If you should happen to be visiting Rome during the next few months, while "Vatican Splendors: A Journey Through Faith and Art" is on view at the Franklin Institute and later at the Reagan Presidential Library, you needn't worry. All the splendors you want to see are still at the Vatican.
What is on view here is stuff you would normally skip on your way to see some of the greatest paintings, sculptures, and architecture on the planet. (The media releases even boast that some of the materials have never been shown at the Vatican itself, a dubious distinction, which suggests they might not even be good enough to be part of the overwhelming quantity of works always on display.)
Mostly, what you find here are casts, reproductions, and works attributed to semi-obscure artists or, more frequently, their studios. The title is careful. It does not promise masterpieces or even treasures. And, not surprising for an exhibition created under the auspices of the Vatican's evangelization arm, it puts faith before art. The theological and emotional truth of the paintings on display is clearly viewed as more important than their originality or aesthetic distinction.
(There are some important exceptions. For me, the most thrilling works in the show are fresco portraits of four early popes, from 1277-1280 by Pietro de Ceroni, known as Cavallini. Though they are probably much restored, as they survived a fire at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, they feel like real people gazing back at us from deep in the past.)
Nevertheless, whether you are heading to St. Peter's for the jubilee year or not, this exhibition can provide some insights on the history of Christianity and the Catholic Church and also on the uses of art that you might not glean from actually being there. It helps you see the church's creation of splendor not so much as an achievement as a technique.
Through impressive buildings, vivid, readable, and emotionally powerful imagery, music, costume, and ritual, the church has for most of two millennia provided the faithful with transcendent experiences that foster and reinforce belief. And it has done so on a scale that was unprecedented in Western culture. Moreover, even as architecture and art have given way to more immersive media, the church and its imagery are still immensely effective, as Pope Francis' visit here in September demonstrated.
The exhibition traces this tradition to the moment, early in the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine ended persecution of Christians and sponsored the building of three basilicas in Rome for Christian worship. The most important of these was built in a place that had long been important to Christians, the site of St. Peter's burial on the Vatican hill. Almost overnight, the Christian ritual was transformed from a secretive practice to a very public one in which large congregations participated in the most sacred and mysterious part of the rite. As the exhibition points out, this mass participation in the most sacred rites of the religion was novel in a society where temples were closed to the public, and rituals and sacrifices happened out of sight.
The first basilica, which stood for more than a thousand years, and its great Renaissance successor, designed by some of the greatest artists of all time and built between 1506 and 1624, were shaped by this radical inclusiveness. Their first obligation was to be big enough to accommodate vast congregations and keep each person engaged.
Splendor, as we see it in the exhibition, is often about scale. Scale is about more than size. It is about translating and projecting the visible and the scarcely visible so that those in the back row can perceive such a small thing as a Eucharistic wafer, and be moved by it. Thus, we see the richly and boldly ornamented robes worn by priests celebrating the Mass, along with chalices and ciboria - the holders of the communion wafers - executed in bright gold and decorated with vibrantly colored glass and gems. Some of these are unattractive up close, but that's not really their point. Their job is to catch the eye of the congregant in the back row and focus the attention of all.
This technique reaches its peak in the design of monstrances - vessels made to display the Eucharistic wafer as an object of devotion - and reliquaries, made to hold bits of bone and other fragments associated with saints. These are eye-catching packages designed to magnify something small, or perhaps to reflect their true significance. The monstrance may seem to embody an explosion, as its shiny gold-and-silver surfaces catch and reflect every bit of light, often from candles whose flickering makes the surface seem to come to life.
Reliquaries, which are more varied in form, are packages that are literally designed to help work miracles. The relics, and especially their containers, are intended as a focus for devotion that can sometimes produce the miraculous results required for a person to be declared a saint. The exhibition contains quite a remarkable one, a gold-and-silver shield formed from flowers from the 17th or 18th centuries. It holds relics from several of the most important saints, including Peter and Paul; Anne, Mary's mother; and Joseph, her husband. The relics, though, are imperceptible; it is the job of the reliquary to magnify, dignify, and focus this devotional one-stop shopping.
One of the most engaging things on display is a pair of wooden cherubs, each a bit more than three feet tall, created in the workshop of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the great baroque sculptor and architect who designed St. Peter's Square and the main altar of the basilica itself. These gold babies are intended to be endearing, but there is something about them that is slightly coarse. Their lips are thick, their noses pointed, their arms almost grotesquely fat, their hair suspiciously luxuriant, waved, and curled.
I do not mean to imply they are the product of incompetence. Quite the opposite. They were carefully designed to have personality and presence even from a long distance and in minimal light. When you're in the presence of splendor, it's often best not to stand too close.
Through Feb. 15 at the Franklin Institute, 20th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Admission: Daytime (includes museum admission): $34.95 adult, $28.95 children (3-11); evening (no museum admission): $22.95 adult, $14.95 children.
Hours: Daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; until 9 p.m. Thursday to Saturday; closed Jan. 1.
Information: 215-448-1200 or www.fi.edu.