They were linked, bizarrely, by would-be assassins’ bullets that struck them within seven weeks of each other in the spring of 1981.
They were linked, politically, by their successful (and behind-the-scenes) efforts to help tear down the Berlin Wall and release Eastern Europe from communism.
Now, President Ronald Reagan and St. John Paul II are linked — with scores of other Catholic Church leaders, artists and more — in “Vatican Splendors: A Journey Through Faith and Art,” a new exhibition at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley.
Opening to the public March 10 and running through Aug. 28, “Vatican Splendors” offers what officials call “the rarest collections of Vatican art and objects to ever visit North America.” Covering 10,000 square feet, the multi-media, multi-sensory exhibition brings to Southern California historical and religious items (from the first to the 21st centuries); works of art by Michelangelo, Bernini and Guercino (among others); and artistic objects representing the Church’s missionary and evangelization work around the world.
From the opening theater experience to the closing object — a cast of St. John Paul’s hand (which guests may grasp) — the exhibition is divided into sections that highlight various aspects of Church life, history and ministry: early Christian dialogue, the rise of Christian Rome, the Renaissance, liturgical art and the papacy (past and contemporary).
Among the featured spiritual, artistic and ceremonial treasures:
- A rarely seen bas relief “Pieta” by Michelangelo, quite unlike his more famous marble sculpture in St. Peter’s;
- Venerated bone fragments of Saints Peter and Paul, and a fourth-century glass medallion bearing their images;
- An eighth-century mosaic rendition of St. Paul;
- Intricately embroidered silk papal vestments from the 16th century;
- An account of St. Francis Xavier’s life written on tree bark;
- A barrel given to St. John XXIII bearing — at his request — a smiling lion, as opposed to the sterner creature generally depicted as the symbol of St. Mark (the pope was patriarch of Venice before elected to the papacy);
- A monstrance used by St. John Paul II containing bone fragments of one of his favorite saints, Hyacinth; and
- A votive candle holder given by John Paul to St. Mary Major, an icon before which Pope Francis often prays before leaving and upon returning to Rome.
The exhibit also offers a recreated art studio, with scaffold, suggesting how Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling; a cast rendition of part of the bronze door to St. Peter’s; and an altar with vessels from three centuries and a papal throne used by Pope Pius XI.
The fact that these works were collected from many sources — including the Vatican Museums, the Vatican Library, the Basilicas of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls and St. Mary Major, the Apostolic Floreria, the Papal Swiss Guard and Pontifical Urbaniana University — makes this exhibition especially unique, said Christian Brother of De La Salle Charles Hilken, a consultant to the exhibition and chair of the History Department at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif.
“There are items in this exhibit that you would not see at all even if you were in Rome, because they are kept out of public view,” said Brother Charles, a noted medieval historian and consultant on prior exhibitions and programs on Catholic art. “And there are others which you could see, but you would have to make an extra effort to find them.”
The fact that President Reagan and Pope John Paul had “a unique and very special friendship” was a key factor in the location of “Vatican Splendors” in Simi Valley, noted former first lady Nancy Reagan in a statement several weeks before her death March 6.
“Throughout his life, my husband had great affinity for the Catholic Church and as president of the United States, his relationship with the Vatican was very strong,” said Mrs. Reagan. “Remarkably, they shared similar personal backgrounds and together, they worked very hard — mostly in secret — to free the people of Poland and other captive nations from communist rule. My husband would have been honored to know that his presidential library will be sharing this remarkable Vatican exhibition with the American people.”
Indeed, it was John Paul himself who inspired the original concept for this exhibition, according to Msgr. Luis Manuel Cu√±a Ramos, exhibition leader who was ordained a priest in 1992 by the Polish-born pope.
“St. John Paul wanted the art and treasures of the church to be shared with everyone around the world, especially those who could never make it to Rome,” said Msgr. Cu√±a Ramos, director of the Congregation for the Evangelization of People’s Archives in the Vatican. “It is a way for the church to meet these people in their own homes, as it were. It is a window to the infinite, an expression of the beauty of God.”
“The potential to educate and spread the good news of the Catholic Church and faith through the educational content of this exhibition is unprecedented,” said Archbishop José H. Gomez. “To have this exhibit in the Los Angeles area is an honor.
‘“Vatican Splendors: A Journey Through Faith and Art’” runs March 6-Aug.28 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum, 40 Presidential Dr., Simi Valley. The exhibition is organized and circulated in conjunction with the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples of the Vatican City State, and is produced by Evergreen Exhibitions.
Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Pre-sale tickets for the exhibit, which include admission into the main Reagan Library Museum and Air Force One Pavilion, may be obtained by visiting www.reaganlibrary.com/vaticansplendors. For museum admission fees, call (800) 410-8354 or visit www.reaganlibrary.com.