A visually breathtaking television series is currently being shown on the Eternal Word Television Network that aims to bring to life the Catholic meaning behind the priceless works of art on display in the Vatican Museums.

Produced and directed by Catholic documentary filmmaker Mary Shovlain, “Catholic Canvas” takes viewers on an artistic journey through salvation history, starting with the Old Testament, from creation to the fall of man, and moving on to man’s need for a redeemer and the promise of Christ’s redemption.

The series includes works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Perugino and, through Shovlain’s persistent efforts and the generosity of the Vatican Museums, it shows the great masterpieces of salvation history in the halls of the museums and in the Sistine Chapel as they’ve never been seen before.

But Shovlain said the overall aim was not simply to put these great artworks on television, but to help the viewers in their faith by explaining the profound Christian message that lies behind the masterpieces.

“We didn’t just look at the artistic value, the history and the artists. We wanted to tap into what the artist was trying to convey,” she said. “In the end, they are catechetical tools.”

The series begins with a look at depictions of angels in salvation history and then, in other programs, examines the role of Mary, Christ’s ministry, passion and resurrection, St. Peter and the saints, and the Apocalypse.

To guide the viewer through the museum’s treasures is the well-respected art historian Elizabeth Lev. For her, the series is a means of recapturing the true meaning of these works in a society that tends to diminish them.

“This modern age is a very visual society; we gravitate to television, magazines and computer screens, relying increasingly more on images than words or sounds,” explained Lev, who teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus in Rome. “The tremendous heritage of Christian art, both beautiful and meaningful, has the potential to appeal to that visual world and draw them closer to the Christian message.”

But for this reason, she believes artists such as Michelangelo and Caravaggio have been “kidnapped” by secular forces. “Their appeal is so strong that many have tried to use their work to promote agendas completely alien to their original intention,” Lev explained. “The show reclaims them for the Christian message. We want people to know the Church produced the fertile soil that brought forth these artists and that we should be proud of these great painters and sculptors because they proclaimed a message of faith.”

Shovlain said many tour guides at the Vatican are “missing the boat” by omitting the true meaning behind these works. “It’s not cool to talk about God creating man and creation even, but there it is, painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel,” she said — and pointed out that Michelangelo’s masterpiece and artists’ other great works have been a “silent witness” to the faith for centuries. “The message hasn’t changed,” she said, “and we’re not going to change the interpretation of it either to fit in with the times.”

EWTN has been very pleased with the production. Its director of program acquisition and coproduction, John Elson, said the program “contributes in an important way to the network’s mission to provide orthodox and high-quality catechetical programming in humble service to the universal Church and in total fidelity to both the magisterium and the Holy Father for the salvation of souls.”

The series also contains commentary from Legionary Father Mark Haydu, international coordinator of the patrons of the arts of the Vatican Museums, who shows the many restoration projects that have been financed by the patrons. “Patronage has always been a part of Church history; we need to inspire this again, and this is one way to do it,” he said.

Father Haydu said he was very excited to collaborate on the series and that it helped to fulfill the mission of the Vatican Museums, which is also to communicate the faith through art. But also, for him personally, a highlight of the program was how it portrays the true essence of beauty.

“We’re in a world that’s hungry for beauty; we’re so focused on it, but sometimes on superficial beauty,” he said. “So to showcase profound beauty that has a second wave of spiritual meaning, an opening to the transcendent, is a combination that the world is hungry for. The Church is always called to communicate this more profound beauty which springs from the truths of our faith. Beautiful art is the flowering of a personal encounter with Beauty itself.”

The Sistine Chapel forms the backbone of the series and was illuminated for the shooting (usually its lights are switched off to preserve Michelangelo’s masterpieces). Camera crews were even permitted to put up scaffolding to achieve the best close-up shots of the chapel’s many frescoes.

For the program makers, “Catholic Canvas” was as enlightening to make as it was to watch. Just to be able to gain such unprecedented access was a great privilege. “The people at the museums were with us every day, not just to make sure we didn’t damage the works of art, but to make sure we knew what each artwork was about,” said Shovlain, adding they were “incredible” to work with and highly professional.

The highlight for Lev was to be able to stand “in silent contemplation, alone, before the greatest works of art in the world.” She said the experience helped transform her relationship with the works “from a clinical understanding to an intimate friendship.”

“I saw parts of the museums I had never seen in 12 years of going there almost daily, and I was able to feel like I was taking part in the rich history of this place,” said Lev.

Finishing touches to the final program are still being made; the entire series has taken more than a year and a half to make. “It has taken me longer to make than it took Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel,” joked Shovlain.

But Shovlain hopes this will be just the first in a series of programs on priceless Catholic art housed in museums all over the world. “You have to travel the world to see them,” she said, “so what we hope to do is use this format for other museums, bringing out this Catholic art and broadcasting it all over the world.”

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.