Picks and Pans Main: Etc.

updated 02/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

A glimpse of the Popes' artistic hoard

Until this month Popes Paul VI and John Paul II had been the only modern road shows launched from the gates of the Holy See in Rome. But now, in a historic first, the Vatican has sent forth 237 of its most exquisite treasures, many of them newly scrubbed and touched up for the occasion. "The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and Art," currently at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (see page 107), lays claim to being the most expensive traveling art exhibit ever produced. In spite of the $8 million it ended up costing, "The Papacy and Art" also happens to be a superb display of some of the most priceless jewels in the Vatican's vast holdings.

Popes, like the rest of us, love to collect, and visitors to the show will experience the dizzying range of the Pontiffs' acquisitions. These run from fifth century B.C. Greek vases to a painted bark ceremonial mask from Tierra del Fuego to the brilliant blue, green and yellow paper cutouts Matisse designed in 1949 for the Chapel of the Rosary's stained glass window in Vence, France. The works are culled from 10 institutions within the Vatican, including the Pinacoteca, or picture gallery, and the Etruscan and Egyptian museums.

Among the show's most moving sights is the marble Belvedere Torso. Dating from the first century B.C., the torso, roughly severed at the knee and rippling with muscles, surges with power. A companion piece is the famous Apollo Belvedere. A second-century Roman copy of a Greek bronze, the Apollo, in contrast, is a flawlessly executed but passionless and remote work. Then there is one of the world's most sublime tapestries, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, woven in Brussels in 1519. Based on a cartoon by Raphael, the piece, shimmering with water, light and sky, captures that exciting moment in the New Testament chronicle when fishermen, at Christ's command, pulled up nets bulging with their catch.

The Vision of Saint Thomas Aquinas by the Sienese master Sassetta is one of the small jewels in the show. And not to be missed are two other pieces, both summits of Baroque art painted within years of each other: Caravaggio's The Deposition, depicting the entombment of Christ, was completed in 1604, Poussin's The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus in 1629. In the latter the power of the work climbs in a steady crescendo from the tortured saint's suffering head, past the priest in white robes and a horseman, into the sky where two cherubs drift holding the wreaths and flowers of his martyrdom. It is a macabre scene held in exquisite balance by Poussin's brilliant classicism.

After its three-and-a-half-month run at the Met, the exhibit moves on to the Art Institute of Chicago (July 23-Oct. 16) and the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco (Nov. 19-Feb. 19, 1984). A richly reproduced official catalog of the same title (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Abrams, $14.95) is a useful guide. A more exhaustive treatment of the art and history of the Holy See is available in The Vatican, Spirit and Art of Christian Rome (The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Abrams, $60).

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