Images of a pope

NOMA exhibit recalls visit  of John Paul II

Photo provided by New Orleans Museum of Art -- Artist Fred Villanueva is one of three artists whose work is featured in the exhibit Portrait of Faith: John Paul II in Life and Art. Villanueva's mural, 'Pope John Paul II with Saints Venerated in New Orleans' was commissioned by the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Photo provided by New Orleans Museum of Art -- Artist Fred Villanueva is one of three artists whose work is featured in the exhibit Portrait of Faith: John Paul II in Life and Art. Villanueva's mural, 'Pope John Paul II with Saints Venerated in New Orleans' was commissioned by the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

One more lens in the sea of television cameras focused on the Sistine Chapel’s chimney last week wouldn’t have mattered.

Then again, maybe it would have.

Because the pope was on the minds of visitors to the New Orleans Museum of Art in more ways than one.

“I said we needed a live feed from Vatican City during this exhibit,” Lisa Rotondo-McCord said.

She laughs. She’s joking, but she also mentions perfect timing.

For what could be more perfect than opening an exhibit commemorating the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s visit to New Orleans only days before the convening of the Conclave to choose a new pope?

The exhibit’s title is “Portrait of Faith: John Paul II in Life and Art.” Rotondo-McCord is the museum’s deputy director of curatorial affairs. She oversaw the project.

The true curatorial duties fell to Scott Peck, co-director and curator for the Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas.

“This was a collaboration among the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Museum of Biblical Art,” he said. “Archbishop Gregory Aymond was the visionary behind this show. He asked that we put an exhibit together that would link the pope’s visit to the museum to art. This exhibit commemorates Pope John Paul II’s visit through photos taken by three photographers who documented his visit, along with artifacts that are connected to his visit.”

This items are complemented by pieces by three artists, two of whom met with the pope and designed work that now is part of the Vatican’s collection.

The third featured artist never met Pope John Paul II but is a name in the contemporary art world whose work specifically is created to honor and reflect his Catholic faith.

But Rotondo-McCord is right. Though the exhibit, alone, is enough to generate excitement by jogging personal memories, a live feed from the Vatican would have added something extra.

Really, who in the exhibit wouldn’t remember exactly where they were when the name of the 267th pope was announced?

So many of them entering this show remember where they stood and how long they stood there when Pope John Paul II addressed them in New Orleans. And those who weren’t there can learn about it through the photographs.

That is, after they stop by Stern Auditorium on the first floor to watch a film about the pope’s life, then pick up an audio tour device at the exhibit’s second floor entrance.

“The tour is narrated by Harry Connick Jr.,” Peck said. “There are also places where people tell their stories, and there are points where Archbishop Aymond talks about different parts of the show. Harry Connick Jr. also narrates the film.”

The photos were taken by Mike Posey, Mitchel Osborne and David Spielman, who were working in New Orleans at the time of Pope John Paul II’s visit.

Spielman still lives and works in the city and will give a lecture and guided tour during the exhibit, Peck said.

Photos document the pope’s arrival and his appearance at the youth gathering in the Superdome, among other highlights.

One photo shows the pope stopping at the sculpted angel holy water fount before entering the St. Louis Cathedral. The fount stands in the center of the museum room where the photo is on display.

“It’s amazing that we were able to get this fount for the exhibit,” Peck said. “And it’s at the beginning of the exhibit. The pope arrives in New Orleans, and the fount is here greet visitors as they arrive to the exhibit.”

A photo found later in the exhibit shows the pope trying on a Mardi Gras mask in the Superdome. The youth at that gathering are adults now, many with children of their own.

Many will remember the crowd’s good humor when the pope turned the mask upside down before placing it over his face.

“We have people walking through who remember this, and we have some who weren’t even born who can experience it through the photos and the other visitors’ stories,” Peck said.

Which is why a meditation room has been included. It’s equipped with Post-It notes and pens, allowing visitors to write a short account of their memories and leaving their thoughts behind for others to read.

“The notes will be gathered and archived by the archdiocese,” Peck said. “We’ve also included a reading room with books about Pope John Paul II.”

Back inside the exhibit, artifacts from the visit include chairs on which the pope sat, china commissioned by the archdiocese for his visit, personal garments, liturgical objects and the archdiocese’s Holy Monstrance, which is on exhibit for the first time since the 1984 World’s Fair.

But stirring the most buzz is the antique headboard from the bed on which the pope slept during his visit.

“Archbishop Philip Hannan was born in this bed,” Peck said.

Hannan was archbishop at the time of the pope’s visit. He also slept in the same bed while at the archdiocese.

“The pope stayed at the archdiocese during his visit, and he slept in the bed during his stay,” Peck said. “And now Archbishop Aymond sleeps in this bed.”

But this exhibit is about more than artifacts. It’s also about art.

“And the first artist we introduce is Gib Singleton,” Peck said. “He created the pope’s crosier, which is why we used the photo of Pope John Paul II holding the crosier as the exhibit photo. People are able to make the connection between Gib and the pope, and they’re able to relate because they recognize the crosier.”

A crosier is a pastoral staff. The crosier Singleton created featured Christ nailed to a bowed cross. Singleton’s design of the cross is described as organic, as if it’s a real tree.

And his portrayal of Christ, as seen in his crucifix and stations of the cross sculptures in this show, encompasses all races and ethnicities.

“A young boy walking through the exhibit yesterday stopped and looked at the crucifix and asked, was Jesus African-American?” Peck said. “And the answer is yes. Was he Asian? The answer is yes. When you look at how Gib Singleton sculpted his face, he can be any race. And why did he do this? Because Jesus died for all of us.”

The next featured artist, Frederick Hart, also sculpted pieces specifically for the pope. The show includes a photo of Hart presenting his key sculpture, “The Cross of the Millennium,” to Pope John Paul II.

The show features different versions of this piece, each made of acrylic resin. The sculptures show Christ within the cross instead of outside it. His arms are extended, but his body appears in spiritual form.

“Stand back, and you can see the Star of Bethlehem in the cross,” Peck said. “Then there’s the crucifixion, yet at the same time, there’s the ascension. And Frederick Hart has captured all three events, the birth, the crucifixion and the ascension in one sculpture.”

Finally, the exhibit concludes with murals by Fred Villaneuva. Villaneuva was an abstract artist whose studio was only two blocks from the Twin Towers when terrorist struck New York on Sept. 11, 2001. The tragedy changed his life and his art, and one mural in this exhibit has a way of standing out among the rest.

The piece was commissioned by Aymond and features John Paul II blessing New Orleans as the canonized Saints from the Crescent City stand witness. Among them are Harriet DeLisle and the Rev. Francis Xavier Seelos.

“I don’t know where the mural will hang after the exhibit, but Archbishop Aymond says he wants it to be a prominent place in the city,” Peck said.

And speaking of prominence, Mary Dixon managed to attract a crowd at the exhibit’s end. And with good reason.

Dixon was in charge of nonreligious ceremonies at the cathedral at the time. Her photo even appears in the official souvenir book from 1987, which has been reprinted for this exhibit.

“Here I am,” she said, flipping through the book.

There’s the pope, and there’s Dixon.

“We had to put barricades on the sides of the pews where the nuns sat,” she continued. “And I remember stationing my son and other boys at the barricades. The nuns went wild when the pope came in, and the boys had to keep them under control.”

She laughed.

“It was payback time for the boys,” she said.

Dixon’s late husband, David, a New Orleans businessman, was a key figure in bringing the New Orleans Saints to the city, as well as the Superdome. He, too, helped during the pope’s visit.

“Everyone who comes through has a story,” Rotondo-McCord said. “That’s been the best part of this exhibit, listening to what everyone has to say.”

Now imagine the stories a live feed from the Vatican could generate.

A new pope is the perfect exclamation point to this story.