A visitor looks at an artwork during an exhibition of delicate works on paper at the Vatican on December 11, 2019. (REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane)
They could be called the Vatican's vampire prints - works by masters such as Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch and Salvador Dali so delicate that they usually lie dormant for years in dark storage in its museums.
Now, 150 etchings, woodcuts, aquatints, lithographs and other types of 20th century graphic art are being shown in the light of day - many for the first time - at the Braccio Carlo Magno exhibition hall off St. Peter's Square.
Called "The Signs of the Sacred - The Imprints of the Real", the show is a mix of works on spiritual themes, modern interpretations of biblical scenes, still lifes, nature scenes and pieces reflecting everyday life, war and maternity.
"They definitely don't love the light," said Francesca Boschetti, the exhibition's curator, explaining they can be shown only for a brief period to avoid fading and deterioration.
They are emerging from what Micol Forti, head of the Vatican Museums' department of modern and contemporary art, calls a "hidden and secret life, spent in the darkness of cabinets and vaults".
Some of the artists whose works are on display, such as Edvard Munch, most famous for "The Scream", lived bohemian and at times hedonistic lifestyles and were not known to be religious.
But they were attracted by spiritual themes and Munch's "Old Man Praying", a 1902 woodcut on Japanese rice paper, is one example.
"In times of personal travails or great social upheaval such as during and between the two world wars, even artists who did not normally do religious themes turned to them as a metaphor for suffering and violence," Boschetti said.
The exhibition includes Dali's "Christ of Gala" a stereoscopic suite of two lithographs, which the surrealist intended to give a three dimensional effect when viewed together.
The exhibition, which is free of charge, closes at the end of February, when the works will be returned to dark storage with temperature and humidity controls.
The 150 works, which also include pieces by Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, and Marc Chagall, hail from the Vatican Museums' contemporary arts collection.
Many were donated, some by the artists themselves, to Pope Paul VI, who reigned from 1963 to 1978. Unlike some of his predecessors, Pope Paul appreciated modern art and founded a collection entirely dedicated to 20th century works.
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