Pope John Paul II in Life and Art at NOMA

Mar 12, 2013

As the Vatican is closing its doors today for cardinals to select a new pope, the New Orleans Museum of Art is opening a show that looks back at the legacy of Pope John Paul II. The exhibit features the art and artifacts of his time.

It was almost a year ago that New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond contacted Wendy Vitter about coordinating an exhibit devoted to Pope John Paul II. The show would highlight the pontiff’s visit to New Orleans 25 years ago. Vitter says it’s just a remarkable coincidence that the show is opening at a time when a new pope will be selected.

“The timing is amazing," she said, "and that’s why there’s no doubt in my mind that God has a hand in this, because no one could have predicted this timing.”

Vitter is the project director of the show, called “Portrait of Faith: John Paul II in Life and Art.” The idea began with Archbishop Aymond, in conjunction with the Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas and the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C. The New Orleans Museum of Art is the exhibit's host.

“Clearly New Orleans Museum of Art wanted the touchstone of the exhibit to be art and art-related," Vitter said. "From my very selfish point of view I want to see every single item associated with the pope’s visit — from the visors that volunteers wore to committee pins to every little thing. And our curator had to take all of those details and try to merge something together that would resonate with visitors.”

The art is evident immediately on entering the exhibit, with bronze sculptures by Gib Singleton. And they did connect with visitor Megan Lees, who traveled from Laurel, Mississippi, to attend the opening weekend.

“I think what’s really interesting is, you know, most of the time artists, when they do things, they inflict themselves on their work," Lees said. "And if you look at all his work his face is almost on every single piece so it’s kind of different. It’s kind of neat.”

Jim Orr lives in the New Orleans area, and came to the exhibit for a chance to see the papal appearance he missed 25 years ago — when his job didn’t allow him time off to see the pope in person. He says he was impressed by the art on display.

“It’s a smorgasbord for the eyes, really," Orr said. "The art and the religious artifacts are just overwhelming.”  

Marie Alvarez didn’t see the pope in person, either. But she still remembers the excitement.

“Oh it was like a Jazz Fest or a Mardi Gras. I mean it was big," Alvarez said. "Everywhere you turned somebody said ‘Are you going to see the pope? Are you going to see the pope?’ It was big. I hope the next pope does as well as this one did.”

The fine art on display includes acrylic resin crucifixes by Frederick Hart, and mixed-media canvas murals by Fred Villanueva. But not all displays are pure art; there are a few personal and lighthearted artifacts. There’s a John Paul talking action figure boasting 22 phrases. And there’s his life story — as told by Marvel Comics.

Vitter says it was a goal to have an accessible and ecumenical show. Some written comments from visitors are displayed on a glass wall of Post-it notes. One is from a Saints fan noting the pope’s visit coincided with the team’s first winning season ever (12-3).

John Boreen of Rockford, Illinois, saw the pope during his visit to St. Louis in 1999, so he wanted to see what a papal visit had been like in New Orleans.

“He was like a rock star before he came in to celebrate Mass," Boreen said. "That’s how you felt in his presence. So I can imagine that people that come to this exhibit will get that same sense of him, especially if they’ve seen him at the outdoor Masses — or you just see his face because he just had that charismatic look and a dynamism that was unbelievable. He was just a saintly man.”   

Carolyn Pate says came to the exhibit because — even though not a Catholic — she admired the pope as a spiritual leader.

“He just seemed so real," she said. "And toward the end of his life when he blessed the elderly as he was getting elderly, it just was such a real example of how Christ would have been.” 

The exhibit also includes some papal garments worn on some of his many international appearances. The exhibit runs through mid-June.