Inside the Vatican's art collection

creation of adam_584.jpg

The Creation of Adam is part of the mural painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. (Wikipaintings)

First aired on the Current (24/12/13)

Michelangelo's magnificent mural on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is the main attraction for many tourists who visit the Vatican Museums each year. But the Vatican is home to many other impressive works of art. In her new book The Vatican: All the Paintings, art historian Anja Grebe offers an exhaustive catalogue of the works.

The Current spoke to Grebe, and to Canadian Ross King, who wrote the introduction to The Vatican: All the Paintings. He's the author of a number of critically acclaimed books including Leonardo and The Last Supper, which won the 2012 Governor General's Literary Award for Non-fiction.

Grebe spoke to guest host Piya Chattopadhyay about undertaking to catalogue the collection. All of the Vatican's paintings are included in her book, but when it came to other pieces, such as sculptures and tapestries, she had to make choices. Her goal was to "give an overview of the richness of the collection," and she spent several weeks in Rome, deciding which works "would be of most interest to a larger public."


Ross King pointed out that most of us associate the Vatican with religion, but historically it "has been sacred to the arts as well, stretching back to the time of the ancient Romans." He cited the fact that "since the fourth century, the popes have been commissioning, collecting, preserving works of art."

When asked to name her favourite piece in the collection, Grebe mentioned the tapestries by Raphael that are in the Sistine Chapel. He designed them, but they were actually woven in Flanders (now Belgium), and it took so long for them to be completed that "by the time the first tapestries were finished, the pope who had commissioned them had died and his successor didn't want the tapestries, so they were sold and only bought back by the next pope."

The quality and quantity of the Vatican's art collection shows "that art and religion went together," King said, adding that the Catholic Church has traditionally seen works of art "as visual aids for the illiterate. They were the gospel in pictorial form."

The Vatican has continued to collect religious art, including throughout the 20th century, and its collection even includes work by painters who aren't generally known for depicting sacred subjects. "There is van Gogh, there is Matisse," King said.

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