Hantai – Le Manteau de la Vierge

Simon Hantai (1922-2008); Le Manteau de la Vierge; olio su tela; 1960; Musei Vaticani; Palazzi Apostolici Vaticani; Collezione di Arte Religiosa Moderna

Simon Hantai completed Le Manteau de la Vierge in 1961 using his signature style, the “pliage” technique. Between 1960 and 1962, the artist experimented with this method, which involved folding the canvas and applying paint before stretching it in order to create an effect of random color encrustations and unpredictable blank areas. He developed this abstract style in France, after breaking with the surrealist movement, but he remained staunchly attached to the avant-garde movement, seeking to reinvent painting. He described his iconic procedure stating,

“…you could fill the folded canvas without knowing where the edge was. You don’t know where things stop. You could even go further, and paint with your eyes closed.”

As a young child, Hantai was temporarily blind, which according to the artist, influenced his creative process when devising this technique. The Franco-Hungarian painter grew up in a small, traditional rural village in Hungary steeped in its strong Catholic beliefs. In fact, his faith is apparent in this piece and many of the other artworks he created during his lifetime. At the peak of his career, he represented France at the 1982 Venice Biennale, but promptly retired from the art world following the exhibition in order to pursue a life of isolation. He continually turned down different commissions and invitations from various world-renowned museums until his death in 2008.

This work is one of the twenty-seven pieces in the Mariales series. The names of the series and the Vatican Museums’ painting itself are a religious allusion referring to the Virgin Mary’s protective mantle featured in many medieval and renaissance works. This image, like the others in the series, almost looks like a stained glass window, highlighting the devout nuance. The blue tones used in this piece in particular are especially stunning. Its sheer size, in addition to endless creases, is captivating, making viewers feel like they themselves are enveloped by the Virgin Mary’s mantle. Along with the artist’s specific technique, the spirituality and mystery present in Hantai’s oeuvre make it some of the most inspiring and significant art of the late 20th century.

Le Manteau de la Vierge was originally displayed in the Collection of Contemporary Art on a frame smaller than the canvas size for lack of sufficient space. The difficulty in transporting the piece became evident in 2004, when it needed to be moved for an exhibit at the French Academy, Villa Medici in Rome. To address these two issues, restorers created a new custom-made aluminum frame and steel stretcher with the ability to fold, so that the work could be moved more easily and would be properly supported by a correctly sized frame. Without altering the piece, restorers concocted a solution to protect the folded canvas from over bending and causing strain. These methods dramatically decreased the risk of damage, and it is now possible to fold the work to almost half its size for ease of transportation. After the aforementioned exhibition, the difficult, irregular surface was retouched; the flaking paint layer was consolidated and the entire piece was dusted. The canvas perimeter was also hemmed to prevent future fraying. The restoration procedure, directed by Francesca Persegati of the Paintings Laboratory, was completed in 2017.


Image of the artist in his studio by Archives Simon Hantaï – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46605158

Bundu Costume

Although a rather foreign looking ensemble in the western world, the Bundu Costume bears connotations of femininity, fertility, and regard for the common good.  The costume is used in the women’s Bundu or Sande Society in Africa found across groups in Guinea, Siera Leone, and Liberia.  The role of the society is to educate young women to grow in feminine and maternal values, and to mature into roles in adult society as wives, mothers, administrators, and political leaders.  Part of initiation is to teach young girls the secrets of herbal medications and spiritual rights to help people who are ill in body, mind, and soul. The Bundu costume was worn by women during the ceremony. It consists of a striking facemask, or Sowei headpiece, with a collar made from very long organic plant fibers that completely cover the identity of the woman.

The costume features a carved mask, the only kind worn by women south of the Sahara. Although worn by women, they are hand fashioned by men, remarkably with quite elementary tools.  Each is different its details, but all embody the culture’s concept of iconic female beauty, especially from the standpoint of modesty and moral values prized in the society. Masks are carved with an exaggerated forehead, referencing a noble character, and the downwardly cast eyes indicate humility and modesty. Many masks also have slight slashing marks around the cheek area, which speak of how beauty is not manifested in a pristine exterior, but rather how suffering, serving, and integrating into culture are the marks of beauty.

This piece became part of the Vatican Collections after the Order of the Fathers of the Holy Spirit sent it to be displayed in the Museums’ Missionary Exhibition of 1925.  It is a rare gem, containing not only the mask, but all of the original constructive elements of the costume used in the Sande ritual dance.


Restoration & Conservation

When the costume arrived in the hands of the Vatican, there was a great deal for the team at the Polymateric Laboratory to consider.  The first phase of the restoration involved an anoxic disinfestation treatment. Since the mannequin on which the costume was displayed showed problems of stability, it was secured by two metal vertical poles.  A plastic covering was put around the mannequin and the support structure in order to disinfect the piece, a process that lasted 24 days.

Many fibers were stiff and weak. The wired elements had rusted, and the oxidized iron penetrated into the fabric fiber bands were sewn on the jacket using thick twine (2mm in diameter) and, because of their weight, created numerous lacerations on the fabric.  In this phase, the conservators had to perform a series of scientific investigations in collaboration with the Laboratory for Conservation and Restoration Diagnostics that included both x-ray images of the work from a front view, and sampling from various areas to identify plant fiber species and the type of cloth used to construct the jacket and trousers. The restorers could then consolidate the plant fibers with a special substance called jun funori diluted to 1% in a solution of distilled water (60 %) and ethyl alcohol (40 %) using an airbrush spray. Given its critical condition the team decided to temporarily remove the fiber bands from the costume to repair them with greater facility. The whole suit was “vacuumed” with a micro-nozzle dust extractor. Then, a new canvas was dyed to match the original cloth and sewn to reinforce the jacket interiorly.  Finally, the helmet mask had lost its luminosity, and had many abrasions on the surface.  Some of the detailed carved elements on the crown of the mask were missing, evident from the natural light color of the wood that showed through. Pieces of the mask were also repositioned with nails. The helmet also got a good dusting, repair, and plant fibers were re-affixed to it.  Thanks to the dexterity of the restorers’ hands, the Bundu, which embodies connotations of serving others and preserving feminine beauty gives testimony to these core familial values to all who visit the Ethnological Museum.

The Bundu Costume was restored thanks to the Michigan Chapter.


Four Decorated Coptic Tunics Fragments

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These four fragments constitute an important testimony to the art of Coptic textile, according to the documentations of the 4th to 5th centuries in Akhmim, the ancient city of Panopolis, one of the major centers in the Nile Valley. The city was the Episcopal Chair of the Bishop since the 4th century. Akhmim (Panopolis) was celebrated in the late ancient world for its textile industry, its factories capable of producing fabrics of grand refinement and artistic technicality. Surrounded by an extensive necropolis that was excavated from the end of the 19th century by French and German archeologists, Panopolis has provided us with precious textile artifacts, the major part of which are attributable to those well-endowed, as indicative of the refined executive techniques in its workmanship along with the incorporation of precious materials such as silk and gold in their design.

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Statue of Aura


This feminine figure majestically walks with her left leg in front and the right one flexed and back. A light Chiton falls to the woman’s ankles and_MG_8830 adheres to her breasts and legs, contouring her curves. Meanwhile, a mantel is wrapped around the central part of her body. Originally, it was supposed to appear lifted above her head, blown by the wind. As a matter of fact, the statue represents the embodiment of sea breeze -a subject that was frequently used in ancient Greece to decorate temples. Especially on the acroterion statues, which usually adorned the top of the pediments. It is assumed that it is precisely an acroterion figure which was held as a role model for our statue, along with other Roman replicas -of which the majority were made in Pentelic marble and can  be dated back to the 1st century AD. However, the original prototype can be found in Greece and is most likely done by the hands of an Attic sculptor who, influenced by Fidia, operated in the final decades of the 5th century BC. With regards to the sculptures which adorned the pediments of the Parthenon, the famous sculptor from Athens experimented innovative plastic solutions in order to render the movements of the draperies and the lightness of the clothing into the marble. The fabric wraps around the female curves and enhances them, almost as if it were wet. For the first time in the history of ancient art, the female curves are shown with their realistic nature. The statue of Aura, even though it is a Roman replica of later centuries, witnesses the grand artistic and cultural period that occurred in Athens in the 5th century BC; right after the victory against the Persians, and especially during the governing of Pericles.




Gallery of the Maps Catalog


In 1579, Gregory XIII, a Pope who was enamored with art and science, commissioned architect Ottaviano Mascherino, cartographer Ignazio Danti who was a Dominican friar, and a host of great painters to realize this massive project. By 1581, a mere three years later, work on the gallery was complete: this was the Gallery of the Maps. Within the hall, the whole of the Italian peninsula is painted from north to south. The viewer instantly feels the strong presence of the Church as the great force that links together the small and then divided territories of Italy. The Pope, coming from his apartments, could travel across the Alps and walk along the crest of the Apennines. To his right he could see the Tyrrhenian side of the peninsula, and to his left the Adriatic. Magnificent compass roses, masterfully painted and gilded, create a wonderfully glittering illusion, pointing to the Vatican Gardens on one side and the Cortile del Belvedere on the other. The hallway is absolutely brimming with beautiful detail, illuminated by large panoramic windows. The “magnificent walk” through the hall would have led the Pope among the valleys, hills, forests, rivers and streams, lakes and waterfalls, cities, towns and villages, in a model of reality. Roads and paths are represented precisely to scale, with distances measured in the Roman mile and carefully indicated. There are accurately depicted ports and islands, both large and small, with seas traversed by galleons, galleys, caravels, and brigs. And finally, the hallway also depicts historical events such as the allegory of Columbus, the troops of Caesar at the Rubicon, the army and elephants of Hannibal at the battle of Cannae, and the meeting between Attila and Pope St. Leo I, as well as the more recent battle of Lepanto and siege of Malta. The restoration on the hall began on September 17, 2012, with a group of restorers selected after a careful consideration of their curricula and experiences to work under the supervision of Francesco Prantera. That fall, when the group of conservators, restorers, painters, and decorators climbed on scaffolding they found the maps in a serious state of deterioration. Large parts of the plaster were marred by deep fractures, which meant that the frescoes were in danger of collapse. In addition, the pigment of the seas was fragile and discolored.
The walls were scattered with patches of old, incorrect restorations while the surfaces were coated with a thick varnish that had yellowed, improperly altering the delicate green and blue tone of the gallery. After the unveiling of the extraordinary Gallery of the Maps in April 2016, thanks to the California Patrons Chapter, the Vatican Museums will publish a bi-lingual (English-Italian) book illustrating the details of its restoration.

Infant Coptic Tunic

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The expression “Coptic Art” practically defines artistic production in Egypt from the first centuries of our time until the end of the Ottoman Empire. This time period can be recognized in three distinct phases: the first extends from the Emperor Augustus to that of Constantine, who in 313 liberated the Christian religion; the second corresponds to when Christianity was most widespread in Egypt and lasts until the country’s Islamic conquest in 640 A.D.; the third takes place during this Islamic rule until its termination in 1798, marking the conclusion of the Ottoman domination.
Even if during the first phase, Coptic Art found expression within artistic sectors not directly connected to the field of Christian religion (i.e. wood relief, ivory, bronze works, painted ceramics), at the onset of the Islamic age it became practically synonymous with Christian Egyptian Art. In this age the Copts – a term now identifying solely the country’s Christian inhabitants – give life to a unique form of artistic production. This type of creative work, primarily cultivated in monastic communities, primarily found expression in the world of icons and textile art.
The textile is, in fact, among the best known artistic expressions relating to this cultural context. The pieces that have made their way to us are fragments of used clothing, commonly used liturgical garments, and, for example, tunics typical in men’s and women’s clothing. Other elements in this genre of art are found among the walls of religious buildings or sepulchral monuments, tablecloths, carpets, or curtains. The massive fabric production was favorable thanks to environmental conditions perfect for fostering the cultivation of flaxseed for linen, as well as by the high demand for such imports from centers of trade such as Rome or other imperial zones. Often textiles were used as money, as a method of exchange to bring other merchant goods into Egypt. It should not be forgotten that from the fourth century, the Christianization of the region was increasingly generated proportional to textile production: mummification practices had disappeared, and bodies were wrapped in simple bandages which essentially gave way to the custom of using ordinary clothing for burial.
A certain number of Coptic garments were conserved thanks to this practice of burying the dead in their own clothes. The dry Egyptian climate contributed to their well-preserved state. The clothes were generally in linen or wool, and the colors that were used included red, blue, yellow, green, purple, black and brown. Dyes were obtained from plants and natural elements such as rubia, indigo, Jerusalem woad, saffron, Tyrian dye from the murex shell, and from an insect known as carmine. Since the 17th century, Coptic cloths were transported to Europe because of grand curiosity expressive of an exotic and mysterious world, arousing the interest of collectors that throughout even the 19th century sought to claim by unconventional excavations, often cutting pieces to “fit” their various commissions.
The Vatican tunic was a discovery from the necropolis of Akhmim in Upper Egypt, the Greek Panopolis, towards the end of the 19th century. It was on display in 1898 in the Exposition of Sacred Art in Turin by the Missionary Fathers of Upper Egypt who subsequently donated it, along with other wearable art hailing from the same place, to the Sacred Museum.
Along with other works in the Vatican Museums, it is also reconstructed from various pieces. It presents an amply large area to be patched, approximately rectangular in form in the upper area found by the neck between the shoulder areas, along with several other intermediate attempts that were performed in an effort to fix the garment. The sleeves appear separate from the rest of the tunic and then re-sewn.
The decorative motif consists of the following elements: two red and green clavi, or elongated embellishments, which descend down the shoulders and back, terminating at a small green leaf; two yellow circles with a red dot on top and below (front and back of garment); two green heart-shaped leaves on the shoulders and at knee-height (front and back); wide stripes on the sleeves in green, red, and white. The tunic played a leading role in Egypt Coptic clothing design for both men, women, and children alike, generally woven in linen (even if the tunics during the later period were also in wool). Men’s tunics generally arrived to the length of the knee, while women’s went all the way to the foot. This fabric garment was normally woven in one piece, wherein the weaving pattern began on the frame at the end of one sleeve, expanded at the body – with the foresight to leave an opening for the neck – and then narrowed again at the second sleeve. The tunics for children were characterized by very narrow sleeves, and were typically long-sleeved as opposed to short. They added significantly to the figurative design repertoire also because they were generally brightly colored or included animal figures. Decorations were incorporated into the design for the purposes of compliance with Roman style in antiquity. The shorter Coptic tunics were richly bedecked by adding flair along the neck and edges. They actually appear as inserts, or additions to the tunic, called orbiculi (circular or oval form) or tabulae (square), which were woven or applied at shoulder to knee height. Decorating the Coptic tunics, unique in its time of fabric production of the age, created a type of language, which expressed the social position of the outfitted person.
Along with geometric motifs (i.e. stars, interlocking hexagons, circles) and natural vegetation (i.e. flowers, lotus buds, leaves and intertwining branches, often symbolizing abundant fertility), there were also more traditional and ancient motifs. These included animal decorations (especially birds, leopards, lions, fish, and the human figure), often classically inspired. With the liberation of the Catholic religion, Coptic tunics began to be decorated also with Christian symbols including crosses, images of saints, and scenes from the Bible.

Fresco by Antoniazzo Romano from the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls

Cerchia di Antoniazzo Romano; San Paolo, affresco staccato; sec. XV; Basilica di S. Paolo fuori le mura; Sala Gregoriana (Pinacoteca)

The fresco is located in an area of the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, accessible by way of Via Ostiense. Its particular concave lunette shape is due to its decorative function for a space that was originally a small apse.  In the architectural alterations of the latter centuries, it lost its function. Curiously, the work is now above the door of one of the small spaces in the passageway that, from the Gregorian Room, leads to the Baptistery and Transept. Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, is rendered with his characteristic beard and elongated profile. He is reading a book, opened in his left hand, while his right hand wields a sword. The weapon is typical in iconographic depictions of the saint, who upon his conversion, no longer persecuted the Christians, but instead fought for their salvation and was eventually martyred, beheaded by the sword. Despite the current problematic state of conservation, underneath the efflorescence (salt migration on the surface) and below the incoherent deposits, the quality of the image can still be seen. The sacred solemnity of a medieval inspiration is fused with an organic, fluid rendering of the saint, already alluding to figurative elements of the Renaissance. This is a combination characteristic of the artistic hand of Antonio di Benedetto Aquili, better known as Antoniazzo Romano. It is also a style prevalent in painting cycles of the late 15th century, particularly in the 1480’s and 1490’s. Generally considered one of the most masterful interpreters of the Roman art scene of the second half of the 15th century, Antoniazzo is the only one to be mentioned by Giorgio Vasari in his “Lives” as ‘one of the best that ever was in Rome’ and who had a flourishing workshop. The painting’s authorship was first attributed to Antoniazzo in 1909 by Bernhard Berenson (from the “Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance”).

Lion of Monterosso by Arturo Martini

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Leone di Monterosso is one of the preparatory models that Arturo Martini completed during the creation of an artwork commissioned by Arturo Ottolenghi in 1932. The desired location for this masterpiece was his villa on a hill in Monterosso, near Acqui Terme. The Ottolenghi Counts, Arturo and Herta von Wedekind zu Horst, relied on the well-known architect Marcello Piacentini to build their residence in 1920. Following its completion, they entrusted very important artists with the decoration of their villa. Among these were Fortunato Depero, Adolfo Wildt, Libero Andreotti, Ferruccio Ferrazzi and Arturo Martini.
The amazing sculptor from Treviso started working on the Lion project during the summer of 1932. He carried out various replicas in which he developed the composition’s structure. The artist gave particular attention to the animal’s muzzle and tail -elements that for artists associate with the description of the animal’s personality.
It is interesting to remember how Martini initially intended to depict a chimaera rather than a lion. A Chimaera is a beast from Greek mythology that has a lion’s head and body, a snake’s tail and a second head -that of a goat. This choice reveals the grand fascination the artist has with regards to Etruscan sculptures: «I am the true Etruscan -Martini declared -they gave me the language and I gave them voice to speak. I expressed them. I could have created thousands of statues, made just as they would have imagined them». For the Lion of Monterosso, the artist drew his inspiration from Chimera d’Arezzo, an absolute masterpiece, found in 1553 near the city after which it takes the name. Today, it is in the National Archeological Museum in Florence. Enlightened by this model, Martini molds a first study out of plaster. Ottolenghi appreciated the “bozzetto”, which he defined as «strong and terrible, and marvelous»; while other people closer to the artist criticized it. To these perplexities and criticisms Martini responded that he did not «want to create a lion like those that are in the Zoological Museum», rather he intended to create «a Chimaera, inspired by a lion and all the other beasts. Monterosso will distinguish himself thanks to the fantastic Lion.» This variation will appear clearly in the following phases of the creative process, while keeping the memory of this fantastic beast alive. This metamorphosis is shown even more in the terracotta version that was brought to the Vatican in 1959, when Pius XII commissioned the creation of two rooms dedicated to the art of the 20th century within the art gallery. The finalized artwork, made out of red Simona rock from Valcamonica, reached its completion in September 1934.

Eighteen gold glass artifacts


The golden glass collection of the Vatican Museums is amongst the most remarkable worldwide; and these pieces belong to the most precious glass productions of the late ancient ages. A refined technique allowed the creation of glass pottery, mostly plates and bowls, which were decorated with representations made in gold leaf that were set into two layers of glass.

_F5A3652 The majority of these artifacts were found within the Roman catacombs, where they were fixed to the finishing mortar of the cemetery plots. For the most part, they are decorated with features and subjects of the Christian figurative repertoire: biblical and theological themes like the traditio legis, the concordia apostolorum and representations of saints and martyrs. Moreover, there were also family portraits and representations of pagan mythology and Jewish tradition. The restoration intervention, planned for 2017, aims to restore eighteen of these very important relicts and to research a more adequate preservative system to be carried out in specific containers. Moreover, in 2018 there will be an intervention concerning another core of golden glass artifacts; these still have to be defined, as well as other glass objects.



The Farewell of Pope Pius IX to Ferdinand II after the Neapolitan Exile

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Commissioned by Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli, this great commemorative canvas was painted by artist Filippo Bigioli from Italy’s Marche region. The painting represents the cordial salutation and gratitude of Pope Pius IX to the King of Naples for his hospitality. The riots during the Roman Republic were particularly grave, to the extent that they resulted in the killing of the Prime Minister of the Papal States. Following the riots, on November 24, 1848, Pope Pius IX was forced to flee clandestinely from Rome, taking refuge in Gaeta. That very night, disguised as a simple priest, the Pope succeeded in excaping from the Quirnale. In an enclosed carriage along with his secret assistant, he escaped capture and traveled to the countryside, despite all obstacles including a cannon ready to fire at the main gate of the Papal Palace. Finally he arrived at the church of Saints Peter and Marcellinus in Via Labicana. Here the Holy Pontiff found the Bavarian Ambassador Count Karl von Spaur waiting with his wife and son, who together feigned going on a sightseeing tour in the Kingdom of Naples accompanied by their new “docent.”
The Pope hopped into the Ambassador’s carriage on the evening of November 25th and arrived undisturbed in Gaeta where he wrote these words to Ferdinand II: “The Supreme Roman Pontiff has found himself in a position where he must abandon the capital of his domain in order to not compromise his own dignity. He is now in Gaeta, yet only for a brief time, wherein it is by no means intended to compromise in any way your Majesty nor the tranquility of your people.” Moved by these words, Ferdinand II left Naples with his family and headed to Gaeta, and invited the Pope to move into his Villa in Portici, where Pope Pius IX remained until April 4, 1850. After the capitulation of the Roman Republic, the Sovereign Pontiff was able once again to return to Rome. King Ferdinand II actually accompanied the Pope personally out of the confines of the state border, where his Majesty had prepared the Carrozza da Viaggio (Inv. No. 45572) to transport him on his journey. It is seen depicted in the background of the painting, and the actual carriage is on display in the Carriage Museum in the Vatican. This canvas by Filippo Bigioli is an extremely important work, as it pictorially documents a momentously definitive time in papal history.