WHERE “MUSEUM” CAME FROM – The Vatican and the pagan deities

The Round Room of the Vatican Museum, packed with pagan deities.

– José Maria C.S. André

The idea of ​​building a museum emerged more than five centuries ago in the mind of some Popes. The word “museum” did not exist, and even less the concept.

The occasion arose from the abundance of works of art from the time of the Roman Empire that the owners threw away and were therefore in danger of getting lost. As the collection consisted mainly of pagan deities, the people called the collection “House of Muses,” or “Museum”; the muses were the nine inspiring Greek goddesses of art and science.

The intention of the Popes was not to organize a closed warehouse, where only scholars would be admitted. The purpose was that the collection could be visited by any citizen and would foster their contact with art. Organizing the entire collection took a lot of work and required the construction of unusually large buildings, a kind of huge palace open to visitors. One can figure out the enthusiasm of the architects who invented this new type of building to meet this architectural program, unlike anything that had been done so far.

Not everybody welcomed the idea of putting together such a vast collection and building these gigantic pavilions. Some critics considered this would be a promotion of luxury, of the superfluous, in contrast with the austerity of Christ’s life. Several bishops shared that opinion and even a Pope interrupted the visits and had the statues that decorated the exterior facades covered with boards. Another objection highlighted the predominantly pagan content of the works of art, because the Vatican collection had some Christian pieces, mostly paintings, but most of the works were representations of pagan deities. People feared that the museum would become a kind of temple of a syncretic religion.

Of course, the popes who created the Vatican Museum did not want to favor luxury but to cherish the appreciation of beauty. It was God who created breathtaking landscapes, full of beauty, from the detail of the butterfly perched on a flower to the sparkling glow of the distant constellations. It was God who pervaded the universe with beauty. The color, the light, the fire, the music, even the eloquence of speech and the emotion of love. Works of art that are really beautiful participate in the cosmic symphony of beauty. According to the Popes, all beauty comes from God and leads souls to God.

It is also clear that the Vatican Museum was not intended to be a new pagan temple, and indeed the concern of some people did not correspond to a real danger. To the best of our knowledge, no visitor became pagan at the end of the visit.

This week a group of individuals from all over the world interpreted the presence of an Amazonian fetish in the Vatican as an idolatrous attitude of Pope Francis and the bishops who were with him. The very violent tone with which they condemned the Pope shows the profound suffering that the scene caused them and certainly reflects a genuine love for God, but perhaps some will see this aggressiveness as a lack of respect and love for the Roman Pontiff. In a way, history repeats itself. It is not for us to judge anyone. We pray for everyone.