Another side of the Church Universal and Militant is shown in a small exhibit opening this weekend in the de Young Museum.
Against centuries of history when the intersection of Rome and native cultures invariably resulted in diminishing or eradicating what the Vatican considered pagan or non-Christian, "Objects of Belief from the Vatican" seems to cherish the vanquished.
Only two of the 39 items on exhibit show Christian influence; the others from the Vatican Museums represent indigenous cultures.
They include a 15th century sculpture of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl and Tairona masks and shrine carvings, from Columbia, presented to Pope Innocent XII in 1692. (The Tairona, at first tolerated in spite of their acceptance of divorce and homosexuality, were annihilated by the Conquistadores in response to their rebellion in 1599.)
The Quetzalcoatl figure is seen in a serendipitous coincidence with today's Lunar New Year and the Year of the Snake: the red stone carving of the god's animal form is called "Feathered Serpent." The artist rendered the typical parts of the coatl, or snake, with great realism: the head with small round eyes and dilated nostrils, the mouth with a forked tongue, the tail with a rattle at its end. The feathers of the tropical quetzal (strikingly colored birds in the trogon family) replace the serpent's scales.
A native god image from Mangareva Island, presented to Pope Gregory XVI in 1837, is labelled as obtained by "the first Catholic missionary on the island representing the far reaches of the Sacred Congregation de Propaganda Fide" (charged with the spread of Catholicism and the regulation of ecclesiastical affairs in non-Catholic countries.
A wooden figure of a divinity standing with its arms upraised is carved with adornments including a headdress, a neck ornament, and armbands. Peruvian missionary Father Francisco Romero presented the figure along with two masks and two zoomorphic supports to Pope Innocent XII in 1692.
These were among the founding objects of the Vatican’s ethnological collections and became part of the collection of Cardinal Stefano Borgia (1731–1804). In 1693 Father Romero published "Llanto sagrado de la América meridional," a book that detailed his destruction of sacred spaces of the "Aruacos Nation Indians who live in the mountains of Santa Martha" in present-day Colombia.
One among the Vatican's numerous art collections, the Ethnological Museum today is home to more than 80,000 artistic achievements of indigenous cultures from Asia, Oceania, Africa, and the Americas. Since 2009, works from the collection have been reconnected with their places of origin and descendant communities for the purposes of contemporary interpretation.
The show's purpose is "to illuminate diverse religious beliefs and practices through works that function as materializations of spirituality and embodied images, demonstrating the influence of spirituality on artistic practice."
De Young has been intensively cultivating display and interpretation of objects from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas - more than half of the museum’s gallery space is dedicated to these arts. "Objects of Belief" is located in the Upper Gallery's New Guinea-Africa-Oceania section.