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Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes
By Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.
This extraordinary exhibit is in Cincinnati, its third U.S. stop, and will open in San Diego in May. Here's what visitors can expect.


Reflecting the Work of Many People
Visitors' Comments
Exhibit at a Glance

Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes
© Oscar Williams 2003
This fifth-century mosaic of St. Peter was in the Patriarchal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. After surviving an 1823 fire that destroyed most of that church, the mosaic was restored and moved to the Vatican Grottoes beneath St. Peter's Basilica.

Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes
© Oscar Williams 2003
The Archdiocese of Barcelona, Spain, gave this chalice and paten to Pope Pius IX in 1871 to mark the 25th anniversary of his election as pope.

Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes
© Oscar Williams 2003
Liturgical fashions can change. Pope John Paul II has not used liturgical slippers, such as these satin ones that belonged to Pope Paul VI.

Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes
© Oscar Williams 2003
Julius II, pope from 1503 until 1513, heavily pressured Michelangelo to accept a commission to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This oil portrait by Vincenzo Canterani was made into a mosaic in 1851.

Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes
Photo from The Vatican Museums
The Mandylion ("holy towel") of Edessa (third-fifth century) is considered the oldest representation of Jesus' face. This copy was made before the original disappeared during the 1204 sack of Constantinople by Crusaders.

Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes
© Oscar Williams 2003
This tiara was presented by Napoleon to Pope Pius VII in 1805. The emerald at the base of the cross had been stolen by Napoleon from the Vatican.

Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes
© Oscar Williams 2003
Michelangelo was one of the first artists of his era to represent human bodies realistically. This 1534 preparatory "study" was generously given to help another artist develop his own style of drawing the human body.

In 1997, Jerzy Kluger, Pope John Paul II’s Jewish friend from childhood, made a suggestion that set in motion the largest-ever Vatican exhibit to tour the United States, bringing 353 objects from six Vatican sources and two other collections. Seventy percent of these objects have never been on display for visitors to the Vatican.

Kluger, who lives in Rome and sees the pope regularly, felt that an exhibit of liturgical objects would attract a large audience. Over the years, his idea evolved into a much more ambitious exhibit, emphasizing St. Peter’s Basilica, plus the popes’ ministry through the centuries of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ and working in solidarity with people who seek human dignity in a just and peaceful world.

Speaking last December at the Cincinnati opening of this exhibit, Msgr. Roberto Zagnoli, one of the directors of the Vatican Museums, emphasized the loving spirit that unites the entire exhibit, from the pope’s written welcome at the beginning of the exhibit to a bronze cast of the pope’s hand at the  conclusion. Through an interpreter, Msgr. Zagnoli said: “The message of this exhibit is more precious than the objects it contains. It is a message of brotherhood and the pope as a companion in the journey of life. This is art at the service of faith.”

After a three-minute introductory video, the exhibit’s 12 galleries develop six themes: Reproduction of the Tomb of St. Peter; Building the Basilicas [over that tomb]; the Sistine Chapel; Papal Liturgies; The Papacy: Into the World; and finally, Into the New Millennium. At several points in the exhibit, there are helpful timelines and short videos.

Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes has a strong missionary theme, utilizing many maps, drawings and letters from the archives of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, founded in 1622.

The exhibit also features drawings and letters by Michelangelo Buonarotti, on loan from Casa Buonarotti, a museum in Florence.

Reflecting the Work of Many People

This exhibit has been years in the planning because, amid many concerns, its theme needed to be developed, objects had to be chosen in relation to that theme, 125 objects required conservation before they could be part of the exhibit, exhibition cities had to be selected and corporate sponsorships arranged.

Father Allen Duston, O.P., and the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums provided funds for the conservation; Art Services International of Alexandria, Virginia, arranged the conservation, organized the exhibit and published its catalogue. Clear Channel Exhibitions produced the exhibit, served as liaison with the media, the institutions that lent these objects and the institutions hosting the exhibit, plus arranged for the transportation of 95 specially built crates. Clear Channel worked in association with Trident Media Group.

Visitors' Comments

This exhibit drew good crowds in Houston and then in Fort Lauderdale, its first stops on the current tour. In the first few weeks in Cincinnati, tour groups came from as far away as New York City and Madison, Wisconsin.

Carl Stein coordinated a visit by 40 people from Cincinnati’s St. Antoninus Parish. They had a very favorable reaction to it. “I did not expect such an exhibit to be in the United States,” he said. “It was awesome—very much worth the time that we spent. It was a lesson in history for me. I may have learned some of these things but I had forgotten them.”

After members of St. Anthony Messenger’s editorial and graphics staff attended the press preview last December, several of them offered comments.

Managing Editor Barbara Beckwith writes: “I found the items fascinating, the range extensive. Although the exhibit also raised disturbing questions for me about the material wealth and use/ misuse of the Church’s temporal power through the centuries, I felt the warmth of Pope John Paul II—from his greeting at the beginning to his hand model at the end. His sharing of these items is a sign of a new Church, with a new relationship to the world and a new approach to evangelization. The exhibit’s honesty and openness make me proud to be a Catholic, an inheritor of this long and rich tradition.”

Assistant Editor Mary Jo Dangel was impressed by the tiara that Napoleon Bonaparte presented to Pope Pius VII: “It was an insult gift, using an emerald that Napoleon stole from the Vatican and placed in a tiara so small that it could never be worn.” She also liked the bold, contemporary vestments worn by Pope John Paul II at the opening of the Jubilee Year Holy Door on December 24, 1999.

Assistant Editor Christopher Heffron summarizes:  “In a word, majestic. All in all, I found it to be a walking tour through papal history. Awe-inspiring, absorbing and quite a lot to take in.”

Art Director Jeanne Kortekamp notes, “Walking through the space that recreated a portion of the Sistine Chapel ceiling as it appeared when Michelangelo was painting it intrigued me greatly. I became more fully aware of the extent of his challenges as I pondered the lantern-lit area.”

Assistant Editor Susan Hines-Brigger remembers the ceremonial hammer to strike the pope’s forehead to confirm his death. “It reinforced for me the importance of ceremony associated with the papacy. Still, it seemed a bit harsh to strike someone on the head not once, but three times, to make sure he was dead.” (This hammer has not been used since Blessed John XXIII died in 1963.)

I was impressed by the documents and artifacts relating to the spread of the Catholic faith. One 18th-century document is, in fact, a protest against an earlier pope’s decision regarding the Chinese Rites controversy. An embroidered thanka, made by the Dalai Lama in 1978 as a gift to Pope John Paul II, was memorable—as was the full-size reproduction of the Jubilee Year’s Holy Door.

Visitors will come away with distinct memories but probably a common impression—that every pope’s ministry is helping to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.


Institutions that lent objects: Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff (184 inventory items), Archives of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (47), Reverenda Fabbrica of St. Peter’s Basilica (maintenance and conservation  there, 45 items), four of the 13 museums known collectively as the Vatican Museums (34), Casa Buonarotti in Florence (13 items but only three or four are displayed at each site), an artist (12), Patriarchal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls (10), Apostolic Floreria (office in charge of decorations for papal liturgies, four items), and four items from private collections.

Dates: December 20-April 18 (Cincinnati Museum Center) and May 16-September 6 (San Diego Museum of Art)

Internet:, and

Catalogue: Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes, 521 pages, softbound, with 450 color plates, over 190 comparative illustrations and maps. The cost by mail is $49.95, plus $10 shipping/handling, from or Art Services International (703-548-4544). This price includes a Spanish catalogue supplement (52 pages, 26 color plates).

Signage/Audioguides: The name of each object is given in English and in Spanish; the descriptions are in English. In Cincinnati and in San Diego, there are audioguides in Spanish.


Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.,  is editor of St. Anthony Messenger. From 1986 until 1992 he served as director of communications at the international headquarters in Rome of the Order of Friars Minor.

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