Saturday, April 7, 2012

MWA II: Vatican Shepherd

Following up on last month's Tulips in a Vase by Paul Cézanne, I've decided to select as the second MWA (Monthly Work of Art) the statue you see here, The Good Shepherd, from the collections at the Vatican Museums. The statue is 39 1/8 in. in height, carved from marble, and dates from the late 3rd century. Scholars refer to this period as Late Antiquity to distinguish it from the heyday of classical sculpture, such as 5th-century B.C. Athens or early 1st-century Imperialist Rome. The implication is that the quality of this work is less impressive than these early masterworks, and it borders on the beginning of the medieval period (no one says "Dark Ages" anymore). This is the time when Christianity had spread far and wide through the Roman Empire. Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, then issued the Edict of Milan the following year, effectively ending the persecution of Christians. Hence, art from this period reflects a growing interest in Christian subjects, but it has similarities to ancient Greco-Roman precedents. For instance, this shepherd bears some resemblance to figures of the sun god Apollo, with his youthful facial features and curls of hair. Iconographically, however, the statue traditionally has been interpreted by Christians as representing Christ and his parable of the Good Shepherd, who abandons seeks out the one sheep who is lost and return him to the flock (Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7; John 10:11-16). Of course, shepherds were a relatively common appearance in Greco-Roman art, so the figure was simply adapted as a Christian icon.

It may seem as if I've chosen this work as April's MWA because tomorrow is Easter. In fact, this statue has had great meaning for me most of my life. Art historians often reflect about the work that first inspired them to pursue the study of art. For me, it was this statue, and it makes me realize how I've come full circle in many ways, specializing in sculpture as I am. In 1983 this statue and numerous other works traveled to The Metropolitan Museum of Art here in NYC for a special exhibition entitled The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and Art. The Pater and the Mater took me to see this show. It was my very first trip to an art museum, and I am almost positive that we went because it was my 13th birthday. I don't know why I would have known about the show, but I suspect the nuns in my school probably encouraged us to see it. I remember being completely overwhelmed by the beauty of the Met building, and I remember waiting on a long line to see the show. But in going through the rooms of Vatican art from ancient through modern periods, it was this statue that left its mark on me. One would think it might have been the Apollo Belvedere or some other magnificent ancient statue on display, but I suspect I may have been bashful about that work's provocative nudity. Instead, The Good Shepherd resonated with me as an adolescent, interested at that time in my Catholic faith, and from birth always instinctively interested in caring for animals. I simply loved how he carried over his shoulders his lamb as a pet with such genuine concern. He was a savior for both humans and animals.

Curiously, I've been to the Vatican Museums twice, and I cannot recall ever seeing this statue there. In looking up more information about it, I was surprised to discover that most of it is 18th-century restoration work, although his torso and upper body and head, and most of the lamb, are 3rd century. I didn't realize that it may have been part of a column or a segment from a high-relief sculpture either. And looking at the work now in reproduction, I cannot say that it is an exquisite work of art, certainly nowhere near as idealistically beautiful as the Apollo Belvedere. This just may be one of those moments where you can never return home again. But maybe that's okay. My memory of the statue and first encountering it led me on a path that has taken me to where I am today. It is my statue, fragmented and restored, misinterpreted and misunderstood. In short, it is human in its most natural, imperfect way.

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