Lost Vatican manuscripts go on display in Dallas

DALLAS Fri Jan 21, 2011 2:14pm EST

A crucifixion scene from a late 15th century Vatican manuscript that is among those rescued from Napoleon's armies and rediscovered in the late 1990s is seen in this photograph released to Reuters on January 21, 2011. REUTERS/Meadows Museum/Handout

A crucifixion scene from a late 15th century Vatican manuscript that is among those rescued from Napoleon's armies and rediscovered in the late 1990s is seen in this photograph released to Reuters on January 21, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Meadows Museum/Handout

DALLAS (Reuters Life!) - Rare, lavishly-illustrated manuscripts from the Sistine Chapel that were rescued from Napoleon's army, only to fall under the radar screen of art history for two centuries, go on display in Dallas on Sunday.

The exhibit at Southern Methodist University's Meadows Museum, which will run until April 23, is the only chance for the U.S. public to see the stunning, hand-made codices or manuscripts.

"The Lost Manuscripts from the Sistine Chapel: An Epic Journey from Rome to Toledo" features 40 codices that range in date from the 11th to the 18th century.

"These were in the Sacristy of the Sistine Chapel so these were the most private books read by the popes and cardinals at very special ceremonies. There are some codices here that Michelangelo would have heard or read from," said Meadows director Mark Roglan.

"All of them are one of a kind ... and done by hand. It is an art," he said as he pointed to some of the precious books, encased in glass.

Aside from their artistic value, the writings in the codices are liturgical treasure troves which include blessings, missals and preparations for masses.

Their journey to Dallas has been improbable.

They were looted at the end of the 18th century from the Vatican by Napoleon's rampaging armies and many were sliced and diced and sold in fragments.

But the heroic efforts of the Archbishop of Toledo enabled many of them to be rescued, though over the years they were largely forgotten.

Their "rediscovery" occurred in 1997 when art historian Elena De Laurentiis, of the University of Genoa, stumbled upon a photograph of one of the codices in an archive and recognized its significance.

"It was a moment of great surprise," she said in a brief interview at the Meadows Museum. She is also one of the exhibit's curators.

The manuscripts are indeed eye-catching, with their elegant hand-written script, stunning images and beautiful bindings.

One arresting and colorful illustration from the late 15th century in ink, pigment and gold on vellum or mammal skin depicts the crucifixion, a common motif.

Others are multifaceted with angels, decorative coats of arms and personal emblems.