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(CNS photo/courtesy of the Vatican Museums)

Michelangelo’s “Libyan Sibyl,” a pagan prophetess, is one of the figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

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Vatican invites women on journey to feminine beauty in sacred art
September 22nd, 2010
By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – What do Renaissance masters have to teach today’s women about feminine beauty? One Vatican official thinks quite a bit.

U.S. Father Mark Haydu, international director of the Vatican Museums’ Patrons of the Arts office, has invited mothers and daughters to attend a special pilgrimage to Italy.

He will open the doors to the museums’ artistic treasures and “provide the beauty of the arts,” he said, in an effort to reveal the Christian vision of femininity and how it has been depicted in paintings, frescoes, and statuary over the centuries.

Talks and discussions will be led by art historian Elizabeth Lev; U.S. radio host Teresa Tomeo of Ave Maria Radio; and Brenda Sharman, national director of Pure Fashion – an apostolate run by Regnum Christi members that encourages young women to live and dress with a Christian sense of dignity.

Titled “Feminine Beauty in the Arts,” the eight-day pilgrimage will journey to Rome, Siena and Nettuno Dec. 27-Jan. 3.

Father Haydu, a member of the Legionaries of Christ, told Catholic News Service that he came up with the idea because he wanted to help families have a deeper conversation about what makes a woman beautiful.

Female beauty is not revealed by skimpy, faddish fashions, but by an inner quality and “the way you carry yourself,” he said.

He said conversations between mothers and daughters about what is appropriate to wear in public may sometimes take place “in a heated moment” in front of a clothes rack at a mall or after the fact when a teen comes home with her purchases.

Father Haydu said he wanted to give mothers and daughters a chance to fix or pre-empt these problems by “creating a nice atmosphere” to discuss what real beauty is and how best to emulate it.

Lev, a professor of art history at the Rome campuses of Duquesne University and the University of St. Thomas, told CNS that women’s unique quality of feminine genius “has been depicted in Christian art for 2,000 years.”

In early Christian art, she said, women were often adorned with heavy cloaks or clothed like a queen “because we want to see them in a spiritual sense, not a physical sense,” and send the message, “Love me for my soul, not my body.”

With the Renaissance, Lev said, women in art are no longer shapeless forms; they become soft and beautiful “like 1940s movie stars, reclining and languid, exuding an atmosphere of delight and delectation.”

She said the change reflected “the natural recognition of the humanity of Christ,” which meant paying greater attention to the nurturing body of Mary, who bore the son of God.

“Then along comes Michelangelo’s startling and unconventional depiction of women in the Sistine Chapel,” she said.

In a style that lasted well until the 17th-century, Michelangelo turned women into heroes who command space and presence; they stand next to men and show they have an equally critical role to play in salvation, said Lev.

No more are women just reclining, passive figures who are just a showcase for jewelry and clothes, much like models in many fashion magazines today, she said. The women in Michelangelo’s world come in all shapes and sizes, young and old, she said.

“They’re all strong: strong in faith, strong in who they are and their vocation. That’s what beautiful is in Michelangelo’s world,” Lev said.

The pilgrimage’s tentative itinerary includes a general audience with the pope at the Vatican and a private visit to the Vatican Museums with guided tours of many of its artistic treasures. Guests will get an after-hours peek of the Sistine Chapel and Raphael Rooms before dining in the museums’ ancient statue gallery.

One day will be spent in Siena focusing on the life of St. Catherine of Siena, a 14th-century saint who is probably best known for persuading Pope Gregory XI to come back to Rome from exile in France. In her numerous letters to popes, cardinals, monks and priests, she was also very vocal in urging priests to reform and faithfully live their vocation at a time when church corruption was prevalent.

Mass will be celebrated most days, including at the site of St. Maria Goretti’s martyrdom in Nettuno. The 11-year-old Italian girl was repeatedly stabbed by a young neighbor after she refused his sexual advances. She died in the hospital the next day, July 6, 1902, after forgiving her attacker.

Father Haydu said he wanted to highlight the life of St. Maria Goretti because “we thought she was a good example for young women. She represents the heart of beauty as being found in one’s own personal integrity.”

She courageously protected her virtues and shows that real love is not about desire for external attractiveness, but entails respecting the other’s inner being and dignity, he said.

Today if a young woman wants to protect her integrity, he said, “a certain heroic virtue is involved.”

The U.S. priest said fathers and sons are also welcome to join the journey. The men will receive a special itinerary looking at Greek and Roman heroes and discuss fundamental human virtues like “what it takes to be a man of virtue and a real leader,” he said.

Lev, who is a mother to two teenage girls, said she hopes young women attending the pilgrimage learn to not be driven by powerful commercial and fashion industries “who do not want the well-being” of young people. She said she hopes to instill in young women a strong self-image and sense of who they really are.

She would also like families to see “how much the church loves and respects women.”

Most people only look at “the red flag of ordination” in which the priesthood is limited to men and, from that, erroneously conclude that the church is somehow incapable of appreciating women, she said.

She said sacred art shows that the church has long recognized the “really extraordinary beauty,” ability and heroism of women.

More information on the pilgrimage and how to reserve a place is posted online at:

From September 24, 2010 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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