Vatican Via The Arch

The Reliquary of Saint Peter & Saint Paul
The Reliquary of Saint Peter & Saint Paul

by Amy De La Hunt 

Aside from the summer heat, Rome doesn’t have much in common with St. Louis. But until Sept. 12, both will host long lines of tourists intent on seeing the Vatican’s artistic and religious history. And while the Missouri History Museum can’t rival the glory of St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, there is something to be said for its pastoral setting in Forest Park.

The exhibit Vatican Splendors: A Journey Through Faith and Art is a chronological tale of Christian art focused around St. Peter’s Basilica. Starting with the saint’s upside-down crucifixion by the Romans, it travels 2,000 years, dropping names like Guercino, Giotto, Michelangelo and Bernini along the way.

Given that I’m not among the quarter of St. Louis’ population who are Catholic, I appreciated the audio tour’s explanations of things like the ornate silver-and-gold reliquary (which held teeny-tiny fragments of saints’ bones). The educational commentary—for example, on strategies for using artworks within churches during the Byzantine, Baroque and neo-classical periods—added quite a lot to our understanding. This was especially true for several paintings never before seen outside the Vatican.

The panels describe the basilica site’s progression from a graveyard near the Roman Circus to one of the empire’s first churches in 319. Work to replace the ancient structure started in the early 1500s (right around the time work on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling was literally a pain in Michelangelo’s neck). The new and improved Renaissance basilica was consecrated in 1626.

The final display in the West Gallery dates from that period. It includes two items that immediately captivated Missouri History Museum President Dr. Robert Archibald: cherubic gilt wood angels. “I love the Bernini angels, maybe because when they were uncrating the exhibit they were the first two items I saw,” he said.

At this point, visitors will have been in the exhibit an hour, and my advice is to break for lunch upstairs at Bixby’s. Butler’s Pantry took over the museum’s restaurant recently, and the upgrades are impressive. In a museum dedicated to Missouri heritage, it feels very right to see local sausage, trout, steak, pecans, wines and honey, along with various seasonal vegetables and fruits. In keeping with the Roman feel, try the sausage flatbread or a panini with Ozark Forest mushrooms and local chèvre.

Suitably refreshed, you’ll enter the exhibit’s East Gallery. There’s a gradual shift away from the church’s history toward its mission. The focus leaves the wall-mounted treasures in favor of chalices and vestments, then the popes who used and wore them. John Paul II figures heavily here—his St. Louis visit in 1999 is still fresh in many hearts—but unless you’re into the pope’s role around the world, the second half will fascinate you less than the first.

The visitor tally stands at 26,000 visitors since Vatican Splendors opened May 15. Its appeal for Catholics is undeniable (and the local archbishop was instrumental landing the exhibit), but Archibald said it’s attracting a much broader audience. Art lovers, history buffs and devout Christians alike are having “a transcendent experience.”

The East Coast has dibs on Vatican Splendors next. It opens in Pittsburgh’s Senator John Heinz History Center on Oct. 2 before a third and final stop in Florida. After that, the precious cargo is scheduled to return to Rome.


You can click on each photo to enlarge.

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