Exhibits feature papal artifacts

Five centuries’ worth of papal artifacts, many on loan from the Vatican, are now on display within four blocks of Old Campus.

“The Swiss Guard: 500 Years of Papal Service” opened Wednesday at the Knights of Columbus Museum, and will run through June. The exhibit chronicles the history of the Pope’s personal security force, from its founding in 1506 to its modern role in church life.

A large portion of the exhibit was displayed at the Vatican from March to July before it was transported to New Haven, said Marco Cupellaro, who produced the exhibit along with art director Paola Fiorletta.

The exhibit displays a variety of artifacts from the Swiss Guard, including a collection of modern-day uniforms on life-size statues and a series of helmets from different historical periods. Over thirty portraits of the leaders of the Guard cover three walls of one exhibition room. Cupellaro said the exhibit was designed to appeal to an American public.

One of the highlights of the exhibit is the helmet of the Duke of Borbonne, Cupellaro said. Borbonne led imperialist forces in the 1527 Sack of Rome, when 147 Swiss Guards died so that the Pope could escape.

Interspersed with the artifacts are artistic renditions of important moments in the Guard’s history, many on loan from several European museums, including the Museo di Roma.

Andrew Walther, director of media relations for the Knight of Columbus museum, said the extensive collection of papal artifacts is unique among North American museums.

“There’s nothing on this scale anywhere else in the U.S.,” Walther said. “It was a huge amount of work for a temporary exhibit.”

The artifacts show that the Guard has remained an important symbol of continuity through a long period of Vatican history, Cupellaro said.

“It is something very special for Rome, and very traditional at the same time,” he said.

The museum closed for a week prior to the exhibit’s opening, and museum docent Jess Mallory said a flurry of activity during that time showed cooperation between the Italian producers and the museum staff.

“It was definitely a coordinated effort between the people from the Vatican and the people from the Knights of Columbus,” he said.

The exhibition’s next destination is not yet fixed, though Cupellaro said it may wind up at the Armory of the Swiss Guard, which is looking for a permanent exhibition.

A second exhibit, “A Vatican Christmas: Crèches of Pope John Paul II,” also opened at the museum Wednesday. It contains a collection of three-dimensional nativity scenes formerly displayed throughout the Vatican. The centerpiece of this exhibit is the small crèche that was kept on the personal desk of the former pope, as well as a number of crèches done in the Polish szopka tradition, which commonly incorporate images of churches with traditional nativity scenes.

The museum received a modest number of visitors on the exhibits’ opening day, but Walther said the majority of patrons are expected to come during the weekend.

The Knights of Columbus Museum, which opened in 2001, has featured exhibits on topics ranging from the construction of the Vatican to Mexican religious art.

The Knights of Columbus is a Catholic organization founded in New Haven in 1882. It now provides $60 billion worth of life insurance policies, and operates fraternal councils with a total membership of more than 1.7 million Catholic men.

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