- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 20, 2002

LUBBOCK, Texas — Centuries after they were painted onto church walls in Rome, 31 frescoes in a rare exhibit remain remarkably brilliant, but most of the detail had been obscured until they were brought to eye level.
It was only then that the eyes of the characters depicted in the 12th-century and 13th-century works could be truly appreciated for their piercing gazes that lend a deeper meaning to the frescoes, and understanding of the stories they depict.
On loan to Texas Tech University from the Vatican Museums in Rome, the frescoes had never been viewed together and had never left Europe. After the showing in Lubbock ends Sept. 15, they will be returned to the Vatican and will not be displayed again until 2025.
"You can't often see them when you're in church," says Cathleen Fleck, an expert in medieval Italian art who works at the Walters Museum in Baltimore. "They're up so high. But it's clear that the artist put in a certain type of psychological depth through the eyes — doelike eyes in human figures that really look at you. They grab you when you look at them."
The frescoes largely depict the lives of saints and martyrs. Fragments of larger frescoes are also part of the exhibit and depict birds, winged dragons, palm trees and dolphins, images that were symbolic messages for early Christians.
Most medieval people could not read, so frescoes were a means of storytelling.
One of the stories that unfolds through several of the frescoes in the Lubbock show is the story of St. Catherine, an early Christian martyr. The fresco that depicts her beheading is the most famous in the exhibit and is the only violent image on display.
"What an expression on his face," says the Rev. Placido Rodriquez, bishop of the Lubbock diocese, as he took in the executioner's agonized gaze. "It breaks the tradition of the other frescoes."
Painted about 900 years ago by unknown artists under the tutelage of Italian artist Pietro Cavallini, the Vatican frescoes once adorned the walls of St. Agnese and St. Nicola, two early Roman churches. They were covered by plaster in the 1700s and rediscovered and removed during renovations to the churches in the 1800s. They had been stored in the Vatican since.
Frescoes are large paintings created on walls or ceilings. They are done while a special plaster is still wet. The water-soluble pigments combine chemically with the plaster and seep in as it dries.
The results are brilliant colors that appear transparent and almost three-dimensional.
Light can fade the colors, so cameras are not allowed at the exhibit.
The exhibit came to Lubbock because of the efforts of the Rev. Malcolm Neyland, who pastors churches in two small towns near Lubbock. He first toured the vast collection at the Vatican Museums in Rome near St. Peter's Basilica in 1988.
He was awestruck, and a dream formed to bring some of the art to West Texas for those who might never travel to Italy. Bishop Neyland says the 14-year odyssey was a combination of inspiration, perseverance and self-sacrifice.
"Under his guidance, we have realized this exhibit," says Francesco Buranelli, director general of the Vatican Museums who was in town recently for an advance showing of the exhibit. "It's a very important step for the Catholic Church" to share these.
More than 145,000 reservations already have been made and organizers expect at least another 20,000 people to attend.
Along with the exhibit, a second gallery nearby in the museum will display art of the same era from North America. The purpose is to show the relationship between the development of art in Europe and the New World, says Gary Edson, executive director of the Museum of Texas Tech University.
The Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation in Houston and the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City are among the institutions that will lend additional pieces.
On the Net: www.vaticanexhibit.org


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