When we encounter great art, we learn more about ourselves.
To walk the streets of Florence is to take in art as one breathes in air. Art is everywhere, part of everyday life. Masterpieces are gathered in a couple of large palaces but also concentrated in smaller spaces that draw crowds that are both curious and reverent, on piazzas and bridges. Among these spaces is the newly conceived and renovated Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo, which reopened in fall 2015 after years of planning and work.
The Opera del Duomo, the Cathedral Foundation, oversees the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Giotto’s bell tower and the baptistery of S. Giovanni nearby. Its museum preserves art from the past from these three Florentine monuments.
The renewed Museo dell’ Opera has a strong sense of mission. Its design provides more than just a chance to see great art; it is an encounter between the visitor and the art. Museumgoers are able to encounter not just the art, but also the artist and the religious mystery behind the work, as well as the challenges and traditions it represents. It gives time and space for that encounter. It wants the visitor not simply to check a tourist destination off an itinerary but to be changed, uplifted and inspired by what the visitor has seen and felt.
Twenty years ago, the bishops of Tuscany issued a document about how the church should explicitly use the immense artistic treasures it possesses for evangelization. The bishops were anticipating a surge in the number of visitors at the turn of the millennium, and they wanted them to experience more than artistic insight. They wanted to enrich faith. Msgr. Timothy Verdon, who oversaw the reconstruction of the museum, was the one who drafted the letter for the bishops; today he is the director of the museum and oversees its mission.
Museumgoers are able to encounter not just the art, but also the artist and the religious mystery behind the work, as well as the challenges and traditions it represents.
“The church believes,” the bishops said, “that, in Jesus Christ’s incarnation, the invisible life of God became ‘visible’ to men and women, and that testimony borne to this life ‘that was with the Father and has now become visible’ serves to draw people into communion with the church and, ultimately, with the Holy Trinity itself.”
They stated that “the importance of images in Christian liturgical and devotional tradition must be pondered in this light. The visual message of the Gospel—‘something we have seen with our own eyes’—has moreover...generated forms of visual expression to which tradition and the magisterium have ascribed singular theological significance.”
The bishops’ statement took the bold step of expecting that even nonbelievers who encounter this great art find something in their deeper selves. And they wanted believers to facilitate this, not as strong-arm evangelization but as an invitation to see, to encounter, to experience something more. As the faithful are “called to promote ecumenical communion, we want to prepare believers to see and to show to others—to the ‘Jubilee pilgrims,’ even when these come from other Christian confessions or non-Christian religious traditions—a patrimony belonging to all of us and that touches every man and woman. In … particular in Tuscan art of the 14th and 15th centuries, believers and nonbelievers alike find a language that unites them, a fraternal heritage. These things too constitute ‘liberation’ and ‘return.’”
The bishops wanted, they wrote, “to exclude the vulgarizing effects of tourist activity in churches, monasteries and shrines—but not to exclude the tourists, who—even if not always in a conscious way—are among the ‘pilgrims’ of this age in search of meaning.”
This vision animated the work of the jubilee of 2000, and it was fundamental to the renewal of the Museo in Florence. Monsignor Verdon himself oversaw the work of restoration and renewal. The museum resides in a building across a narrow street at the back of the cathedral. This building was a workshop for Filippo Brunelleschi as he worked on various projects, including the cathedral’s magnificent dome, whichbears his name. Over the centuries the studio was cut up into a palace, a theater, a garage. In 1891 part of the building was opened as a museum, which was modified over the years. It also served as a storehouse for works that were too numerous to display.
Many of these works came from the cathedral, which went through several building phases to accommodate new styles and changing tastes. At one point all the statues were removed from the facade and put into storage, the facade redone in a more modern gothic style.
A piazza surrounds the cathedral, and Giotto’s magnificent bell tower rises to the south of the main entrance. Across from that entrance stands an elaborate baptistery with Lorenzo Ghiberti’s famous “Gates of Paradise.”
The plaza between the baptistery and the cathedral was called the paradise. Here is where church life was lived out between baptism on one side and Eucharist, confessions, weddings on the other. Here the people met as they rushed across town, here hawkers sold their wares, here lovers strolled and children played. The statues high up on the cathedral’s facade, on the baptistery and on the bell tower looked down upon their neighbors. And the folks down below looked up and saw images that represented saints but looked remarkably like the baker in his little shop around the corner, the mother who carried her baby to market, the beggar with his cup extended, the neighbor hanging out her laundry. Heaven met earth here. That was the point—the saints are with us, from among us; we are the saints. These saints are now safe from the weather and from air pollution, resting in the museum.
When one passes from the museum’s entrance area into the display galleries, one walks along a marble-clad wall. Here the names of humanists and musicians, architects, sculptors and painters and craftsmen who over seven centuries worked to create the artistic treasures of this sacred complex are inscribed. A stunning room lets the statues from the baptistery and the cathedral facade face each other once again, and today’s visitor can look up among these saints as did Florentines of 600 years ago.
A series of 54 panels that originally adorned Giotto’s bell tower are now in the museum for protection; carefully made duplicates now surround the tower. Among the images are a series that depicts the the work of everyday life, including agriculture, weaving, metal working, herding, lawmaking and navigation. Again, the early Florentines easily saw themselves, their work, their daily life set among saints and prophets.
The saints are with us, from among us; we are the saints.
Another gallery positions two balconies for musicians across from each other as they were originally situated in the center of the cathedral. Two master artists, Luca della Robbia and Donatello, carved marble reliefs of children playing instruments and dancing. These children are enjoying God’s presence. In an era of high infant mortality, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers could take consolation looking up and seeing that the children are happy and safe.
Three masterworks are especially positioned to evoke prayer and contemplation. One gallery displays Donatello’s “Penitent Mary Magdalene”; the space is not vast, but neither is it crowded with other works, just a few great altar pieces along the walls. Behind the Magdalene is a 14th-century crucifix placed so that one who gazes directly at the Magdalene sees the crucified Jesus in the background—a profound theological statement. In a room just to the right is a “Pietà” by Michelangelo, one of three that he carved. This work of the artist’s old age shows his face in the figure of Nicodemus holding the body of Jesus with Mary to the viewer’s right and another figure to the left. The sculpture is raised above the floor to a level which Michelangelo originally intended to give the proper perspective. The setting evokes the connection between the crucifixion and Mary Magdalene’s presence there.
There are clear indications that the renewal of the museum is working. The number of visitors has increased fourfold. And, most telling, Monsignor Timothy Verdon reports that the average length of a visit has increased from 40 minutes to an hour and a half.
Does he see any conflict in the concept of using art for evangelization, I asked him. What about ars gratia artis, art for its own sake?
“Hollywood nonsense,” Monsignor Verdon answers. Art is used to decorate, sure, but also to make a statement about the patron’s wealth or faith or good taste. It is used for politics. It can be misused, of course, turned to lesser goals. But it also inspires, builds and bonds. Monsignor Verdon writes in the museum catalog: “The new museum is in fact best read as the spectacle of beauty in the service of the holy.” And “the message, at the beginning of the 21st century, is that of a forgotten cultural unity in which the sacred expressed the aspirations of the secular community, and beauty the dignity of humankind.” The Museo dell' Opera del Duomo is Florence’s gift to the public, a offering spiritual and artistic nourishment. The visitors here linger, learn, dream and pray, attempting to encounter great art and a greater part of themselves.