Chapel has the bouncer types rushing over and threatening to toss your butt out. And you thought pictures weren't allowed because it's sacred - tsk, tsk, tsk. Visiting the Sistine Chapel is an incredibly moving and holy experience, really.

A little tip for your Vatican tour - sign up for the one that includes the Basilica. Those were already booked, so we missed out. The reason is not for the actual tour portion, which is probably quite nice, but because the few extra euros it costs is well worth the "Secret Door" shortcut in the back of the Sistine Chapel that goes into the Basilica. If you're not one of the people on those tours, then you get to exit on the opposite side of the Sistine Chapel and walk through miles of corridors to the Museum exit, which is located right next to the entrance. Not so bad except that means you're now outside the walls of the Vatican and to get back to the Basilica is about a mile walk around the wall and a potentially long wait in a security line to get back inside. This can easily eat up an extra 1-2 hours, spent solely in needless walking and waiting, which absolutely infuriates the efficient traveler in me. I harped on the that stupid door in the days leading up to our Vatican visit and for the rest of the Rome weekend. I'm still harping over it. No one ever actually said the words to me, "Shut up about the door. It was closed. The end." But I'm pretty sure they were all thinking it. So...The End. I am letting go. After I put together my picket group to hang about outside the walls with signs and chant "Open the Door, Open the Door."
Strip away the crowds and bouncers and completely over the top opulence - this sculpture, for me, represents what the Christian faith is really about. And, I can eat my words about the "Door" because the sculpture is in an obscure hallway that functions mainly as a pass thru as visitors make their way to the exit after seeing the Sistine Chapel and all the "real treasures" of the museum. We would have missed it completely had we gotten to go straight into the Basilica.


  1. My wife and I also found this sculpture very well placed. Just as you said, after hours of waiting and suffering the crowds, the numerous people talking and trying their best to sneak photos of the Sistine Chapel, I felt this sculpture was placed where it is for people who were looking for the word of God in art. Not that the other exhibits don't do this, but this one is so simple, quiet and still reverberating in my memory days after seeing it. It is a complete contrast to some of the world's greatest examples of how to cover every square cm with ornament. As you say, much of the Vatican museum hallways are "over the top". So this simple sculpture no more than 8 inches tall cuts through all the layers of extreme. It seems a balm to the self-idolatry so profound and ubiquitous in our modern world. Jesus walking with his eyes looking forward, holding the lost sheep in his arms and the other sheep are doing their best to keep in stride with Jesus. There is a beautiful rhythm in the movement of the feet of the sheep. Jesus seems to be smiling and is at peace. This work is simple, beautiful, quiet and not a hint of disorder. I think many people may pass this incredible piece of art up because, like our relationship with God, it is easy to be distracted or pass it off as something that seems not to be important.Thanks for sharing your blog and photo!

  2. I like you have to agree with your sentiment and that of the commenter before me. I absolutely found this simplistic piece rather striking!