By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Although they have thousands of objects on display and even more in storage, the Vatican Museums trace their origin to one marble sculpture, purchased 500 years ago.

The sculpture of Laocoon, the priest who, according to Greek mythology, tried to convince the people of ancient Troy not to accept the "gift" of the Greeks' hollow horse, was discovered Jan. 14, 1506, in a vineyard near Rome's Basilica of St. Mary Major.

Pope Julius II sent Guiliano da Sangallo and Michelangelo Bonarroti, who were working at the Vatican, to check out the discovery. On their recommendation, the pope immediately purchased the sculpture from the vineyard owner.

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The pope put the sculpture of Laocoon and his sons in the grips of a sea serpent on public display at the Vatican exactly one month after its discovery.

U.S. Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka, president of the office governing Vatican City State, which includes the museums, marked the 500th anniversary of the museums by presiding over a Feb 14 press conference.

Over the course of the centuries, he said, the popes have collected important art and artifacts, "preserving them from oblivion and destruction and presenting them to successive generations."

"Artists of every epoch were called to express themselves and to reveal their vocations at the service of beauty and of faith," Cardinal Szoka said.

Each year the Vatican Museums allow 4 million people from every nation and faith to admire the work of human genius, much of it produced in praise of God, he said.

Cardinal Szoka was to celebrate a special Mass for the museums' employees Feb 17 in the Sistine Chapel, the centerpiece of most people's visit to the museums.

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The calendar of special events for the 500th anniversary celebrations also includes:

— The October opening of a new segment of the Roman Necropolis, an ancient burial ground that includes the site of the tomb of St. Peter under St. Peter's Basilica. The new segment, covering an area of almost 600 square yards, was discovered three years ago when the Vatican began excavations for an underground parking garage.

Francesco Buranelli, director of the Vatican Museums, said the new section includes about 30 burial chambers and about 70 individual tombs "where the visitor can immerse himself in an intact burial ground of imperial Rome." Many of the tombs, dating from the first century B.C. to the third century after Christ, are decorated with frescoes, mosaics and carvings, he said.

— The April unveiling of newly restored murals by Bernardino di Betto, better known as Pintoricchio, in the Borgia Apartments. While the project is ongoing, the murals depicting events from the lives of Christ and Mary will be revealed.

— The November opening of a special exhibit dedicated to the Laocoon sculpture, which Buranelli said had a major impact on artists from the moment of its discovery.

"The contortion of the limbs and the suffering on the faces of the poor Trojan priest and his two sons, entangled in the coils of the monstrous serpent sent by Athena and Poseidon, were the best interpretation of that ‘pathos' and that anatomical movement so central to artistic research" beginning in the 1500s, Buranelli said.

Although the statue has been the subject of repeated research, museum officials said its exact age still is not known.

"According to the most recent theories," a press release said, "the Vatican Laocoon could be an original from 40-30 B.C. or a Roman copy from the Tiberian era (A.D. 14-37) of a bronze original from the Hellenistic period." 


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