Vatican's ethnic art spans many cultures 

Visitors to the de Young Museum dazzled by glamorous exhibits featuring famed European paintings or modern American masterworks may miss the large upstairs gallery, which is filled with sculptures and ethnic art objects from Africa, Oceania and the Americas.

Complementing the dozens of masks, carvings, and tribal and ritual objects from the museum's large permanent collection is a special exhibition of 37 objects borrowed from the Vatican Ethnological Museum in Rome. Located in the corner of the vast space (and difficult to distinguish from the de Young collection) is a show called "Objects of Belief from the Vatican: Art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas."

The show represents the first time the objects have been on view in the U.S., according to Father Nicola Mapelli, curator of the Vatican museum.

Without a prevailing theme, the exhibition is a bit confusing; items are both old and new (15th through 20th centuries), and from Africa, North America, South America and islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Their only connection is that they served as reflections of religions practiced by groups that made them. Many were acquired by missionaries and given to Pope Pius XI for the Vatican Mission Exposition in 1925, an exhibit of thousands of objects that provided the foundation for the Vatican Ethnological Museum.

Among the show's highlights is a 15th-century stone sculpture from Mexico of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, one of Mesoamerican cosmology's most important figures, considered by some followers to have played a role in the creation of humans. The sculpted stone resembles twine in this commanding depiction of a feathered serpent.

Also on view are two Tairona masks and three shrine carvings obtained in 1691 by Fray Francisco Romero in Colombia's Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and given to Pope Innocent XII in 1692.

Another notable piece is a solemn, potent-looking wood figure of the god Tu, sent by the first missionary in Mangareva, in the Gambier Islands in French Polynesia, to Pope Gregory XVI in 1836.

Among the few Christian-themed objects is a bronze crucifix made by the Bakongo people of Congo in the 17th century.

While the array of works seems a bit random or disjointed, the collection does emphasize the Catholic Church's long history and its influence over people of all kinds, all over the world.


Objects of Belief from the Vatican

Where: De Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F.

When: 9:30 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 9:30 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. Fridays; closes Sept. 8

Admission: $7 to $10

Contact: (415) 750-3600,

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Murray Paskin

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