Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Engaging in a dialogue that spans religions, cultures and history

At the de Young Museum /
Objects of Belief from the Vatican

Eketea, god figure /
Gambier Islands, wood (collected 1834-1836).

Objects of Belief from the Vatican: Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, an exhibition of 39 rarely seen holdings of the Vatican Ethnological Missionary Museum that is on display at the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco through September 8, celebrates the multiple paths of spirituality represented by the objects on display and serves to invite viewers to engage in a dialogue that spans religions, cultures and history.

On a recent Friday evening, I had the opportunity to see Objects of Belief from the Vatican, drawn from a collection that numbers more than 80,000 objects. The softly-lit, upstairs gallery was both quiet and meditative as I viewed these beautiful works of art, which were selected for their artistic and cultural significance. I was impressed by the exhibition's design to offer each patron with a personal viewing experience, "allowing for reflection on the diversity of human expression manifest in objects of belief, and on the multiple paths to religious understanding."

According to the de Young, Objects of Belief from the Vatican draws its inspiration from the Vatican's recent efforts to highlight world cultures through important special exhibitions such as this one. It marks the first time that an exhibition consisting solely of works from the Vatican Ethnological Missionary Museum from continents and cultures beyond Europe has traveled to the United States.

Jesuit Father Nicola Mapelli, director of the Vatican Ethnological Missionary Museum, believes using these objects as a means of reconnecting with indigenous communities throughout the world is very important. "Through the objects we can show the living story of a people: their history, hopes, joys, and desires," said Mapelli, in a Fine Arts magazine article about the exhibition. "Through our exhibitions, we can show our visitors from around the world something about the wonderful culture and spirituality of indigenous people."

One thing which I enjoyed about the exhibition was its presentation allowed me to learn about the local and global significance of these "objects of belief" and their journeys, leading from one culture to another and from the past to the present, without an imposition of a single dominant cultural storyline.

Among the many important "manifestations of spirituality" in the exhibition are two masks and three shrine carvings that were obtained in 1691 by Fray Francisco Romero in Colombia's Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and presented to Pope Innocent XII, which represent the beginning of the Vatican's ethnological collections.

Also, there are two rare and figurative sculptures depicting the gods Tu and Tupo that were gifted by Father Francois Caret, the first missionary in Mangareva, to Pope Gregory XVI in 1837. And, easily noticed is a 15th-century Mexican stone sculpture of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. This embodied image serves as a visual and physical reminder of a manifestation of belief in a dynamic ritual culture.

To learn more about Objects of Belief from the Vatican:



Photographs by Michael Dickens, copyright 2013

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