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The Vatican's Magnificent Mosaics

© by Mike Keenan

St. Louis Cathedral - Google Images

It's oxymoronic, but when I travel, I regularly plan for serendipity. New Orleans was no exception. I didn't encounter Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie pushing baby strollers outside their newly acquired digs, purchased in the French Quarter for a mere $3.5 million. However, returning to Le Richelieu hotel and passing nearby St. Mary's church beside the Ursuline convent, I scored big. The door open, I perceived a large-screen TV set at the altar. "C'mon in," welcomed a lady, so I did and lucked upon "An Evolution of the Human Spirit as Seen Through Mosaic Art," a presentation of the Vatican Mosaic Studio and the Archdiocese of New Orleans' Catholic Cultural Heritage Center at the Old Ursuline Convent." Thanks largely to Monsignor Crosbie W. Kern, rector of the St. Louis Cathedral, the Vatican Mosaic Studio presented their first comprehensive exhibition of art since the 16th century outside of their home court.

"How did you do it?" I asked.

"Easy. I simply asked, and they agreed," replied a beaming Monsignor. The display begins in a hall joining the church to the convent. Over 30 works, 20 never exhibited before and 10 produced for the first time, form a dazzling corpus that spans religious and secular themes, reflecting pictorial art through the ages, including masterpieces from Renaissance to the modern and contemporary age. On the walls gleamed works inspired from famous canvases by Monet, Van Gogh, Chagall and Rouault.


20,000 tourists enter St. Peter's in Rome daily to gape in awe at its mammoth dimensions and Michelangelo's magnificent dome, but according to Angelo Comastri, Vicar General of the Holy Father for the Vatican City State, "they're often fooled by what seems to be painted surfaces decorating more than 25 altars and chapels." With construction of the new Basilica in the 16th century, a studio was needed for its decoration, and thus was founded the Vatican Mosaic Studio, responsible for decorating the St. Peter's with religious art as well as restoration of existing works. In 1795, the Studio was authorized to create secular subject matter as well.

Monsignor Kern is the 43rd pastor/rector of the St. Louis Cathedral, oldest existing Catholic Cathedral in continual use in the United States, located in Jackson Square and worthy of a visit itself. He believes the exhibit tells the story of an evolution of the human spirit through mosaic art. "It helps us understand concepts such as beauty, truth, wisdom, and love. It helps in our quest to know God."


Earliest examples of mosaic art date from Babylon, six centuries before Christ; Greeks, Romans and every age since produced mosaics. I was enthralled as I toured, transfixed by stunning replicas inspired by artistic geniuses such as Bramante, Michelangelo, Maderno and Bernini, all responsible for St. Peter's original artwork.

Francisco Marchisano, Archpriest of St. Peter's, thinks that one of the essential qualities of mosaics is their luminous and translucent character as well as durability, and this was the major reason why the Studio was chosen to decorate the Basilica in Rome. Alfred C. Hughes, Archbishop of New Orleans delights in the first exhibition outside Rome, but also proudly notes that reopening the Ursuline Convent marks a milestone in New Orleans' post-Katrina recovery.

Ursuline nuns arrived in New Orleans from Rouen in 1727 to take charge of the royal hospital. The convent, a three story building, was completed in 1734 but rebuilt in 1745 thanks to King Louis XV. The adjoining St. Mary's church dates from 1845.

I talked briefly to Emanuela Rocchi, a young, enthusiastic Italian craftswoman, a member of the Vatican Mosaic Studio team. "To be surrounded by an infinite number of colours, to mold and give form is to harness life," she said. Wow!

Next time you travel, be open to serendipity. It happens even when heading back from a long Gray Line tour to your hotel!

New Orleans
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Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.

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Mike Keenan

Medieval art
The medieval art of the Western world covers a vast scope of time and place, over 1000 years of art in Europe, and at times the Middle East and North Africa. It includes major art movements and periods, national and regional art, genres, revivals, the artists crafts, and the artists themselves.
Art historians attempt to classify medieval art into major periods and styles, often with some difficulty. A generally accepted scheme includes Early Christian art, Migration Period art, Byzantine art, Insular art, Pre-Romanesque and Romanesque art, and Gothic art, as well as many other periods within these central styles. In addition each region, mostly during the period in the process of becoming nations or cultures, had its own distinct artistic style, such as Anglo-Saxon art or Norse art.
Medieval art was produced in many media, and the works that remain in large numbers include sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, metalwork and mosaics, all of which have had a higher survival rate than other media such as fresco wall-paintings, work in precious metals or textiles, including tapestry. Especially in the early part of the period, works in the so-called "minor arts" or decorative arts, such as metalwork, ivory carving, enamel and embroidery using precious metals, were probably more highly valued than paintings or monumental sculpture.
Medieval art in Europe grew out of the artistic heritage of the Roman Empire and the iconographic traditions of the early Christian church. These sources were mixed with the vigorous "barbarian" artistic culture of Northern Europe to produce a remarkable artistic legacy. Indeed the history of medieval art can be seen as the history of the interplay between the elements of classical, early Christian and "barbarian" art. Apart from the formal aspects of classicism, there was a continuous tradition of realistic depiction of objects that survived in Byzantine art throughout the period, while in the West it appears intermittently, combining and sometimes competing with new expressionist possibilities developed in Western Europe and the Northern legacy of energetic decorative elements. The period ended with the self-perceived Renaissance recovery of the skills and values of classical art, and the artistic legacy of the Middle Ages was then disparaged for some centuries. Since a revival of interest and understanding in the 19th century it has been seen as a period of enormous achievement that underlies the development of later Western art.
   - Wikipedia

If you go
New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau: http://www.neworleanscvb.com/
New Orleans Museums: http://www.neworleansonline.com/neworleans/arts/museums/
Old Ursuline Convent Museum: 1114 Chartres St., Ph: 504.529.3040
St. Louis Cathedral: http://stlouiscathedral.org/
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Orleans
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/New_Orleans

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