By Michael Graczyk
The Associated Press
HOUSTON - Hundreds of priceless items from 2,000 years of the Roman Catholic papacy, many of them stored in Vatican collections and not normally seen even in Rome, go on display this weekend for the first time in the United States.
The exhibition, St. Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes, makes its debut Sunday at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and continues through July 27.
"If you came to the Vatican, two-thirds of these things you would never see because they are in storerooms or archives or sacristies that are never open to the public," said the Rev. Allen Duston, international director of the Office of Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums.
Houston is the first stop in a four-city U.S. tour. The exhibit comes to Cincinnati Museum Center Dec. 20-April 18, 2004.
The items, including objects from as far back as the fourth century, focus on the popes, beginning with the first, St. Peter, who was martyred in Rome in the year 67 by being crucified upside down, to John Paul II, the 265th pope.
John Paul bookends the exhibition. A written message from him greets visitors at the entrance. A bronze cast of his right hand, with his signature engraved beneath it, is the last item visitors see.
In between, in chronological order, the exhibit tracks the early days of the church, through the Renaissance and into modern times.
"Among the oldest items is a fifth-century mosaic of St. Peter and a fourth-century pin with a monogram of Jesus Christ. One of the stranger pieces is a reliquary from Pope St. Pius V, who died in 1572. It's a container that holds his finger, his ring still around it.
Duston believes the most significant piece is the Mandylion of Edessa, a tempora-on-linen image from the third to fifth century that may be the earliest representation of the face of Christ.
There are papal crowns and vestments, sculptures and paintings and drawings, and religious tools such as precious metal chalices and monstrances, used in public displays for what Catholics believe to be the body of Christ. Duston said one silver monstrance, from Genoa in 1750, was found in 2,200 pieces in a Vatican storage closet in a paper bag. It was cleaned and reassembled.
A 531-page catalog accompanies the show. Other stops on the 18-month American tour, which has been at least four years in the making, are the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and the San Diego Museum of Art. Tickets for the Cincinnati show will go on sale this summer.
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