Local ‘patrons’ help revitalize historic Vatican art

| Melenie Soucheray | November 20, 2017 | 0 Comments

John and Paula Kelly, parishioners of St. Joseph in West St. Paul and members of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, sponsor the restoration of this wooden crucifix, circa 1325-1350. The restoration will help provide more in-depth information for its analysis and artistic origin. Courtesy Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums

There are more than two dozen Vatican museums full of new and old artwork representing centuries of cultures and faiths from all over the world. And every year, nearly 6 million people view the art, architecture and ethno-anthropology, from small, fragile pieces to the larger-than-life frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Art historians say the works are a testament to God’s creation and tools for evangelization.

According to Johan van Parys, director of liturgy and sacred arts at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, the art doesn’t belong to the Church as an institution.

“It belongs to us in the Church,” he said. “The Church has been given custody of this art, and it is our responsibility to protect it for all of the generations to come.”

Van Parys noted the Vatican doesn’t have the money to preserve, restore or conserve the collections that began under Pope Julius II in the early 16th century. To remedy that, the worldwide organization Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums was founded in 1983. Approximately 2,000 Catholic and non-Catholic philanthropists in 26 European and North American PAVM chapters support efforts to promote Vatican Museums, restore works of art and increase the collections’ holdings.

In 2000, van Parys was approached separately by a non-Catholic woman he didn’t know and a Benedictine monk he did know. The latter had been named the American chaplain of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums. Both of them encouraged van Parys to form a local chapter.

He assembled a board, drafted bylaws and filed as a tax-exempt nonprofit organization. A dues structure was adopted: $600 for individuals, $1,200 per household and $250 for people younger than 35.

Today, the PAVM Minnesota and North Dakota chapter has between 60 and 75 members. Every year, the Rome office publishes its “Wishbook” listing projects that need financial support. Funds collected from chapter members are used to “adopt” a project.

“The first project we adopted for restoration was the ‘Hammer for the Verification of the Death of the Pope,’” van Parys recalled. Reportedly used the last time following the death of St. Pope John XXIII, the ceremonial hammer was used to tap on the forehead of a dead pope while his name was called. If the pope did not answer after the third tap, he was declared dead. The object the PAVM adopted in 2002 dated to the mid-20th century and was made of ebony and gilded silver.

In 2014, the chapter adopted a contemporary piece, “Le Manteau de la Vierge” (“The Mantle of the Virgin”) by Hantai.

“It is abstract and beautiful, but it may not appeal to everyone,” van Parys said. “Our chapter is the one that adopts projects that are considered unadoptable.”

Basilica parishioners Jack and Cathy Farrell were early members of the local PAVM chapter. Their philanthropy is a legacy they’ve handed down to their four sons, daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren.

“We took the whole family to Italy and went to see a restoration at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls,” Jack recalled. “The archaeologists found some early artifacts and wanted to excavate, but they needed money. My grandchildren said, ‘Papa, you have to do it. The Vatican is asking you to do it.’ It was a family decision.”

John and Paula Kelly, parishioners of St. Joseph in West St. Paul, joined PAVM five years ago.

“We are moved by the beauty inherent in the Vatican’s art collection,” John said.

The couple collects crucifixes, and they adopted a 14th century crucifix for restoration.

“It’s not a glamorous piece,” John said. “It’s pre-Renaissance, very simple wood. Seeing the 750-year corpus detached from the cross in disrepair moved us. It reminded us of Christ’s willingness to suffer for us.”

This past summer, the local PAVM chapter also brought a bit of the Vatican Museums to Minnesota by sponsoring “The Life of a Swiss Guard” photography and object exhibition at the Basilica.

PAVM members are granted special access to the museums and exhibitions. They’re invited to participate in chapter events, including a biennial European trip. The next trip is scheduled for October 2018. Van Parys said the itinerary will include a visit to Vatican laboratories to see the restoration artists in action.

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