Swiss Guard exhibit at Basilica captures behind-the-scenes view of Vatican’s soldiers

| June 6, 2017 | 1 Comment

A photo by Italian photographer Fabio Mantegna in “The Life of a Swiss Guard: A Private View,” at the Basilica of St. Mary through July. Courtesy the Basilica

For visitors to the Vatican, Swiss Guards are almost as iconic as the pope they protect. Often clad in gold and royal blue striped uniforms and a beret, they stand stoically in front of apostolic palace entries or accompany the pope in public.

A photo by Italian photographer Fabio Mantegna in “The Life of a Swiss Guard: A Private View.” Courtesy the Basilica

Photos by Italian photographer Fabio Mantegna capture another view: soldiers laughing, studying, eating and exercising. In one photo, they take a selfie with their metal armor. In another, they’re at prayer. In one photo, they’re 20-somethings in suits, and in the next, they’re men in uniform.

The 86 photos are the central feature of the exhibit “The Life of a Swiss Guard: A Private View,” on display at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis through July 30. They capture the men both as individuals and collective inheritors of a centuries-old institution.

“An exhibit like this is the perfect occasion to bring the Vatican to our local cities and dioceses,” said Johan van Parys, director of liturgy and sacred arts at the Basilica and a board member of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, the organization sponsoring the exhibit’s tour. “Everybody knows the Swiss Guard. They may not know anything about them, but they recognize the uniform, and there is a certain mystique around the Swiss Guard — What are they? What do they do? — and that in and of itself draws people in.”

The Swiss Guard is the only peaceful military in the world, said Romina Cometti, who works with the Patrons and the Vatican Museums and serves as the exhibit’s curator. They  were established in 1506 to protect the pope. They are required to be Swiss, under 30 years old, Catholic, 5 feet 10 inches tall, and to have completed a background check and the 17-week Swiss military training. They serve for two years and may renew annually thereafter. There are 110 men in the guard.

A photo by Italian photographer Fabio Mantegna in “The Life of a Swiss Guard: A Private View.” Courtesy the Basilica

The exhibit includes uniforms and other objects “in order to show more about the tradition and commitment, their faith, their vocation — because for them it’s a real vocation in life,” Cometti said. “They choose to be Swiss Guards. They are very young. … Their eyes, there is this youth that really emerges. It’s a very different way of living your 20s, at least for two years of your life. It’s a daily life made of sacrifice.”

With hours spent silently on watch, “they learn to be alone with themselves,” she added.

It’s an unusual lifestyle for a young man, acknowledged Mario Enzler, 51, who served as a Swiss Guard under St. John Paul II from 1989-1993. They work 100 hours a week, rarely with a 24-hour period off.

“The guards do not leave the Vatican,” Enzler said. “For me, this [exhibit] is an opportunity for the Swiss Guards to travel, to leave the Vatican, … going around as an amazing evangelization tool.”

The photos originated with Mantegna’s commission to spend a couple days in 2014 the Swiss Guard’s quarters to photograph the previous commander. When Cometti saw the photos’ artistry, she envisioned the exhibition and invited Mantegna to photograph three more sessions in 2014-2015.

“The Life of a Swiss Guard” is the world’s first traveling exhibit about the Swiss Guard. Minneapolis is its fifth stop and the last time it will be on display in 2017. It’s also the first stop where all of the exhibit’s photos will be shown. It is open to the public 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Saturdays, 7:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Sundays or by appointment.

The Patrons work not only to protect and restore the arts in the Vatican Museums, but also to bring pieces of the collection to the U.S. The local exhibit is hosted by the Patrons’ Minnesota and North Dakota chapter, and the Basilica.

The exhibit’s visitors “are excited,” Cometti said. “The Swiss Guards are not just guards. They are the symbol of the Vatican. They are the closest person to the pope. They are really the bodyguards of the pope. For them [visitors], it’s a way of feeling the tradition of the Church close.”

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