Vatican Splendors: Catholic history, precious papal artifacts tour U.S.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — The most moving part of the Vatican Splendors touring exhibit comes near the very end, where visitors are given the chance to hold the hand of Pope John Paul II.

The detailed bronze cast sculpture was created in 2002 by Italian sculptor Cecco Bonanotte. Every curve and nuance of this famous hand, extended so many times in blessing, is visible.

It’s a quietly beautiful and emotional end to “Vatican Splendors from Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums and the Swiss Guard,” on display at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland through Sept. 7.

This is one of the largest collections of art, artifacts and documents from the Vatican to ever tour North America, and it includes several items that have never been displayed in public. Cleveland is the second of only three cities on the exhibit’s tour. It was in St. Petersburg, Fla., earlier this year, and moves to Minneapolis in late September.

The exhibit is stunning in the scope of Vatican history it covers, and the wide variety of objects related to the papacy and Catholic history.

Visitors see everything from rare artwork from the Vatican’s famous collections to a compass and other tools used by Michelangelo during his work on the Sistine Chapel. There are ornate papal jewels, tiaras and vestments dating back to the 15th century; chalices and other objects used in Papal Masses; and uniforms and armor used by the Papal Swiss Guard.

The exhibit is divided into four galleries showing the foundations of the Catholic Church, 500 years of Vatican history, the work of the pope and stories of individual popes. The sections flow seamlessly together and illuminate both the majesty of the Vatican and the impact the Catholic Church has made on world history.

Displays such as Michelangelo’s tools and a full-size replica of the scaffolding he used in the Sistine Chapel convey the human element of Vatican history. Other works put visitors in touch with the divine and the miraculous.

At the center of the first gallery is an ornate silver and gold reliquary said to contain bone fragments from St. Peter and other saints.

Nearby, one of the most fascinating displays is the Mandylion of Edessa, a relic that dates from the third century and is considered one of the oldest images of Jesus Christ. The Mandylion is an ornate case which displays an icon-style image of Jesus that has been deemed “not made by human hands” in church lore.

Stories passed down through the ages claim that the image was sent by Jesus to the King of Edessa, and was made when Jesus pressed a piece of fabric to his face, leaving behind his likeness in much the same way as the Shroud of Turin. The Mandylion is considered one of the Vatican’s prized possessions, and legends say it has miraculous powers.

The full scope of papal history comes alive in displays that tell the life stories of popes dating back to the Middle Ages.

One of the most memorable artifacts is the wildly ornate tiara of Pope Pius VII, which was a gift from Napoleon Bonaparte and includes a huge emerald at its top.  The tiara was never actually worn by Pius VII, partly because it was too small for his head and too heavy, and also because he objected to Napoleon and his treatment of the Catholic Church, including the exile of his predecessor, Pope Pius VI.

Objects associated with modern popes are a big part of the final gallery, including the famous silver staff topped with a curved cross and frequently carried by Pope John Paul II, and a ring and other vestments worn by Pope Benedict XVI.

Actual objects from the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI also are on display, including election ballots, patens and urns, and a white smoke cartridge used in announcing his election.

The bronze sculpture of Pope John Paul’s hand can be found near the very end of the exhibit, and many people walking through come to a dead stop when they see it.

Some stand before the bronze cast simply looking at it. Others make the sign of the cross or pause for a few minutes of prayer or reflection while resting their hand on that of John Paul.

This simple hand allows visitors, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to feel a human connection to the 2,000 years of history brought to life by the rest of the exhibit.

The Vatican Splendors exhibit will be in Cleveland through Sept. 7 at the Western Reserve Historical Society, 10825 E. Blvd. Tickets are available by calling 888-5VATICAN (888-582-8422) or visiting

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