The Vatican Museum of Rome

“Rome was mud and smokey skies; the rank smell of the Tiber and the exotically

spiced cooking fires of a hundred different nationalities….

Rome was the pulsing heart of the world.”  

Marion Zimmer Bradley.

 

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Rome’s Vatican Museum: Gilded statue of Heracles

 

America’s epic fantasy author, Robert Jordan, reminds us that, “The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories which become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the age which gave it birth comes again.” Jordan understood man’s need for accessing knowledge accumulated from those ages long ago.

 

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Rome’s Vatican Museum

 

We know very little about mankind’s distant past. When the Royal Library of Alexandria was destroyed in 332 B.C., a tragic setback in our understanding occurred. About 700,000 papyrus scrolls from ancient Assyria, Persia, Greece, and India, once housed securely within the library’s vast halls, were destroyed during those terrible times. For historians, the greatest losses included three manuscripts written by a Babylonian scholar named Berossus. Those ancient scrolls are believed to have described such major events as the creation of the world and the Great Flood.

Thus, it can be safely stated that knowledge critical for understanding our past is extremely limited. Holy books from various cultures, each highly revered by impassioned believers, offer similar, yet sometimes conflicting, descriptions about how we came to be on earth and our reason for being here. Considering that there are approximately 100 billion observable galaxies in the universe, inquisitive minds which have yet to adhere to a specific belief system ask “Why were we put upon this earth? What is our purpose?”

Socrates’ well-known statement, “There is one thing I know, and that is that I know nothing,” reflects our universal lack of understanding. There is a vast amount of knowledge which has been lost to us. It is little wonder that we are confused and feel abandoned on this strange blue orb miraculously swirling around in space.  No matter our religious affiliation, most of us understand the necessity for institutions such as Rome’s Vatican Museum to exist. They are essential for providing a glimpse into the past in order for our descendants to make better decisions about the future of mankind.

 

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Rome’s Vatican Museum

 

The Holy See or The Vatican City State?

Discussing the Vatican City State can be somewhat challenging for non-Catholics, for that political entity is often confused with the Holy See. To clarify, the Holy See is an ecclesiastical jurisdiction which has existed since Medieval times. It is essentially a governing body for the one billion, worldwide adherents to Roman Catholicism. It occupies the status of “member observer,” with no voting right, in the European Union.

On the other hand, the Vatican City State is a sovereign country, an enclave land-locked within Rome. It is often referred to as a micro-state or a theocratic state. It occupies a little more than one-hundred acres and has fewer than 1,000 residents. Under international law, the Vatican City State’s independence was guaranteed in 1929, when Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty. Italian courts maintain criminal jurisdiction over the enclave. Considered an absolute monarchy (absolutism), this entity is administered by the pope (the monarch) and the Roman Curia. Absolute monarchs have existed throughout much of history, with the most well-known being France’s King Louis XIV and Russian Tzar Peter the Great. Today, absolute monarchies are rare in our world and are found only in the countries of Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Andorra, Brunei, Oman, the Vatican City State, and Swaziland.

 

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Rome’s Vatican Museum

 

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Rome’s Vatican Museum: Sarcophagus

 

Rome’s Vatican Apostolic Library and St. Peter’s Basilica

The heart of the enclave is the Basilica of St Peter, a magnificent structure resting over a maze of Roman catacombs. The remains of St. Peter, who was martyred and crucified during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero, are believed to rest beneath it. Within the Vatican City State, one will also find a treasury of ancient knowledge and art. Containing 1.6 million printed books and 150,000 manuscripts , some of which date back to the pre-Christian era, the Vatican Apostolic Library houses some of the most important historical records found on the face of the earth.

 

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Rome: The Vatican City’s Ancient Walls

 

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Rome’s Vatican Museum

 

Rome’s Vatican Museum

The Vatican Museum is a massive forty-room complex filled with artifacts accumulated by the Holy See. Stepping inside Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel left me spellbound, and the papal apartments once belonging to Julius II, but now known as Stanze di Raphael, moved me to tears with their beauty. The High Renaissance grand frescoes, painted by the master artist Raphael and his pupils, told the story of Catholicism much more effectively than any words are capable of doing. Yet, it was only when I entered the Gallery of Tapestries that I felt totally overcome with emotion, for I realized that those faces peering down at me represented living beings who had once experienced fear, joy, love, and pain, just as you and I do.

 

Stanze di Raphael Gallery, Rome's Vatican Museum

Stanze di Raphael Gallery, Rome’s Vatican Museum

 

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The Coronation of Charlemagne, Christmas night in the year 800, establishing the Holy Roman Empire

 

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Stanze di Raphael Gallery, Rome’s Vatican Museum

 

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Polish King John III Sobieski’s victory over the Turks in Vienna in 1683

 

The tapestries, with names such as The Healing of the Lame Man, The Death of Ananias, The Sacrifice at Lystra, and The Stoning of Stephen were stunning in their complexity. However, the admiration I felt was triggered less by that quality than by the dedication of those artists whose work I was observing.

 

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Rome’s Vatican Museum: Gallery of Tapestries

 

Weaving the Tapestries for Rome’s Vatican Museum

The first step in creating these enormous tapestries was to design what is known in the art world as cartoons. Created by Raphael’s students, these were the preparatory designs which would form blueprints for the weavers of the tapestries. The cartoons consisted of many small strips, glued together to appear as full-sized works of art.

To complete the second step in the process, Flemish weavers from Pieter van Aelst’s  Bruges’ workshop in Flanders began their work by standing behind the tapestries, without the ability to view the front side, as they inserted the yarn. Then, facing the cartoons and using  them as patterns, they wove the threads into the wall hangings. In this way, they produced mirror images of the original artwork, the cartoons. Each of these tapestries, created between 1523 and 1524, appeared to be composed of thousands of strands of yarn. One can easily imagine the knotted, chaotic back side of the hangings and the difficulty in completing these masterpieces.

The process, itself, reminded me of the Greek belief that life is a tapestry woven by the three Fates. One should never be surprised when one of those mischievous, mythological siblings, Clotho, Lachesis, or Atropos steps behind the tapestry of one’s life and, without permission or blessing, inserts an unexpected thread, thus changing one’s fate forever, the Greek philosophers solemnly warned us.

 

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Rome’s Vatican Museum: Gallery of Tapestries

 

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Rome’s Vatican Museum: Gallery of Tapestries

 

The brilliant Russian author of The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, stated, “In our village, folks say God crumbles up the old moon into stars.” It is easy to understand why, long ago, our ancestors attempted to explain all natural phenomena as magical, for they possessed little knowledge which would have allowed them to do otherwise. Our intellectual evolution has its roots deeply embedded in the past. It is there that we learn from the mistakes made by previous generations and, thus, prevent those mistakes from reoccurring. It is also from records from the past that we continue to build upon proven, factual information which, hopefully, will allow us to develop a better society. Therefore, we need not be adherents to the Roman Catholic religion in order to grasp the historical significance of those ancient artifacts housed within the hallowed walls of the Vatican City State and the Holy See.

Suggested Resources

The Holy See

Basilica of St. Peter

Sistine Chapel Virtual Tour

St. Peter’s Square Virtual Tour

Vatican Museum