Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Week 9: World Art and the Ethnological Art Museum at the Vatican.

The Missionary Background and the “Clash of Cultures.” 

John Vanderlyn,  Columbus Landing at Guanahani, 1492, 1837-47, Oil on canvas, 365 x 548 cm, Rotunda, US Capitol, Washington.
Interest in different cultures, and more importantly for the Vatican, their diverse religions, is not a recent development. Ever since Christopher Columbus landed in Cuba and Hispanoia (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), in 1492, Europeans have “assumed a posture of human and cultural superiority” over peoples like the Indians, indulging in barbarity in the name of civilization and Christianity.[1] However, not all in the renaissance and early modern periods viewed different cultures in such a condescending way. A century after Columbus, and writing in a spirit well ahead of his time, the French essayist Michel de Montaigne sounded a multicultural note, pointing out that “barbarism” means anything somebody is not accustomed to, not unbridled savagery.[2]  Montaigne’s sources for his anthropological discussion of tribes on the coast of Brazil was Girolamo Belzoni’s History of the New World (1565) and Jean de Léry’s illustrated  History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, Also Called America.[3] These detailed the horrifying treatment meted out to the natives by the Conquistadors in that region. Yet, Montaigne’s famous essay on the cannibals has nothing to do with the “noble savage.” Though these people were cruel, equally so were the Europeans who colonised their lands. After Columbus, religious orders like the Jesuits and the Franciscans started sending out missions to North America in the hope of converting the indigenous people to Christianity. The first Jesuit mission to North America (one of four) dates from 1609 and no doubt from studying terrifying paintings of baroque martyrdoms, the monks may have had some idea of what awaited them on the shores of the New World. The fate of some theological advisers seeking to convert non-Christian cultures in North America was to be killed and eaten.. Further north, In Canada, the Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeu, along with other colleagues, was martyred in this way. Mocking the missionaries and Christianity, the Iroquois, “baptized” him with boiling water, and then killed Brébeu and his companions, earning the group the name of the North American Martyrs. The Jesuits also launched a programme of missions to China and the Far East, spearheaded by St Francis Xavier in 1562, though Xavier never reached mainline China dying instead on the island of Shangchuan. It’s been calculated that from Xavier’s time up to 1800 a total of 920 Jesuit missionaries participated in the China mission. 

Origins of the Ethnological Museum.[4]

Unknown engraver, Francis Xavier (left), Ignatius of Loyola (right) and Christ at the upper center. Below: Matteo Ricci (right) and Johann Adam Schall von Bell (left), all in dialogue towards the evangelization of China.
The origins of the Vatican’s ethnological collection are to be found in these missionary expeditions, though later towards the end of the seventeenth-century. In 1692, the missionary Fray Francisco Romero brought to Rome wooden carvings from an Indian shrine in Columbia. These were shown to Pope Innocent III who ordered them to be placed in the Palazzo do Propaganda Fide.  These form the core of the museum and they were incorporated into the holdings of Cardinal Stefano Borgia, Prefect of Propaganda Fide. After his death his museum stayed in the Vatican, swelled by other artifacts and cult objects sent from missionaries worldwide. These included a group of carvings from the Gambier Islands of Polynesia. The museum took on a new role with the ascension of Pius XI who organised a “Missionary Exhibition” in 1924, praising missionary work throughout the non-Western world. Two years later Pius proclaimed a new title for the museum, the Pontifico Museo Missionario-Etnologico. The new museum was to be located in the building that housed the Sacred and Profane Museums so that”…the dawn of faith amongst the infidel today can be compared to the dawn of faith which…illuminated pagan Rome.” Not an art museum, but an archaeological and ethnological museum in the service of the global missions. An expert in linguistics and world religions, the distinguished anthropologist Father Wilhelm Schmidt proposed a tripartite organisation of the museum. First, it would record missionary work up to the 20th century. Secondly, it would illustrate current mission word and demonstrate Schmidt’s theory of cultural development. Lastly, the museum would consider the future of the missions. All but the second aim were realized, and the museum opened to the public on December 21st, 1927, the feast day of St Thomas, Apostle of the Indies. 

Vatican 2 and World Religions. 

Selections from the Vatican Ethnological Museum- see below.
The successors of Schmidt found the ideological and political climate unreceptive to a museum based on the works of the missions. Also, the second Vatican Council moved mission work away from imposing European values on other cultures and more towards establishing foundations of Christianity in local cultures. Most importantly the Church didn’t see missions in the context of a “clash of cultures” but preached a more accommodating message towards different beliefs and faiths. Thus the Director, Father Penkowski, suggested the formation of a museum of world religions. This new museum was opened to the public in April 1973, and most objects were installed by 1979.  

Anthropology and Art History.

Page from Codex Vaticanus B, Aztec Hieroglyphic manuscript, Vatican Library. Codex Vaticanus B, also known as Codex Vaticanus 3773.
What is world art? When did it become a category in art history? Nowadays, visitors to museums are unlikely to be surprised at encountering statues from Egyptian tombs, Mesoamerican figurines, or ceremonial masks from Africa and Oceania, in the leading museums of the world. But art from non-Western cultures, as pointed out by Andre Malraux, only began to enter the world’s museums from the early years of the twentieth century. This coincided with the interest in “primitivism” on the part of modern artists like Derain, Matisse and of course Picasso. The appearance of masks in such early twentieth-century masterpieces as his Demoiselles d’Avignon testifies to trips to ethnological museums in Paris to see “Negro Art.”[5] Later, world art started to appear in surveys of art history. Gombrich’s best seller The Story of Art contains illustrations of non-Western art such as Maori, Tahitian, Aztec, and Mayan art in its opening chapter; though unsurprisingly most of the book is devoted to post-classical and renaissance art. Perhaps Gombrich was reticent in bringing anthropology and ethnology into art history as Aby Warburg had done with his famous visit to the Pueblo Indians in 1896.[6] A good example of the anthropological approach is Hermann Leicht’s History of the World’s Art (1963) which opens with “Art of the Ice Age” before going on to sweep majestically through the art of Africa, Australia and Oceania, Amerindian Art, the Near East, India, China, Japan before setting course for Egypt, Greece, Rome and the post classical world of art charted by Gombrich. The geographical categories used by Leicht are similar to those used by the Vatican’s Ethnological Museum. Currently there are about 61,000 objects: approx. 10,000 from Africa, 10,000 from the Americas, 20,000 from Asia, 6,000 from Oceania, and 15,000 pre-historic objects.

1)      Selections from the Vatican Ethnological Museum- see below.

2)      Headquarters of the Propaganda fide in Rome, North facade on Piazza di Spagna by architect Bernini, the southwest facade seen here by Borromini: etching by Giuseppe Vasi, 1761.

3)      Map of Christopher Columbus’s Voyages.

4)      John Vanderlyn,  Columbus Landing at Guanahani, 1492, 1837-47, Oil on canvas, 365 x 548 cm, Rotunda, US Capitol, Washington.

5)      Unknown artist, Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, “Apostle of the Indies”, Dominican missionary. was a 16th-century Spanish historian, social reformer and Dominican friar. He became the first resident Bishop of Chiapas, and the first officially appointed "Protector of the Indians". His extensive writings, the most famous being A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies and Historia de Las Indias, chronicle the first decades of colonization of the West Indies and focus particularly on the atrocities committed by the colonizers against the indigenous peoples. Arriving as one of the first European settlers in the Americas, he participated in, and was eventually compelled to oppose the atrocities committed against the Native Americans by the Spanish colonists. In 1515, he reformed his views, gave up his Indian slaves and encomienda, and advocated, before King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, on behalf of rights for the natives. In his early writings, he advocated the use of African slaves instead of Natives in the West-Indian colonies.

6)      Illustration from chapters 8, 14 and 15 of Jean de Léry’s s History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, Also Called America. 1578, wood engravings.

7)      Unknown engraver, Francis Xavier (left), Ignatius of Loyola (right) and Christ at the upper center. Below: Matteo Ricci (right) and Johann Adam Schall von Bell (left), all in dialogue towards the evangelization of China.

8)      Poussin, The Miracle of St Francis Xavier, 1641-42, Oil on canvas, 444 x 234 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Notes. St. Francis Xavier is noteworthy for his missionary work, both as organizer and as pioneer. He is said to have converted more people than anyone else has done since Saint Paul. By his compromises in India with the Christians of St. Thomas, he developed the Jesuit missionary methods along lines that subsequently became a successful blueprint for his order to follow. His efforts left a significant impression upon the missionary history of India and, as one of the first Jesuit missionaries to the East Indies, his work is of fundamental significance to Christians in the propagation of Christianity in China and Japan. India still has numerous Jesuit missions, and many more schools. There has been less of an impact in Japan. Following the persecutions of Daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the subsequent closing of Japan to foreigners, the Christians of Japan were forced to go underground and developed an independent Christian culture. This painting was commissioned in 1638 by Sublet de Noyers, in Paris and installed in spring 1642 on the high altar of a newly built church for Jesuit noviciates. It shows a scene from the life of St Francis Xavier, one of the joint founders of the Jesuit Order, who during his mission in Japan brought a dead girl back to life. Summoned by the prayers of the saint, Christ appears in the company of angels and restores the deceased to the living. The painting offered Poussin the opportunity to measure himself against his arch rival Vouet, who - along with Poussin's friend Jacques Stella - had been commissioned to produce a work for one of the side altars. Poussin was not entirely happy, however, with the circumstances under which his altarpiece arose: it was the largest canvas he ever executed in terms of dimensions, and although he considered its composition a success he was obliged to complete it in a great rush.

9)      Figure of a Divinity (Monkulu?), Columbia (Sierra Nevada di Santa Marta), Aruaco ?, 16th century, collected 1691, painted wood, height 18 7/8 (48 cm), maximum width , 6 5/16 (16 cm), depth 1 7/8 (5 cm), Enthnological Museum, Vatican.  Sculpture in the form of a human being carved from a plank of wood. Traces of white paint that probably originally covered the whole body. Body not modelled- more of a relief than a statue. Base completely destroyed. Strange face: two wide, staring eyes surrounded by white circles. Displays an inexpert hand; crude treatment of facial features. No precise information about the Amerinds in the 17th so information based on anecdotal “evidence” by locals. Thought to show ther great mother Munkulu, about which little is known.

10)   Photo of Wilhelm Schmidt, Vatican linguist and anthropologist.

11)   Quetzacoatl serpent, Mexico, Aztec, Classic period (15th century), stone, height 20 1/16 (51 cm), maximum width 10 ¼ (26 cm), Ethnological Museum, Vatican. Notes. Q means plumed serpent. Executed in reddish stone in the manner of a coiled snake with upright body entirely covered with feathers in the centre of which is an ear of Indian maize. Almost aquiline head with its large, sharp eyes and projected tongue is typical of the blend of mystery and horror in Aztec art. The sculpture is of fine quality, and came from the Mexican plateau. It dates from the Classic period of Aztec art, but nothing is known about its discovery. Classic Era 200–1000 CE. The Classic Era is so called because it saw the development and spread of highly sophisticated arts in the realm of stuccowork, architecture, sculptural reliefs, mural painting, pottery, lapidary etc. It was a time when regional differences between cultures grew more manifest. The Classic era was dominated by numerous independent city-states in the Maya region and also featured the beginnings of political unity in central Mexico and the Yucatán. The city-state of Teotihuacan dominated the Valley of Mexico until the early 8th century, but we know little of the political structure of the region because the Teotihuacaners left no written records. The city-state of Monte Albán dominated the Valley of Oaxaca until the late Classic, leaving limited records in their mostly undeciphered script.In the Maya region, numerous city states such as Tikal, Calakmul, Copán, Palenque, Uxmal, Cobá, and Caracol reached their zeniths. Each of these polities was generally independent, although they often formed alliances and sometimes became vassal states of each other. The main conflict during this period was between Tikal and Calakmul, who fought a series of wars over the course of more than half a millennium. Each of these states declined during the Terminal Classic and were eventually abandoned. In the early 20th century, the term "Old Empire" was sometimes given to this era of Maya civilization in an analogy to Ancient Egypt; the term is now considered inaccurate and has long been out of use by serious writers on the subject.

12)   Same: another view.

13)   Page from Codex Vaticanus B, Aztec Hieroglyphic manuscript, Vatican Library. Codex Vaticanus B, also known as Codex Vaticanus 3773, is an Aztec ritual and divinatory document. It is a member of the Borgia Group of manuscripts. It contains 49 leaves, 48 of them are painted on both sides. The place of origin is region of Choluli in Puebla, Tlaxcala, in Mexico. It is one of largest codices from Borgia Group. Written in the nahuatl language, it was made from animal skin. Currently it is housed at the Vatican Library. It was translated by Eduard Seler and published in 1902 in London.

14)   Page 71 from Codex Borgia, Vatican Library. The Codex Borgia (or Borgia Codex or Codex Yoalli Ehecatl) is a Mesoamerican ritual and divinatory manuscript. It is generally believed to have been written before the Spanish conquest of Mexico, somewhere within what is now today southern or western Puebla. The Codex Borgia is a member of, and gives its name to, the Borgia Group of manuscripts.The codex is made of animal skins folded into 39 sheets. Each sheet is a square 27 cm by 27 cm (11x11 inches), for a total length of nearly 11 meters (35 feet). All but the end sheets are painted on both sides, providing 76 pages. The codex is read from right to left.The Codex Borgia is named after the Italian Cardinal Stefano Borgia, who owned it before it was acquired by the Vatican Library. In 2004 Maarten Jansen and Gabina Aurora Pérez Jiménez proposed that it be given the indigenous name Codex Yoalli Ehecatl, Nahuatl for "Night and Wind", although it is not certain that its creators were Nahuas.[1]The Codex Borgia was brought to Europe, likely Italy, some time in the early Spanish Colonial period. It was discovered in 1805 by Alexander von Humboldt among the effects of Cardinal Stefano Borgia. The Codex Borgia is presently housed in the Apostolic Library, the Vatican.

15)   Mask, Columbia, (Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta), Aruaco, 16 th century (?), collected 1691, wood, height 7 1/16 (18 cm), width 5 7/8 (15 cm), Ethnological Museum, Vatican. Depicts a tranquil human face that might once have had inlaid eyes. Mask may have been surmounted by a crown (of feathers). Traces of a light cream colour remain on the mask- similar to a death mask. represents the great grandmother Sun venerated during the drying out of the fields before their cultivation. Collected in July 1691 by Fray Francisco Romero when he destroyed a native sanctuary in Columbia. “Idols” and “instruments of idolatry.” Erroneously ascribed sculptures to ancient Mexico by later authorities.

16)   Photograph of Aby Warburg with unidentified Hopi Dancer, Oraibi, Arizona, May, 1896.

17)   The God Rogo, Polynesia, Gambier Islands, Mangareva, collected 1834-6, wood, height 35 7/16 (90 cms), width 7 7/8 (20 cms), Ethnological Museum, Vatican. Notes. A male standing figure on strong legs bent at the knees. Rounded, protruding abdomen with circular navel; well developed thorax; arms held away from the body. Conical head making it look modern. Eyes, mouth and nose skilfully carved, as with the statue of Tu. Only the fingers and toes lack sophistication. The statue represents Rogo, son of Tagaroa and Haumea, mythological first inhabitants of Mangareva. God of peace and hospitality he was deposed by Tu. Rogo revealed himself in the form of rainbows and fog, as was typical of agricultural gods. Figure sent by Father Francis Caret to the headquarters of the Order of Picpus Mission at Braine- Le Comte, Belgium, in 1836. A year later it entered the Vatican.

18)   Statuette of the God Tu, Polynesian, Gambier Islands, collected 1834-6, wood, height, 44 ½ inches (113 cm), Ethnological Museum, Vatican.  Sculpture fr a single block of wood. Acc to Polynesian mythology Tu was the supreme god of the country; a warrior- navigator who appeared in the guise of a thunderbolt or a comet. This statue is unique, only one to show him with four legs, which might be related to his name Tu- “That which stands.” In 1836, father Caret a Catholic missionary sent this to Europe, and a year later the statue was presented to Pope Gregory XVI.

19)   The God Tupo, Polynesian, Gambier Islands, collected 1834-6, wood, height 33 ½ (30 cm), width 11 13/14, Ethnological Museum, Vatican. Notes. Not an abstract sculpture by Brancusi, but according to ethnographers a representation of the god Tupo a god associated with the cultivation of tubers or plant structures- and who causes chaos and disorder in the universe. Father Caret explained that this sculpture was used for a rite called eketea involving raising towards heaven strips of bark cloth (tapa) on a wooden support, to invoke divinities. The object was acquired between 1834 and 18 36.

20)   Hook (Sambun), Papua New Guinea (East Sepik Province), Iatmul people, collected before 1924, painted wood, height 59 1/16 (150 cm), width 9 1/16 (23 cms), Ethnological Museum, Vatican. Notes. Wooden suspension hook (sambun) painted to depict a female being part human and bird. Oval face; neck of the figure resembles that of a bird, probably a white bellied sea eagle. The head of the bird can be seen just below the figur’s face. Bosom though flat is painted and carved to indicate thye breasts. Object represents a female aquatic spirit, sacred to fishermen and the economy. A masterpiece of Melanesia sculpture this was collected in 1924.

21)   Hook: other side.

22)   Carved Board, (Malum-Sambun), Papua New Guinea, (East Sepik Province), collected before 1924, painted wood, height 50 “ (127 cm), width 13 ¾ (35 cm), Ethnological Museum, Vatican. Originally painted ochre and white but the ochre disappeared from the front. Enormous eyes; a narrow long nose- now broken away- hid a mouth.  The female divinity depicted here is probably the aquatic spirit Kamboragea; or a depiction of the tree of life; some see it as an archetypal portrayal of a cannibal. If the last is correct the board may have been used as a rack for human trophy skulls. Maybe it was a wedding gift. Acquired in 1925.

23)   Crucifix, Zaire, Bakongo people, 17th century, bronze, height 15 ¾ (40 cm), width 7 ½ (19 cms). Notes. Thought to lie outside Christian traditions despite being a crucifix. Cast in a bronze alloy using open mould technique. Body of Christ executed in high relief on the flat surface of the cross. Image is that of an African Christ (curly hair, broad nose, protruding navel. Outstretched arms and crossed feet, prominent ribs, and loincloth suggest a European model. Below Christ a naked woman covers her body; above, two naked figures sit with their hands folded in prayer. A third figure does the same on the upright of the cross. Iconography. Female figure seems to be the Madonna. The other three may be the Trinity, three apostles, souls of the dead saved by Christ, relatives moruning Christ though he is not yet dead. As the influence of the religious missions diminished, the meaning of the cross changed so that it became a protective spirit Nkangi kiditu (attached Christ). Involved in legal cases, but was also a symbol of the chief of the tribe. The cross was introduced to the Lower Congo region by the first Portuguese missionaries in the 15th century. By the 16 century crosses were manufactured in Africa. Originally these imitated European models, but they gradually became transformed into completely African works. This cross is thought to have been made towards the end of the 17th century when missions were waning. It was collected by Redemptionist fathers in the Lower Congo and sent from Brussels to the Vatican in 1924 for the exhibition of 1925.

24)   Mask, Congo, Vili people, first quarter of the 20th century, collected before 1924, painted wood and leather, height, 11 13/16 (30 cm), width 6 11/16 (17 cm),  Ethnological Museum, Vatican. Notes. Well-constructed face with broad nose, fully articulate ears painted white, an open mouth with teeth in the lower jaw, a tongue projecting over the lower lip, a chin adorned with a leather goatee. Realistic art of the Lower Congo covered in a symmetrical and contrasting mosaic of white, red and black. Only the skull is unadorned. It was originally covered by a hood completely covering the person. Masks were worn for worship by secret societies and fr initiation rituals. This mask belonged to the Vili who live on the Atlantic coast between the Congo and Niarii rivers.Masks from this tribe are not common in collections of African art. Carved at the beginning of the 1920s. Collected by an unknown missionary, this mask was sent to the Vatican in 1924.

25)   Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, oil on canvas, MOMA, New York, 243.9 cm × 233.7 cm (96 in × 92 in). Numerous Fauvist and Cubist artists discovered "primitive" art, particularly Black African art, at the Trocadéro Museum.[21] Picasso said that he discovered there "what painting was all about", seeing it in the museum's African masks, which had been created "as a kind of mediation between [humanity] and the unknown hostile forces that [surround us]"

26)   Maiden spirit mask, Nigeria, Igbo people, 19th-20th century, collected before 1924, painted wood, height 19 5/16, width 13 3/8, Ethnological Museum, Vatican. Notes. Depicts the fine, delicate features of a young Igbo woman. Maiden spirit masks are part of whole costumes that are worn by dancers. Collected by missionaries and brought to the Vatican in 1925.

27)   Aboriginal art, Wandjina, triangular board, Ethnological Museum, Vatican. The exhibition "Rituals of Life" is accessible to visitors to the Vatican Museums, starting from Saturday 16 October 2010 and will be on display for all of 2011. "Rituals of Life" is a journey through the spirituality and culture of the Aboriginal people of Australia through the collection brought together in the Ethnological Museum of the Vatican Museums. "Rituals of Life" was collated by Fr. Nicola Mapelli, Curator of the Ethnological Collections of the Vatican Museums, with the support and collaboration of the National Museum of Australia through the work of Senior Indigenous curator Margo Neale and Katherine Aigner; and with the assistance of Nadia Fiussello. The objects of the exhibition were prepared and organised thanks to the care and competent restoration undertaken on the works of art displayed by the Poly-Material laboratory of the Vatican Museums, coordinated by Stefania Pandozy.In the leading up to the exhibition, Fr. Nicola Mapelli with Katherine Aigner; a representative of the National Museum of Australia who researched the collection, travelled extensively to Aboriginal communities, mainly in Western Australia and the Tiwi Islands to reconnect with the descendents of the Aboriginal people who sent their works to the Vatican almost one century ago as a gift to Pope Pious XI.On this journey of reconnection, Fr. Mapelli met ancestors of the artists who were very happy to see him and expressed their pride that these works of art of their forefathers were now cultural ambassadors at the Vatican Museums, teaching other people from around the world about their culture. The exhibition was inspired by the desire to honour Indigenous Australian Art, as being one of the oldest artistic expressions on our planet. These expressions embrace daily life in all its manifestations. The exhibition is permeated by spirituality and allusions to the ancestral world. That of the aboriginals is one of the most ancient human civilisations. Aboriginal civilisation inhabited the Australian continent at least 60.000 years before the arrival of the "white man". Even though they do not have a written language, the aboriginal people have managed to pass on their culture via myths and paintings, songs and dances& their story continues until our days.

28)   Aboriginal art, Sun and water clouds, Ethnological Museum, Vatican.


[1] On Columbus and the “clash of cultures”, see Alvin M. Josephy, Jr, 500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians, (New York, 1994), 114-153.
[2] Montaigne, “On the Cannibals.”
[3] On Jean de Lèry, see Claire Farago, “Silent Moves: On Excluding the Ethnographic Subject from Art History” in Art History and its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline, (London, 2002), 191-214
[4] The following paraphrases Josef Penkowsi’s entry in The Vatican Collections: the Papacy and Art (New York, 1983), 226-7.
[5] On the “discovery of negro art”, Denise Paulme, African Sculpture, (London, 1962), 13-17.
[6] For the problems of ethnography, the writing of the cultures of the world, in art history, Farago, “Silent Moves”.

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