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Meadows Museum Displays Sistine Chapel Treasures


by Stephen Becker 9 Feb 2011

A collection of manuscripts from the Sistine Chapel is on display for the first time in the U.S. at SMU Meadow’s Museum. KERA’s Stephen Becker reports the exhibition provides scholars with important historical perspective:

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Photos: Meadows Museum

A collection of manuscripts from the Sistine Chapel is on display for the first time in the U.S. at SMU Meadow’s Museum. KERA’s Stephen Becker reports the exhibition provides scholars with important historical perspective:

  • KERA Radio report:


  • Online version:

The new exhibition is equal parts art show and history lesson. “The Lost Manuscripts from the Sistine Chapel: An Epic Journey from Rome to Toledo” collects 40 illustrated manuscripts that haven’t been seen together in 200 years.

The books were made for the pope and other high ranking officials to use during Church activities. Each book is painstakingly illustrated with colorful depictions of biblical events. The oldest dates to the 11th Century, while the newest is from the 1600s.

Meadows Museum Director Mark Roglán says the fact that the books were made by hand well after the invention of the printing press is a significant discovery.

ROGLÁN: “It’s mostly interesting because the art of the book – this kind of manual elaboration of books, from making the pages, to doing the binding, to illustrating the miniatures to writing the text – was always thought to be something from the Medieval times.”

Artisans continued to pour so much effort into the books as a way of honoring God. And it was also a way for the Church to flaunt its power by putting its riches on display.

The books survive thanks to a Spanish cardinal stationed in Rome during Napoleon’s attack on the city. As the French emperor’s armies looted the Vatican, the cardinal collected the books and sent them to Toledo for safekeeping. And there they sat until the late 1990s, when an Italian scholar rediscovered them while researching illustrated manuscripts.

ROGLÁN: “It’s wonderful to also find these patches of history that are gone. And suddenly, thanks to the research and collaboration of several institutions, things are able to be re-evaluated and completely rediscovered.”

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  • jim

    If the quality of the craftsmanship was also about “putting riches on display,” as you claim, how come these volumes were reserved for use in the sistene chapel’s sacristy, hidden away from public view, and available to only a few clergy who prayed there? Who were they displaying their riches to? The pope? The cardinals? Doesn’t hold.

    I’m not saying there weren’t lavish excesses and pompous expressions of wealth and power displayed through art at the Vatican over the centuries (just take one glance at the basilica istelf). I am just saying that this one is a lazy, cheap shot. It is a more compelling point that these were semi-private works, which speak to the depth of the artists’ devotion to their craft and their patrons’ devotion to the subject matter.

  • jim

    When you see a Frank Stella at Northpark is it about the Nasher’s flaunting their power?

  • Stephen Becker

    @Jim – Your point is well taken. But I think you can argue that there is something to the idea that those involved in the church liked to remind themselves of their power and wealth. And I think the effort put into these books was a way to do that. I think you can also argue that reserving the books primarily for use by church officials is quite a luxury in itself. Wasn’t trying to take a cheap shot at all – and I do think the primary purpose for taking such pains to create the books was to show devotion. I was just trying to point out that there were side benefits.

  • jim

    You could argue that, it wouldn’t make any sense, but you could argue it. But that’s very different from what you asserted in the radio story. Anyway, that’s a lot of time and effort to pick up the self-esteem of a solipsistic cleric who probably wouldn’t have any use for those kinds of books anyway.