Pilgrims converging on Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families and the visit of Pope Francis have an opportunity to see some treasures of religious history in their free time. Three special exhibits, timed to coincide with the papal visit, offer a diverse selection of manuscripts, books, art and artifacts.

The largest exhibit is at the Franklin Institute (222 North 20th St., Philadelphia) and features objects drawn from the Vatican’s own collection, many of which have never been on display before. Called “Vatican Splendors,” the exhibit fills 10,000 square feet and sees the Church from her first days to present times. Visitors are greeted by a replica of St. Peter’s tomb and one of its original bricks, and then they follow the history of the Vatican and the Church through two millennia of artifacts and art.

Some of the highlights include documents related to Vatican work signed by Michelangelo, Bernini, Della Porta and Maderno; some of the original paintings used as mosaic models for the dome of St. Peter’s; the cope of St. Charles Borromeo; the crozier of Leo XIII; and a number of other papal relics, altar goods, vestments and documents. There are some fine items of metalwork and sculpture, including a bas relief of the crucifixion of St. Peter from the tomb of Sixtus IV. The exhibit moves through history, the art of liturgy and the global spread of the faith (including some striking Japanese artwork), before concluding with an exhibit of papal portraits and busts.

Another treat is on display in the atrium of the institute, and this one can be viewed without buying a museum or exhibit ticket. Local priest Father Bob Simon spent 10 months and used half a million bricks to create his reconstruction of St. Peter’s from Legos, right down to the line of statues, multicultural crowd and figure of Pope Francis waving from the balcony.

The Franklin Institute is the only East Coast stop of “Vatican Splendors,” which makes one more stop (Ronald Reagan Library, Simi Valley, Calif., where it will run March 6-Aug. 28, 2016) before leaving the country. It runs through Feb. 15, 2016, with the museum offering extended hours from 9:30am to 9:00pm from Thursday to Saturday to accommodate pilgrims. Tickets are $34.95/$28.95 (adult/child) and come with general admission to the institute’s large collection of science exhibits.

A more modest exhibit is on display at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (3260 South St., Philadelphia), but it’s one rich in history. Eleven items from the museum’s world-class collection have been gathered for “Sacred Writing: Extraordinary Texts of the Biblical World.” It’s anchored by two striking objects: a piece of Sumerian tablet from 1650 B.C. that is the oldest portion of the Flood story ever discovered and a fragment of the Gospel of Matthew that is among the oldest ever found. There’s also a Rheims New Testament printed in 1582 for Catholic exiles from Elizabeth I’s England, a 1663 Eliot Indian Bible in the Massachusett language and other medieval, Jewish and Islamic volumes.

The museum's regular exhibits are highlighted by one of the great collections of artifacts from the city of Ur. (The University of Pennsylvania co-sponsored the original dig.) There are also many Egyptian, Greek, Canaanite and Roman items from the biblical era, as well as a superb collection of items from around the world.

The Penn has another special exhibit that visitors shouldn’t miss: “Sacred Space: The Photography of Ahmet Ertug.” Ertug has captured the beauty of Byzantine-Christian art preserved in early churches from Constantinople (Istanbul) and the Cappadocia region of Turkey. These huge photos explode in color and detail, revealing the majesty of early Eastern Christianity.

Tickets are $15/$13/$10 (adult/senior/youth) and allow access to the entire museum, which is open 10am to 5pm and closed Mondays. The “Sacred Writings” exhibit runs until Nov. 8.

Pilgrims who don’t want to leave the Philadelphia Convention Center, where the World Meeting of Families Congress is being held, also have an opportunity to see some spectacular items. The collection of Bibles and biblical artifacts being amassed by the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, has exploded to 40,000 items over the past few years. A vast, high-tech home for this collection is being constructed a few blocks away from the National Air & Space Museum in Washington to house it all. Eight floors, 430,000 square feet of display space and interactive exhibits telling the story of the Bible await patrons when the museum opens in late 2017.

A small but important piece of that collection is on display at the World Meeting of Families until Sept. 26: “Verbum Domini II” was originally exhibited at the Vatican. It begins with fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls and pages of the Bodmer Codex, a Greek psalter on papyrus from the third or fourth century. There are pages from the Codex Climaci Rescriptus, which includes early Christian texts, some in Aramaic, from the sixth to eighth centuries; the beautiful illuminated Hours and Psalter of Elizabeth de Bohun (14th century); copies of the Douay and Rheims Bibles; an unusual Ethiopian Bible with commentary in the rare Ge’ez language; a piece of a Gutenberg Bible; and much, much more. It’s really a fine exhibit.

Best of all is the price: free. If you’re at the Pennsylvania Convention Center for the World Meeting of Families, just make your way to Hall G (past registration) between now and Saturday.



Thomas L. McDonald is part of the Register’s coverage of World Meeting of Families.