Collaboration Brings Vatican Museums’ Pieces to the United States in Unique Exhibition

‘Art That Unites: A Dialogue Between the Centuries’ highlights Christian art through time in Minneapolis.

Joanna Reiling Lindell, director and curator of the Thrivent Collection of Religious Art and Corporate Art Collection
Joanna Reiling Lindell, director and curator of the Thrivent Collection of Religious Art and Corporate Art Collection (photo: Gianna Bonello / Gianna Bonello)

MINNEAPOLIS — When visitors step foot in the Thrivent Art Collection Gallery in downtown Minneapolis, they may notice something a bit different about the artworks that adorn the walls.

Some art is strikingly modern, with simple lines, bold colors and unique sketches. Other pieces bear remnants of the past, with elegant details and dramatic flourishes.

It’s a unique gallery-going experience, the mix of the old and the new, and it’s the pièce de résistance of a unique collaboration between Thrivent Art Collection and the Vatican Museums’ Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art titled “Art That Unites: A Dialogue Between the Centuries from the Vatican Museums and Thrivent Art Collection.”

For the arts and culture community of the Twin Cities and the U.S. at large, the exhibition, which is on display in Minneapolis through June 25, is a big deal: It’s the first time the pieces from the Vatican’s collection have ever been exhibited in the United States.

“We’re just very honored and thrilled for us as well as for the Vatican Museums,” said Joanna Reiling Lindell, director and curator of the Thrivent Collection of Religious Art and Corporate Art Collection. “This is a beautiful expression of international collaboration.”

The Thrivent Art Collection Gallery is an oasis of arts and culture nestled in the downtown corporate offices of Thrivent, a Fortune 500 financial services organization. Working alongside Thrivent’s curator was Francesca Boschetti, assistant curator of the Modern and Contemporary Art Collection of the Vatican Museums. The exhibition is the result of a five-year project and partnership between the Vatican Museums and Thrivent.

Arts Exhibit Minneapolis
Visitors are welcome to see the Thrivent Art Gallery exhibition for guided or self-led tours Tuesday-Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thrivent is located in the heart of downtown Minneapolis.(Photo: Gianna Bonello)

“We discovered that we have this shared purpose and belief in supporting and preserving arts and culture and sharing them within communities to make them as accessible as possible,” Lindell said.

“The dialogue between works from both collections is a very enriching opportunity that confirms the importance of being open for exchange with other institutions and to create a fruitful dialogue between our own and other collections,” said Barbara Jatta, director of the Vatican Museums in a press release about the exhibition.

The Vatican Museums’ Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art was established in 1973 at the behest of Pope Paul VI to revitalize the disconnected relationship between the Church and contemporary art and artists; 36 rooms in the Vatican Museums house the collection, which has grown to include more than 9,000 pieces.

Now, 27 of those pieces from the Vatican are on display in the Minneapolis gallery, alongside 29 objects from Thrivent’s Collection. It makes for a viewing experience as unique and thought-provoking as the art itself. 

Arts That Unites
The exhibit runs through June 25 in Minneapolis.(Photo: Gianna Bonello)

“It’s not common. What is most typical is a museum will say, ‘We’d like to do an exhibition about an artist or a time period.’ Certainly, objects do get mixed in from different collections, but it’s not all that common to see an exhibition that’s highlighting two collections,” Lindell explained to the Register. 

The exhibit is also a special and honorable occasion for the thriving arts and culture community of the Twin Cities. Deirdre Palmer, a parishioner of the Basilica of St. Mary and a recent visitor to the exhibition, said it is inspiring to see the relationship between the Vatican and Thrivent culminate in the gallery.

“Experiencing the rich dialogues and connections that exist between the two collections and organizations is a benefit to our community and enhances the arts experience in the Twin Cities immensely,” she said in an email to the Register.

Vatican art, Minneapolis
The exhibition displays many types of artistic media, including lithographs, woodcuts, engravings and etchings. (Photo: Gianna Bonello)

The exhibition features eight sections covering important moments and elements from the Christian tradition: “The Creation of the World,” “The Old Testament,” “Madonna and Child,” “The Life of Jesus,” “The Apocalypse,” “Peace and Angels,” “The City” and “Prayer.” Pieces explore themes of iconography, ecumenism, and the modern religious imagination and include artwork from the 1500s through the present.

The exhibition’s purpose is not only to highlight the collaborative efforts between the Vatican Museums and Thrivent, but also to explore how artists have conveyed images and themes — specifically, Christian ones — through time.

“This exhibition is looking at the shared inspiration and connections [between the art], but also modern, fresh interpretations of these centuries-old subjects and themes,” Lindell told the Register.

“The world in the 20th century was so different than it was in the 16th or 17th century, so, of course, the art looks different because so many things have changed. [...] It’s interesting to look at that and to still find the threads of connection,” she said.

Christ on the cross Minneapolis exhibit
Two variations of the deposition of Christ from the cross are displayed in ‘The Life of Jesus’ section. On the left is Rembrandt’s 1633 ‘Descent From the Cross’ from Thrivent’s collection, while Marino Marini’s 1923 ‘Deposition (Deposizione),’ which is on loan from the Vatican’s collection, hangs on the right. Marini’s piece was greatly modeled after Rembrandt. (Photo: Gianna Bonello)

Art as a Dialogue Through Time

In a catalog written for “Art That Unites,” Lindell wrote that “art has the power to unite us across time and distance.” The exhibition seeks to inspire visitors to contemplation by displaying pieces of the same subjects and themes alongside other artists from different periods and of different visual styles.

“The dialogue between older historical works from the Thrivent Art Collection and contemporary pieces from the Vatican Museums is an excellent chance to understand how sacred subjects are a fundamental model for following the history of their survival, continuation and innovation

through the centuries,” said Micol Forti, curator of the Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art for the Vatican Museums, in the press release.

Artists often look to past art as inspiration for furthering their artistic voice, Lindell said. This collaboration creates a dialogue between art and artists over time. 

In sacred art, core elements and themes of the Christian faith that have remained true and unwavering are seen in various depictions spanning the Church's 2,000-year history. These motifs, such as the life of Christ or the Apocalypse, are all themes “around which we can have a shared sense of understanding, but the expression of them can be beautifully unique dependent on a person’s culture, time and place,” Lindell said.

The Madonna and Child is one such artistic concept that has transcended time and technological advancements.

“The history of Marian imagery is so rich and evocative,” Lindell said. “It’s natural that artists are constantly looking at that imagery. Over time, [Mary] has been idealized as this young, beautiful figure, but a lot of artists, as time went on, started to look at a more realistic side. [...] Artists will present her more weary or tired.” 

In the “Madonna and Child” section of the exhibition, this relationship between art and time is perhaps best exemplified. There, visitors will notice various styles spanning hundreds of years in pieces from Thrivent and the Vatican Museums.

For example, on one wall in this section hangs a grouping on the Pietà. Henri Matisse’s 1950 Virgin and Child Against Background of Flowers and Stars depicts a simplistic Mary, with the Child Jesus in her lap, the pair surrounded by outlines of stars and flowers. To the right, an emotional sketch by John Singer Sargent from 1876 portrays the mournful Mother as she holds her lifeless Son in her arms. Hendrick Goltzius’ 1596 Pietà hangs below, an extraordinarily detailed piece that best embodies elements of traditional art.

Madonna and Child Minneapolis exhibit
Clockwise from top: Elizabeth Catlett’s 2005 ‘Danys y Liethis’ hangs next to Henri Matisse’s 1950 “Virgin and Child without indications of the faces” in the “Madonna and Child” section. Though Catlett’s piece features her niece and great-niece and not explicitly the Blessed Mother and Jesus, she is ‘clearly continuing this tradition of Madonna and Child imagery through time,’ said curator Joanna Reiling Lindell. The ‘Pietà’ by Henri Matisse (1950), John Singer Sargent (1876) and Hendrick Goltzius (1596) hang together in the ‘Madonna and Child’ section. Henri Matisse’s image (left) is on loan from the Vatican, while the Goltzius (bottom right) and Sargent (top right) pieces are from Thrivent’s collection. Other images from the ‘Madonna and Child’ section of the exhibit.(Photo: Gianna Bonello photos)

“You will see this change and this beautiful variety, just like humanity has this incredible variety,” Lindell said. “The art expresses that variety of who we are as human beings.”

Impact of Art on Faith

From the stunning ceilings of Michelangelo, to the apse mosaics of the first churches, to the modern expressions of the 20th century, art has always held an iconic role in the life of the Church.

Pope Paul VI himself recognized the ability of art to unite through time. In his 1965 “Address to Artists,” the Pope stressed the importance of the beauty and unity that artists bring to the world, saying, “It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and is that precious fruit which resists the wear and tear of time, which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration.” 

For Lindell, the encounter with art allows for a holistic experience that engages all the senses. She said there are an “immense” amount of things that can be expressed through art, from the depth of the human person, to the creative process of the artist, to insights into the mind. But art especially serves as a profound occasion for prayer and devotion.

“Art has this powerful way of entering into our own heart. Yes, [it enters in through] our mind, through our eyes, through our ears, however we take it in. But I think it can profoundly deepen one’s faith and profoundly expand our understanding of Scripture. We can read Scripture, but if we can have an experience with something that brings Scripture to life in our hearts and in our minds, that has an enormous impact on one’s own faith. There are so many beautiful ways that people can really participate in their own personal devotion through the arts.”