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Elizabeth Lev on two new exhibits in Rome, one at the Vatican Museums:

This first Christian Museum, containing more than 1,000 items, was displayed in exquisite custom-made walnut cabinets bearing the papal crest of Benedict XIV. Following the fashion of the times, the pieces were arranged by aesthetic criteria, with large objects grouped in one case and smaller ones in others without taking into account the provenance of the objects.

The reorganization of the museums started with the restoration of the antique wooden cabinets adding a lighting system to allow visitors to admire the fine detail on the smaller exhibits.

The most elaborate part of the renovation, however, was undertaken by the curators of the Christian Museum, Umberto Utro and Claudia Lega, who traced the origin of most of the pieces in the collection. The new Christian Museum organizes the works topographically, according to the catacombs where the objects were found.

While just a few steps from the Sistine Chapel, this collection boasts no grand paintings. Nor are there any of the timeless marble statues like those contained in other halls of the museum. But its objects have nonetheless a powerful voice. These artifacts, in the words of Vatican Museum’s director Francesco Buranelli, are "witnesses of conversion, of martyrdom and the interior private devotion" of the first community of Roman Christians.

Many of the objects are displayed still embedded in plaster. These little items were pressed into the wet cement that closed the resting places in the catacombs. Beautiful glass medallions containing gold-leaf portraits of St. Peter and St. Paul that would have glittered in the torchlight speak of the shining faith of the first Christians. An ivory game piece from the catacombs of Priscilla offers a touching glimpse of an early believer and his everyday pleasures.

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