- Associated Press - Friday, January 28, 2011

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. (AP) - A small marble relief of Jesus Christ flanked by two angels and being held up by Mary was one of the last pieces that Italian Renaissance master Michelangelo ever created.

This marble work is displayed next to a cast of one of his other great works, The Pieta, depicting Christ in his mother’s arms after his crucifixion. They are part of about 170 works on display as part of the exhibit “Vatican Splendors: A Journey Through Faith and Art,” which opens Saturday at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale.

It is the exhibit’s last stop on a three-city tour in the United States. After it ends April 24, the pieces go back to the Vatican and will not be on display. Many of these pieces will never be shown in the U.S. again.

“No work is more important or less important. They are sort of like the tiles of a mosaic, each one contributes to the larger image,” Monsignor Roberto Zagnoli, the curator of the show, said through a translator. Zagnoli is the secretary of Cardinal Ersilio Tonini and teaches communications at the Pontifical Holy Cross University in Rome. He also wrote a series of books, “The Painted Word.”

The exhibit begins with the tomb of St. Peter _ a fitting starting point, Zagnoli said. It finishes with the most recent popes, Peter’s successors, he said. Peter is considered the first pope of the Roman Catholic Church.

Two Papal Swiss Guard uniforms flank the entrance as visitors travel through the chronological eras of the Vatican’s history. First, a video presentation describes St. Peter’s role in the church. The final section includes a cast of Pope John Paul II’s hand and ends with a portrait of current Pope Benedict XVI, made in 2008.

Museum director Irvin Lippman said the objects associated with John Paul II will take on a deeper meaning May 1 when he is beatified _ a key step to being declared a saint.

The tour has also been to St. Louis and Pittsburgh since it began in May, though the objects will soon be returned to the Vatican. By law, they cannot be outside the Vatican’s walls more than a year.

As the show begins, a brick from St. Paul’s tomb is encased in a wooden box wrapped with a gold-colored rope. There are also clay oil lamps found during the excavations that revealed Peter’s tomb in a cemetery below St. Peter’s Basilica. A gold and silver reliquary _ a decorative container used to hold religious relics _ that has never been outside the Vatican is said to encase the bones of St. Peter, St. Paul and other saints, though it is not certain who the bones belong to.

Another relief, a replica of the 15th century original, shows St. Peter surrounded by people while he is being crucified upside down.

Other displays focus on tools used to create art and architecture. For instance, a caliper believed to have been Michelangelo’s is on display. There are also two gilded wood angels from the workshop of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

The ornate artifacts don’t end there. In the middle of one room is a gilded cross used in Mass processions, dating to the 15th century. Visitors can examine Pope Pius XI’s papal throne, a creation of wood, velvet and gold-plated metal.

Zagnoli, the Vatican official, said the connection between religion and art is strong _ a point he makes by citing a passage by Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky that he said was often quoted by Pope John Paul II.

“Beauty will save the world,” Zagnoli said. “The pope was saying that seeing something beautiful can calm the hearts of man and with that tranquility he is able to put himself in dialogue with other people.”

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