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Vatican art and the healing of meditation

book cover Meditations on Vaticna Art

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Too often today when people look at paintings that are more than 100 years old, they don't consider the story the artist was telling.

"Story is everything to many of the works of art in the Vatican Museums," the Rev. Mark Haydu said. His job – international director of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums -- is raising funds to restore and maintain the Vatican vast art collections.

The Akron native who was ordained a priest six years ago is determined to widen interest in the spiritual messages and stories that many artists intended to tell in their art. Many, certainly not all, Vatican artwork was commissioned for churches, monastery refectories and convent cloister sculpture gardens.

Artists, and those who commissioned the iconography, were trying to share stories from the Bible, lives of holy people and show "higher virtues," Haydu said in a phone interview from California as he prepared to visit St. Louis. Artists often were not just teaching people stories, they were calling the faithful to prayer. 

"People are missing the boat if they don't know what the message was about," he said.

Friday at Aquinas Institute of Theology in Midtown he will talk about how beauty can heal and lead to prayer. He also will explain how Vatican art restoration has been funded by American and Western European donors and will sign copies of his new book. It uses illustrations of masterpieces from the Vatican collections as a focus for his spiritual reflections on their back story of faith and beauty.

"We are used to modern, contemporary work where is less curiosity about what something means. When there is a line of paint, patches of color and blotches, the artist was not telling a story."

Many of the great masterpieces of the Vatican collections completed before the 20th century use a special visual vocabulary related to the Bible or saints' lives that adults and even children who could not read understood from hearing Bible and religious stories. The Vatican houses the largest museum complex in the world in its more than 1,400 rooms. Haydu’s office is in the Vatican Apostolic Palace - now popularly known as the palace that Pope Francis does not sleep in.

Symbols in early art

While few museum visitors today are literary illiterates, many are uninformed about Western culture and don't recognize and "read" symbols and meaning that a Christian child would have under stood 100 years ago.

Stories of the Passion, Maestro di Fossa, Circa 1340 -- Day 26 of Meditations on Vatican Art
Credit Provided by the publisher | 2013
Stories of the Passion, Maestro di Fossa, Circa 1340 -- Day 26 of Meditations on Vatican Art

To help visitors, the Vatican staff has trained freelance guides to understand stories artists were telling and the spirituality behind the art, he said. To enhance understanding among the more than 5 million who visit the Vatican museums each year, the staff has developed two Vatican tours: "Faith in Art" and "Bible in Art." The museums rental audio guides include two similar audio tours, he said.

In that spirit of sharing the artists’ intended messages, Haydu has written a book of meditations on important Vatican art. It flowed from a suggestion by Liguori Publications in Jefferson to write about Vatican art. He wanted to add meditations as text, he said.

"This way people can take time to look at the art at home, maybe share it with family and friends on their coffee table, or give it to others," he said. He chose which Vatican masterpieces would be reproduced in the book, then wrote meditations on each following the 28-day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, the Spanish founder of the spiritual retreat movement and the Jesuits.

Royalties go to the patrons' art restoration effort. The 216-page, 10-by-10-inch art format book sells for $29.99.

Restoration works

For most of this year, museum visitors in the rooms that the Renaissance painter Raphael decorated with murals have been able to peer through scaffolding and watch experts restore murals on the walls and ceilings.

Detail from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Peter Wenzel -- Day 5 in Meditations in Vatican Art
Credit Provided by the publisher | 2013
Detail from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Peter Wenzel -- Day 5 in Meditations in Vatican Art

Art not bonded to the walls is typically removed so specialists in fields as varied as tapestry, stone and paper restoration can work in fine lighting and quiet in more than a dozen Vatican restoration studios. Mural restoration gives visitors insight into the work and generosity of donors.

To reach the Sistine Chapel, most walk along a magnificent 125-yard corridor with 40 large murals of maps. This year visitors have seen restorers clean the maps that Ignazio Danti painted in the 1580s.

Both the map and Raphael mural restorations are funded by the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, a 30-year-old American and European donors group.

One of the first things the Patrons of the Arts funded shortly after it was founded was restoration of the Sistine Chapel's 14 lateral murals, painted by Renaissance painters Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Perugino, that tell stories from the lives of Moses and Jesus. Visitors had generally overlooked these murals directly under Michelangelo ceiling in part because they had darkened with centuries of candle smoke and dust.

Not all the restoration funded by the patrons group is inside the Sistine and the museums. At St. Peter's Basilica, the organization paid to renovate the great western rose window in the Adoration Chapel, directly beyond the great main altar under its baldacchino -- a bronze canopy. Now the patrons are paying for stone restoration of the stairs at St. John Lateran Basilica across Rome.

For centuries, pilgrims had climbed the stairs on their knees. Many people believe they are from Pilate's palace, steps that Jesus walked on when he was sentenced to death. 

The patrons' work

Because the Vatican has well-established restoration studios and expert staff, the work does not cost as much as it might in other parts of the world, he said. But the last of the three Raphael rooms, an international treasure by any standard, will cost Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums $700,000 to restore, he said.

Over the years, the patrons have raised funds to restore the Pauline Chapel where Michelangelo painted his final two frescoes and the Borgia Apartments, which are now part of the Vatican Museums.

Federico Fiori (known as Barocci)
 Vatican Museums’ Pinacoteca

— Day 14 in Meditations on Vatican Art","caption":"Annunciation. 
Federico Fiori (known as Barocci)
 Vatican Museums’ Pinacoteca

— Day 14 in Meditations on Vatican Art","style":"offset_left","uri":"public://201603/annunciation.jpg","attribution":"Credit Provided by the publisher | 2013"}]]

The patrons get perks much as do the Friends of the St. Louis Art Museum. An early morning private guided visit to the Sistine Chapel is the big prize. Pope Francis greeted a recent art patrons' group.

The support group evolved out of backers of a 1982 American exhibit of Vatican art.  St. Louis has a few patrons' group members but no chapters, he said.

The Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums wish list includes restoration of ancient Greek and Roman works depicting pagan gods and equipment needed including an X-ray diffractometer. While most patrons are Catholic, other are generous art lovers who are Jewish, Muslim, and Mormon, Haydu said.

Membership in Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums starts at $250 for those 35 and under, $500 for an individual and $1,000 for a couple and their minor children. Many donors give much, much more, Haydu said.

The Rev. Mark Haydu
Credit Provided by the publisher | 2013
The Rev. Mark Haydu

Haydu has a perk of his own hanging on his office wall - a detail of Barocci preparation painting.

A year ago St. Louis Art Museum patrons admired -- some swooned over -- Renaissance Italian painter Barocci's beautiful 16th century  paintings and sketches when they filled the former special exhibition galleries. He's delighted that many St. Louisans know the Italian painter.

“I just love Barocci's work,” Haydu said about the Italian painter whose real name was Federico Fiori. "He's an overlooked painter." 
Haydu is a master at helping donors get the most of their trips to the Vatican. Now for his own month-long U.S. tour, he planned family time with pie. 

The priest is one of six children. Next week he'll head to his parents' Akron home after nearly two decades living in Rome and on missions in Central America.

"I'm going to be home for Thanksgiving," he said.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.