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Sunday, June 2, 2002
Last modified at 3:57 p.m. on Saturday, June 1, 2002
© 2002 - The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

Vatican frescoes offer lessons in art, history


Art is history and teaching device in an era that found literacy a luxury of the upper classes and the church.

The 31 frescoes in ''Medieval Frescoes from the Vatican Museums Collection'' at the Museum of Texas Tech are examples of the story-telling purpose of early Christian art in propagating the Gospel and instructing the faithful.

Originally painted on the wet plaster walls of two churches in Rome, the frescoes were moved to the Vatican for safe-keeping in the mid-1800s.

Although the art came from churches considered minor in Rome, a city of grand churches, the frescoes are significant to historians for their style of art, according to Francesco Buranelli, acting director general of the Vatican Museums since 1997.

The frescoes depict stories of saints, decorative imagery and portraits of some of the Old Testament prophets. They come from Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura (St. Agnes outside the Walls Church) and the San Nicola in Carcere (St. Nicholas in Prison Church.)

According to Buranelli, the discovery of these frescoes indicates to art historians that the development of realism in painting that marked the Renaissance began 200 to 300 years earlier than had been supposed.

Generally identified as between the 14th and 16th centuries, the Renaissance art works were anchored in realism that accurately portrayed human images. The realism spread from Italy throughout the European continent, perhaps finding roots in the Roman School of Art.

The Rev. Malcolm Neyland, whose persistence and patience was rewarded by the Vatican with permission to exhibit the rare art in Lubbock, said the frescoes from St. Agnese especially express attempts by the unknown artists to "mirror" the world and nature, a style distinct to Renaissance works, but not the medieval era.

Some of the paintings date back to A.D. 1120. Others probably were done late in the 12th or early 13th century.

The frescoes never have been shown together, and some never have 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, taking them from the stretched canvas and mounting them on space-age material that is lightweight but exceedingly strong.

Buranelli engaged Italian scholars to do the historical research on the frescoes. The fruits of their work will be evident in the recorded narration that the Tech museum provides to accompany viewers as they go through the exhibit.

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