Vatican Splendors - A Journey Through Faith and ArtExperience 2,000 Years of Vatican Art and History

Exhibition Gallery Layout and Artistic Highlights

"Vatican Splendors: A Journey through Faith and Art" 


Vatican Splendors: A Journey through Faith and Art” features approximately 200 works of art and historically significant objects, many of which have never left the Vatican. Every object in the exhibition tells its own story, together forming a great mosaic of the history of the Church and its impact on western civilization’s art, history and culture.

The collections are organized to provide a window to the Vatican’s role in the world, with objects marking events throughout 2,000 years of history and tradition.  The exhibit experience is designed to take guests on a journey through the ages of artistic expression and religious iconography. The Vatican has played a central role in creating and preserving Western art and the exhibition includes major works created specifically for the Church. Throughout the centuries, popes have commissioned and collected works from world-renowned artists and have also been the subject of many works.  The Vatican has served as a repository for historical objects - such as reliquaries, maps, documents, vestments and liturgical items, as well as cultural objects from around the world - all presented in the exhibition, which help connect visitors with important moments and figures of history.  The experience presents artworks and objects in a chronology of important events and periods, including: archeological finds from the time before Christianity was legalized in Rome in the 4th century; art and objects from the Middle Ages and Byzantium periods (such as works by Giotto and di Cambio, ancient mosaics and a reliquary containing the bones of Saint Peter and Saint Paul);  the Renaissance and Baroque periods with their flourishing artists (including works and objects by Michelangelo, Bernini, Guercino and Sassoferrato); the modern era and the Vatican’s outreach and dialogue with the world, and its continued influence of and by the world’s many cultures.

The Vatican Splendors Exhibit objects are presented in galleries organized into thematic sections that enhance the visitor's understanding of their historical and artistic significance. Collectively, they illustrate the evolution of the Church and its papacy beginning with Saint Peter and up to Pope Francis, with special emphasis on art and historical objects reflecting significant events and periods relating to Christianity.

Prologue: Introductory Video Presentation

A video presents dramatic views of exteriors of and breathtaking art inside the Vatican.  Included are images of Saint Peter’s Basilica from different periods, and actual footage of the Scavi - the necropolis below the basilica - where the original tomb and bones of Saint Peter were found.

At a later point in the exhibition experience, visitors will have the opportunity to see actual bone fragments of both Saint Peter and Saint Paul, presented in a special reliquary.

Gallery 1: Early Christian Dialogue Between Faith and Art

Included in this area is a representation of Saint Peter’s tomb as it appeared in 160 A.D.  The original tomb is in the necropolis, or Vatican Scavi, which is located beneath the Vatican Grottoes. The altar of the Basilica of Saint Peter is located over this site.

Highlights in this area:

  • Cast of Red Wall Graffiti, inscribed with “Petros Eni” (“Peter is Here”)

  • Glass Medallion collage of Saints Peter and Paul

  • Original and unique reproduction of a 6th to 7th-century gold votive plaque found at Saint Peter’s tomb

  • Brick from Saint Paul’s tomb

Narrative provides insights into Emperor Constantine’s declaration in 312 A.D. that Christianity would be legal, and his decision to build Basilicas directly over the tombs of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.  As a result of these changes, Roman Christians no longer had to practice their faith in secret, and Christian art began to flourish.

Gallery 2: The Rise of Christian Rome

This gallery explores the Middle Ages and Byzantium period when Rome grew as a Christian city fostered by the papacy.

Highlights in this area:

  • Mosaic from the Oratory of John VII

  • Model of Arnolfo di Cambio Statue, representing Saint Peter enthroned (the feet of the original sculpture, located in Saint Peter’s Basilica, have mostly been rubbed down by the millions of people who have touched it throughout the years)

  • Reliquary of Saints Peter, Paul, Anne, Joseph and Others

Gallery 3: The Renaissance

Visitors learn how Christian art drew upon the art of Ancient Rome for inspiration, and the style created that combined Christian and non-Christian images.  During this period, the Ancient Basilica was in extreme disrepair; however, the Filarete Doors - the ornate entry to the Ancient Basilica - were saved and used in the newer Basilica.

Highlights in this area:

  • Two large pieces of sculpture, “The Crucifixion of Saint Peter” and “The Martyrdom of Saint Paul,” which appear on the 15th century Ciborium of Sixtus IV

  • Deposition in the Sepulcher,” by Giorgio Vasari, best known as author of The Lives of Artists, which provides biographical profiles of leading artists of the Renaissance, including Michelangelo, and an important architect and painter in his own right

  • Cast of panel of the Filarete Doors

  • “Holy Family with Two Angels,” 16th century oil on canvas

Gallery 4: Michelangelo

Visitors enter through the half-scale model of the Filarete Doors to see the Cast of the “Pietà” that is in Saint Peter’s (cast 1975 made of 1932 copy of original 1499), as well as a bas relief Pietà created by Michelangelo.  This section explores the fiery relationship between Pope Julius II and Michelangelo during the painting of the Sistine Chapel.

Gallery 5: The Renaissance Basilica

In 1506, Pope Julius authorized the construction of a new Saint Peter’s Basilica.  Michelangelo was one of many architects who worked on the new building.  The famed artist Bernini also contributed much to the new basilica, as well as to the city of Rome as architect, painter and sculptor.  He decorated the interior in Baroque style.

Highlights in this area:

  • Document signed by Michelangelo, in which he authorized payment to an engraver for “stones for the framework for the colonnade of the dome”

  • Documents signed by Maderno, della Porta and Bernini (other architects of Saint Peter’s Basilica)

  • “Portrait of an Angel” (referred to as ‘cartoons’ which are complete paintings used as models for the final mosaics in the domes of the basilica)

  • Mementos of Bernini, a document personally signed by him, a candlestick he created, and “Two Angels” sculpture from his workshop

Gallery 6: Art in the Service of Faith

During the period in which the Renaissance was at its height, the Protestant Reformation was born, and the Catholic Reformation followed.  The Council of Trent met from 1545 to 1563 and established guidelines that art should be created in the service of faith and deliver the message of Christianity in ways accessible to ordinary people.  This gallery presents this story with objects developed during this period of change.

Highlights in this area:

  • Cope of Charles Borromeo (he was important at the Council of Trent and took its doctrine seriously; changes during this period included dividing the nave in half to separate male and female worshipers, removing ornate tombs - including those of his own relatives - and establishing seminaries and colleges)

  • Another Guercino painting, “The Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus and Book in Hands”

  • Gold statues of Saints Peter, Paul, John and Andrew

Gallery 7: The Art of the Liturgy

As ritual instruments essential to the adoration of God, liturgical objects (implements used in the celebration of the Mass) are often rich and splendid. Artists have seized the opportunity to create objects that are as beautiful and expressive as they are durable and practical.  Objects rich in decorative art are presented in this area.  Stories relating to this artwork, centered around historical figures such as Napoleon, are presented here.

Highlights in this area:

  • 19th-century Processional Cross

  • Elaborately decorated chasuble (liturgical vestments)

  • Papal Throne

  • Baroque Urn

Gallery 8:  Dialogue with the World

For centuries, the Church has engaged the world through missionary outreach, teaching activities and religious dialogue with both Christians and non-Christians.  The Catholic Church’s interaction with the world’s diverse societies and religions are reflected in devotional art, most commonly provided as gifts to the Vatican, over many years.

Highlights in this area:

  • Blessed Grazia, Princess Hosokawa

  • Terra Australis, the first geographical map drawn of Australia (it was attached to a letter written in 1676 from a Dominican priest from Manila)

  • Stereotypes and lead Japanese types

  • Book in Tamil language

  • Book in Guarani language

Gallery 9: The Successors of Peter - Papal Portraiture

Popes are traced back to the apostles of Jesus, particularly Peter, who is recognized as the first pope.  Over a span encompassing most of the 2000 years of the papacy, a very large repertoire of papal portraits, over a variety of media, have been collected and conserved.  Early pontiffs were portrayed in mosaics, in frescos, and on sarcophagi. In the Middle Ages, long before the invention of the printing press, Christians wanted pictures of the pope.  The tradition of portraiture was begun by John VII (705 - 707), who commissioned images of himself for churches.

Later, popes became the subjects of paintings and sculptures and, eventually, photographs. Today, unlimited images of the pope are available in magazines and books, on television, through the Internet, and in reproductions on many different objects.

Highlights in this area:

  • The story of the 1823 fire at Saint Paul’s Basilica is recounted, when a carpenter forgot to extinguish some candles; the structure burned within hours.  The Basilica had frescos with more than 250 papal portraits; only 42 survived the fire - four are presented here.

  • A collection of papal portraits are displayed in this area, including a photo of John Paul I, “the Smiling Pope,” who died after only 33 days as pope.

Gallery 10: Art and the Contemporary Papacy

From its humble beginnings, the Vatican collections now span 4,500 years with objects dating back to ancient Egypt and Assyria, through the European Renaissance and Baroque eras, and forward to the present day. For hundreds of years, the Church has collected, sponsored and conserved buildings, frescos, paintings, sculptures, liturgical instruments and other works. A broad collection of these works are presented in this gallery.

Highlights in this area:

  • Portrait of Benedict XVI (given as gift when he visited the US), and the Cathedral of Amman (given as gift when he visited the Holy Land)

  • Letter signed by Pope Paul VI

Gallery 11: Saint John Paul II (1978-2005)

Gallery showcases objects belonging to or presentes by Saint John Paul II and helps make clear the Steps to Sainthood.

Highlights in this area:

  • Bust, portrait and poetry of the late John Paul II

  • Bronze cast of the hand of John Paul II, which visitors can touch

  • Votive Lamp given by Saint John Paul II in 1998 which remained in front of the Icon of the Salus Populi Romani. Pope Francis venerates the same icon.

Note: exhibit content, including objects and scenic environments, will vary by venue.