Preserving Patrons: Treasures of the Vatican Museums’ Vaults
‘People with a heart for art’ support those who meticulously clean and maintain precious artworks.
VATICAN CITY — Ten thousand hours.
This is how long it takes to digitally analyze, map and conserve a marble statue, which could well be 2,000 years old. The work is not about restoring the statue to its original beauty. The team of experts in the stone materials restoration laboratories of the Vatican Museums are working on preserving such pieces in their current state for generations to come.
It is a meticulous work. First, the restorers need to identify the problem. They pay particular attention to the color of the artifact and how it may have lost pigment over time. Then, stains need to be removed; small fractures should be mended. To clean the marble, a special kind of algae is applied. It removes any potential contaminants.
“Every piece here has its own history,” explained Msgr. Terence Hogan. A priest of the Archdiocese of Miami, Msgr. Hogan serves as the coordinator of the Office of Relations with the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums (ORPAVM). He appreciates the time he is able to spend inside the laboratories. After all, it is his job to ensure the operations keep running. Renovating millennia-old artwork is not only time intensive but also costly.
There are more than 100 professional restorers working in various laboratories, focusing on diverse fields such as tapestry, paintings and woodwork. They are tasked with maintaining pieces on regular display in one of the most important collections in the world.
Up to 35,000 visitors come every day to find inspiration by the collections of the Church. Only few are aware that even more treasures are stowed away beneath the Vatican Museums in vast vaults. To bring these works of art back to light is a huge undertaking. Despite new records in ticket sales, the museums are impossible to sustain with entrance fees alone. That is why Msgr. Hogan and his team are making sure that people with a heart for art know about the needs of the Vatican Museums.
During a tour, the monsignor pointed out monkey statues.
“Look at these baboons,” he said while walking through the stone materials laboratories, pointing at two statues of the monkeys, which are around 3,000 years old. They were found in Egypt and presumably adorned an ancient palace.
“We have to first map the surface and document the damage,” the monsignor explained, looking over the shoulder of one of the restoration experts sitting with a tablet and a digital pen next to the statue. On the screen was an image of the baboon in front of her. With her pen, she selected certain parts of the surface and marked them. She made sure that she will later be able to apply the biochemical solution in the right places. “It is a fine line we are walking here, between preserving and distorting,” Msgr. Hogan said, referring to the fact that the museums’ restoration efforts are not aimed at reinventing the ancient art but bringing their original beauty to light.
To promote, restore and preserve: This summarizes the mission of Msgr. Hogan’s Vatican foundation tasked with inspiring benefactors to support the magnificent museums of the world’s smallest state. In the first week of November, the “Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums” celebrated their 40th anniversary. More than 300 patrons from across the globe followed the invitation of the governorate of Vatican City State to participate in the weeklong festivities.
Barbara Jatta, director of the Vatican Museums, welcomed the benefactors in the courtyard of the museums, reminding the patrons that without them and their generous support, many works of art would have never seen the light of day. Msgr. Hogan had already brought many of those present into the laboratories, as, for patrons, the Vatican Museums offer special-access tours. “We try to provide them with an extraordinary experience. For us, they are more than just visitors; we want them to become part of the family,” said Msgr. Hogan.
Such a visit naturally impresses. Lisa Altig remembers her first tour well.
“I had no idea what I had to expect,” she said, “but when I walked the halls of the Vatican Museums, I was so impressed.” Such an impression made Altig and her husband, Rick, become patrons. They soon started to adopt certain preservation projects: “We usually cannot wait to get our hands on the most current ‘wishbook’ to see which projects are available.”
The wishbook is an annual magazine that Msgr. Hogan and his team put together, in which many preservation projects are presented. Experts explain the importance of each piece, and a price is established, from several thousands to several million, in U.S. dollars.
“Sometimes we ask our friends to pitch in,” said Rick Altig. “And also, our grown-up children are eagerly awaiting the wishbook and adopt with us one of the pieces.”
The couple introduced their children early on to their fascination with the Vatican Museums. “Experiencing art through the eyes of children is something special,” said Rick, “so when we started to bring our kids, it was us parents who learned even more.” Children, he is convinced, have a different approach to art because they are so easily fascinated by beauty.
Fascinating the young is also Sister Emanuela Edwards’ vision. A member of the Missionaries of Divine Revelation, she is the new head of the Vatican Museums’ Didactic Department and is in charge of reaching younger and new audiences. She also dreams of reaching people not only for the sake of art but also in order to promote the Catholic faith.
“From early on, the Church used art to transmit and to remind people of the faith,” she said. Art could become a bridge for modern society to encounter the divine, according to Sister Emanuela. This is a conviction shared by the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums.
Pope Francis addressed this during the audience in which he greeted the patrons. “Your commitment is a concrete sign of your appreciation of the potential of the arts,” he said, adding that such art would “open minds and hearts to the beauty of God’s creation.” Their contributions would not only safeguard the precious legacy. New generations may be reached as well. “Art, and religious art in particular, can bring a message of mercy, compassion and encouragement not only to believers, but also to those who doubt, who feel lost, unsure, or possibly alone,” said Pope Francis, “for art always speaks to the soul.”
This sentiment resonates with Lisa Altig. The art treasured inside the museums had spoken to her soul as well. Many patrons seem to have experienced just that. This is why they adopt preservation projects. That is why Msgr. Hogan is convinced that the work of the patrons will continue, God willing, another 40 years — or longer.
Learn more about the patrons at: PatronsVaticanMuseums.org.
Related “Art and Spirituality” segments on Vaticano begin airing on EWTN, Sundays at 4 p.m. Eastern, Nov. 19.