Vatican: Obelisks back to Egypt?

Should the Vatican return looted artifacts? Debate ensued after Pope Francis’ trip to Canada. For German Vatican expert Ulrich Nersinger, the question is more complicated than it seems.

He said this in an interview with Radio Cologne Cathedral.


What are these cultural goods from the colonial countries that are owned by the Vatican? Is it a great treasure?

Nersinger: All this is located in the former Ethnological Missionary Museum. Today it is called the “Anima Mundi Ethnological Museum”. I think this is a very good name choice. There are well over 80,000 objects, of which only a small part can be permanently exhibited. The whole was created as a result of an action in 1925: Pope Pius XI. a so-called “Vatican World Exhibition”, a missionary exhibition, was organized. This took place in the Vatican Museums and Vatican Gardens. Hence, the Missionary Ethnological Museum in Lateran was established relatively quickly. This changed in the Vatican in the 1970s. And this is a unique exhibition that really brings us closer to the cultures of all nations of the world.

You can listen to the entire interview here

Do we know where and how these pieces ended up in the Vatican?

Nersinger: It will be very, very difficult to find out about the details. There are many gifts. Gifts made by tribes, foreign rulers of the Vatican, the Pope. Of course, you can’t figure out exactly where every single piece is coming from. I also do not want to rule out the possibility that there is something among them that did not come to the Vatican entirely legally.

Pius XI

Pius XI

Nevertheless, you say that the former Missionsetnologisches Museum sees itself primarily as a museum that wants to inform and illuminate the culture of other nations. Is it true?

Nersinger: There is a very nice example from 2014. This year, the Vatican Museum did a joint production with the Sharjah Emirate Museum in the Gulf, right in this small Gulf State. Ethnological works of art and objects are on display there. I find it very significant that the motto comes from the sura of the Koran. Sura asks why people are so different. The answer is: “So that they get to know each other better.” You can see that such an exhibition and presentation of such objects is something that connects people, something that helps to understand.

The return of illegally appropriated cultural property is now a dominant problem in Western museums that have ethnological exhibits. Is such a discussion also taking place in the Vatican?

Nersinger: We will probably consider what might be there. But overall it will be hard to do. There is no bad intention behind it. It is known that many gifts of various motives went to the Vatican. Consider this: when the pope was elected and the coronation took place, many rulers gave something. From live animals to cultural items.

Of course, it is also difficult to trace the origin or path of some objects for which it is not known how they got there. In all this, you always have to act in retrospect. You may not necessarily use our standards from 2022.

Santa Maria Maggiore

Santa Maria Maggiore

A specific example: Gilded wooden ceiling of the famous Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. It is decorated with the first gold that the Spanish crown brought from South America centuries ago. It was, of course, stolen gold.

Nersinger: Of course, the return is very difficult. The ceiling was given to the Holy Father by the then Queen Isabella of Castile. I am also afraid that the present Holy Father, whose favorite church is almost Santa Maria Maggiore, especially the painting of Our Lady on S.alus populi Romani over there, I don’t want to have much discussion about it.

If you were to be precise, Cologne would also have to return the bones of the Magi to Milan, where we stole them. How do you see it?

Nersinger: It also shows that in some areas a discussion can become absurd very quickly. Such items are of course non-returnable. There may also be political motives behind it that were even understandable at the time.

But let’s think about other things: we have a huge number of obelisks in Rome. Demolish the obelisks and go to Egypt? What to do with this? There are already many examples. I also warn you against constantly thinking: everything is stolen. For example, if we visit St. Paweł Outside the Walls, a huge fire broke out there in the 19th century. There you will find, for example, marble columns from Egypt. These columns are a gift from the then Viceroy Mehmet Ali to the Vatican. So you have to look at everything closely, look at the differentiation and not let everything fall into the zeitgeist debate and thus question everything that has grown up over centuries or millennia.

Artifact in the Anima Mundi section of the Vatican Museums

Artifact in the Anima Mundi section of the Vatican Museums

So you say come back, yes if the robbery is clear. Need to take a close look at everything else?

Nersinger: For some objects, it’s just plain clear: for example, if we have skulls. There used to be shrunken heads in the Vatican Museums. Of course, a refund or a refund is appropriate.

(domradio – sk)

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