May 23, 2019

Van Gogh at The Vatican! The Pope’s surprise Modern Art collection

The Vatican museums are stuffed to the brim with treasures. That’s a given. Everyone knows it. Visit the Musei Vaticani and you know you’ve got a day of treasures ahead of you. But most people expect treasures of a certain kind. Renaissance paintings. Roman sculptures. Etruscan pots. How many people join the queues that snake around the Vatican walls expecting to visit a gallery of modern art? I’m guessing it’s not many. Indeed from the way the hordes inside the museum bypass the modern art galleries I’d guess it’s probably three or four. On a good day.

modern art vaticanWhich means that in an otherwise overcrowded and painfully busy museum, the modern art galleries at the Vatican are a calm interlude, an unexpected delight. After walking through the Sala degli Indirizzi most visitors choose to head straight to the Sistine chapel. I’ve heard good things about it too so I can see their point. However those who spin off into the so-called contemporary art collection get to see some interesting pieces of work, although almost everyone chooses to walk straight past.

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If you want to see the Van Gogh then take note of the above photo – the door to the small gallery is just past a sculpture of Rodin’s Le Penseur. It is very easy to miss. A Van Gogh in London will always have twelve or thirteen tourists in front of it – here there are mainly none. The Vincent on show is a small Pieta.

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It has all the hallmarks of Van Gogh’s brushstrokes, drawing style and colours.  Reworking a painting by Delacroix, Vincent’s Mary seems less engrossed in the body of her son than in the viewer, pulling us into the scene in a way that The Sunflowers never manage. Van Gogh had intended to be a preacher and this work explicitly explores the themes he spent a life brooding upon. It is a quiet, meditative piece and was a wonderful surprise to find nailed to the wall in the Vatican.

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Not everything on show has the same power to move the viewer, but there are signs of a judicious collecting eye being involved in the creation of the galleries, as there are representative works from Georges Roualt, Ernst Kirchner and even Francis Bacon.

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Even wild extravagances from Henri Matisse are in the collection as are sketchy oils by the aesthete poet and painter Filippo de Pisis.

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With Salvador Dali and Graham Sutherland amongst the many other artists represented, this wing of the Vatican museums is highly recommended. Even if it does add another hour or so to your already mammoth trip around one of the greatest museums in the world.

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