Beauty Serving Truth: The Vatican Museums

As Christians we believe a long list of things that seem unlikely, though not impossible. We hold that the human race is more than the accidental byproduct of random selection. That the human mind is more than the side effect of electrochemical fireworks inside our fragile, organic brains. That our actions in fourscore or fewer years on this planet carry significance that will outlast every galaxy. That the human person is in itself, by its very creation, a sacred window into eternity. That all of these truths are guaranteed by the fact that the Creator whose existence is his essence has spoken to man and restored a relationship that was fractured by our first parents. That he spoke with human lips from a human throat, and surrendered his human life to serve as the bridge that connects us back to God.

None of this seems tremendously probable. But neither do a long list of other things – such as the coherence of the material universe, the emergence of life, or the explosion of human consciousness from the brain of an upright ape.

Nor is it terribly likely that a beautiful documentary about a group of dusty museums in Italy could serve as a tool for advancing faith in the ascetic, itinerant rabbi Jesus Christ. To the narrow-eyed cynic, the message of the soon-to-be released film The Vatican Museums might boil down to nothing more than this: The popes happen to rule the city of Rome, where a great deal of Classical art had survived the collapse of ancient civilization brought on by barbarian invasions and the crippling Islamic boycott of trade with Christian Europe.

This art, as it turned up, was claimed by the popes to bolster their claim of political continuity with the prestigious Roman Empire. So the popes gathered it up and kept it safe – in the same way that kings of France or Tsars of Russia collected art, and for the same reasons: to burnish their empires’ glory and awe their subjects into submission.

All this is true, as it is true that when our brains are injured, we lose consciousness, and that human life can seem cheap when it’s treated that way. But another vein of truth lies under the surface. The popes who lovingly dug up and served as stewards to the art of the ancient world and patrons to that of the Renaissance had reasons more profound than they might have known, which drove them even when their conscious motives might have been mixed with worldly ambition.


The popes who stopped thrifty Romans from breaking up ancient statues to use them as building materials, who made room in Christian temples for artworks that glorified pagan gods, were responding to something else – to a vision of the human person and its significance that Christianity first brought to the West. The conviction that life is a gift that points to a Giver drove persecuted Christians to rescue abandoned infants from starving along Rome’s walls; to recopy the precious texts of Classical Europe over and over again; to open schools and hospitals for the poor during the Dark Ages when political collapse and foreign invasion almost snuffed out European culture; to create a new Christian civilization that flowered into cathedrals and universities; to embrace and venerate the great works of Europe’s past, and forge in the Renaissance a glorious art that reflected the goodness of God in the greatness and misery of man.

The Renaissance, it is true, brought its share of errors. Its humanists sometimes cultivated a philistine snobbishness toward the works of their recent ancestors, sniffing at the “barbarism” of Chartres, the god-fearing judgments of Dante. But at their best the thinkers, artists, and theologians of the Renaissance were acting in the spirit that Pope Benedict XVI invoked in his great address at Regensburg – picking up the very best human tools ever developed, in Greece and Rome, and applying them to explore and elaborate the intimate Revelation of God to man that came to us from the Jews.

St. John Paul II, in his profound reflections on Christian humanism, called the coming of Christ the revelation of man to himself by God-become-man. In this, he was reflecting the thought of Renaissance theologians, who considered the Incarnation even more than the Passion the pivot point of divine salvation. It was during the Renaissance that priests and people began to genuflect during the Creed at the words et incarnatus est, to honor that staggering moment when God eternal began to thrive in a woman’s womb.

As we strive to restore in our culture a lively, passionate love for the human person as made in the image of God, there is no more uplifting vision than the art of the Christian Renaissance, which insisted that human glory was a spark and a shadow of God’s – as we see, and our hearts record, in Michelangelo’s painting of the Creation.

I highly recommend The Vatican Museums for students, teachers, catechists, and art lovers. Exquisitely filmed, expertly narrated by the director of the popes’ museums, and presented in crystal-clear 3D, The Vatican Museums is much more than an educational film. It’s a catalyst to remember that human life is good, that the lumpy and formless marble of daily life is shaped, moment by moment, through the hand of a perfect artist, into glorious shapes that will come to life at the Resurrection, when our forms are perfected and we will walk as men alongside the perfect man on an earth restored to the glory that sin cannot destroy.
To see The Vatican Museums, which opens soon in select theaters, check out