The Most Brilliant Art in the Vatican Museum

Vatican Museum

In the Vatican Museum, religious paintings you’ve seen in books all your life mix with modern religious depictions that have impressed some unknown cardinal. There, awe-inspiring classical statuary serves to remind you how much fuller Greco-Roman paganism was, in its expression of the divine, than Christianity – and of the depth of Christian debt to those gods, so deep that the Vatican museum literally means the house of the Muses at the Vatican. There, one can see booths selling expensive books and souvenirs to tourists, right there in the middle of the museum, as well as a commercial little eatery nested halfway through the journey and the costly, crowded Vatican cafeteria.

But this essay is not about any of that, which you can read about elsewhere. This is an essay about a striking series of postmodern pieces of art that you won’t find in any textbook – a series that deeply conveys religious meaning through delightfully modern iconography.

This series, entirely in yellow and black, is not grouped together in the museum. Rather, it is spread out, deconstructing the nature of an artistic series. This postmodern, deconstructive move is brilliantly wedded to the classic religious message: the fragmentation of placement lets the series repeatedly remind the viewer of its religious message.

The works are positioned oddly and unobtrusively: sometimes against the wall but in odd locations, not at all like the works around them; other times, on a metal stand, all but hidden off to the side. Thus does the series deconstruct how art is conventionally displayed in a museum, just as it has already deconstructed how a series ought to be displayed. This too may be seen to have a religious component, allowing the religious message to hide in plain sight, much like how we often take Christianity for granted in a postmodern society.

What’s more, the works are not even titled, nor labeled at all. It is as if these are not works of art, to be admired from a distance, but something meant, like the religious art in a cathedral, to interact directly with the viewer. The lack of labeling is not only brilliantly postmodern, suggesting the death of the artist, but also undeniably Christian, suggesting the artist’s personal humility and even that his powers come not from himself but from God.

While each artwork in the series is different, each looks like a street sign, like the trivial modern warnings for cars to yield and for people to avoid wet paint. By this, their religious message may travel directly into the minds of viewers, unconsciously. While this appropriation of modern iconography may make their message appear simplistic, in fact it only strengthens that message, making it more direct. And while simple, the message conveyed by these works is by no means simplistic or lacking in subtle implications.

Let us consider the first of three such works that I photographed from the museum. While this is not the first work in the series, as judged by the path a tourist walks through the museum, it is the most simple – and I have chosen to begin with it for that reason.

Vatican Museum Image #1

The work appears deceptively simplistic. In the style of a street sign, it warns the viewer against falling. Placed out of the way, unobtrusively and without attention drawn to it, the work doesn’t force itself upon the reader. It simply says: do not fall into sin; do not fall into Hell.

But there’s a great subtlety to the depiction. The man pictured is not simply falling in a void; he is tumbling on a staircase. This suggests that the road to Hell is paved, as it were, that the way to Hell is not as steep as we might suggest: it is not a plunge off a cliff but a step down a staircase. Perhaps we can read here a critique of the modern world: has it made the path into sin and damnation so easy that it has symbolically created a staircase? Perhaps, where we once had to fall into sin, now we simply have to descend in modern, easy fashion.

But if the road to Hell seems easy, the man falling hardly seems at peace. His arms flail, his feet kick: he is not descending a staircase at all, nor tripping on one. No, he is tumbling, realizing, in a moment of horror and only too late, that he chose the wrong path. For all the iconographic simplicity of his design, we can almost feel his pain. He is truly and forever lost.

The second example that I’ve chosen problematizes this depiction. It boldly rips the entire top portion off the work – making about a third of the work consist of a weird sort of negative space. One can see the remnants of the upper part of the sign where that part once was, and the overall effect is devastating.

Vatican Museum Image #2

The image itself, while similar, is not identical to the first. The man’s limbs appear thinner, as if emaciated – or even dead. In contrast, the black line around the border of the work appears much thicker, perhaps to draw added attention to the superficially defaced work. These changes do more than signal that these are not, in fact, mass-produced signs; rather, they signal that this work, with its apparent defacement, was explicitly crafted to create a whole new level of meaning in the series.

The removed top of the work suggests nothing more than an old work of art, faded or broken over the years. It is as if we are looking at a statue, imbedded in an ancient church, its head having long ago fallen off. This ancient effect is also achieved by the artistic changes: the thicker border and, more particularly, the cruder depiction of the figure, intentionally mostly ripped away, his identity defaced by and lost to the ages. He even looks dead, as if his body had decayed into little more than a thin skeleton. It is a devastating and frightening depiction, one that should not be lost due to our inability to observe.

It is probably the deepest work in the series. It tells us that the message of the series is an old one; indeed, an ancient one. It suggests that we will one day be married, defaced by the ages: our identity, like that of the man in the image, will one day be blotted out and forgotten. Sin does not guarantee a place in history; observe this man, who we cannot even identify even as he falls!

This false ancientness, recapitulating the decay that has befallen so many works of art through the ages, plays wonderfully with the intense modernity of the series. The work is at once intensely contemporary, even confrontational in its postmodern appropriation of street signs, and obviously ancient, defaced almost beyond recognition. No matter how current the series appears to be, this entry in the series reminds us that the message is, in fact, ancient – even if it has been defaced over the years.

But the false decay built into the work signals far more than the ancientness of the message conveyed by this very modern artwork. If the staircase represents modernity and the ease with which it guides us down below, the brilliant use of negative space suggests that the modern world wishes to deface, even to obliterate this religious message. As much as we understand the defacement as an integral part of the work itself, we are invited to think of a viewer, enraged with the message and his own imminent fall into Hell, ripping off the top of the artwork – just as so many religious works of art have been defaced. The modern world, at least in theory, is nothing if not iconoclastic, and this series is nothing if not iconic. We are reminded of iconoclasts throwing stones through stained glass windows, and we cannot help but think of the dismissiveness, if not open hostility, with which the contemporary world addresses such a simple message warning viewers against falling into sin and Hell.

But there is another, metatextual level to this work. Because it is apparently marred, it relies upon our knowledge of past works in the series. In truth, no man transgresses in this image; no man falls into Hell through sin. That image is obliterated, leaving only thin black lines, nearly indistinguishable from the staircase. We, as viewers, complete the image. We are, quite literally, culpable. In this effect, the work uses our familiarity with the series, and with Christian symbolism as a whole, to point out that we have already adopted the message, which with this work is within us and not within the work itself. The work plays brilliantly with our conscience: if we see a man falling, it is because we ourselves fear falling into sinful ways – because we ourselves fear falling into Hell.

The series is never stronger than in this point. Some, such as Scott McCloud, have argued that artistic descriptions become more universal, and identifiable to the reader, as they become more iconic, more simplified. Thus, we identify more with Charlie Brown than with a photograph of a specific human being, at a specific age, with a specific race, his history written upon his face and clothing. The iconic series plays with this to great effect. But in this installment, because we complete the image of the man falling, the fall is quite literally within us. It is us falling. It is us, with those dead little stick legs, his identity obliterated by age. For those viewers unwilling to read the iconic message against falling as a personal one, this work drives the personal dimension home with force.

In doing so, a whole secondary message is made implicit. After all, if we need to watch against falling into sin and eternal death, we also need to watch against leading others down that easy staircase. While we cannot help but identify with the person falling, we quite literally make the person we see in this image fall. We are implicated, and we reel back in horror when we see the results, grateful not to be the dead falling man but frightened that we might one day be that man – and that we might have led others to temptation and to such a horrific fall. In completing the defaced image, we have helped condemn a man to a catastrophic fate. In addition to avoiding such a fall ourselves, we must try never to do so again.

Vatican Museum Image #3The final image I wish to analyze is a diptych, playing off the dual visual structure of the altarpieces in so many medieval churches. By this artistic structure, this work again makes implicit the ancientness of its message, despite the shockingly modern medium reminiscent of street signs. The diptych also suggests the rich history of Catholic art, contextualizing the series and enhancing the power of the message.

The first part of the diptych is another familiar depiction of a man falling. Here, however, there is no border at all and the image is reversed. These changes again subtly remind the observant viewer that these are not mass-produced street signs at all, but rather unique works of postmodern art.

It is the second image of the diptych, utterly unique in the series, that is remarkable. It seems to depict a man contently walking down a similar staircase. Its shape is square, unlike the other triangular pieces, and its corners are hard rather than the rounded corners of the triangle.

We might be tempted to read this, if we knew nothing of the history of Christian imagery, as a positive depiction, telling us to walk carefully, if not contentedly, down into sin and Hell – rather than fall flailing. But there are several signs suggesting otherwise. First, there is a chip missing from the image, reminiscent of the third missing from the earlier work. This reminds us that the message of the second image is also ancient. It also recalls, by suggesting this ancientness, the long history of Christian art – in which such a happy message about sin and Hell would be impossible. More importantly, however, the second work is also cast in yellow, the international color for warning that is used in the previous works to suggest that same effect. Clearly, this too is a warning.

Cast in yellow to alert us, this image conveys that the road to Hell, which we have already seen depicted as an apparently easy staircase, may in fact feel easy. We may stride down it confidently, content that there will be no consequences for our sinful ways. But, to be sure, we are still descending to damnation. Do not look, the second image warns, merely for the horrific fall: by then, it is already too late.

Taken together, the two parts of the diptych offer two images of caution. The second image augments the more familiar one, almost annotating it, warning us not to think that we are safe while sinning merely because we are not flailing, merely because we cannot feel ourselves falling.

As a whole, the series is a powerful testament to the continuation of the Christian artistic tradition. Christianity, and particularly its conservative Catholic version, may seem less relevant today, its great artistic works with profound messages left to the past. This series, however, is vitally contemporary, broken up as a series, upsetting the typical museum display, minimalist in the style of much modern art, and appropriating the iconography of street signs in thoroughly postmodern fashion. But the message, as the series itself reminds us, is ancient. What’s amazing is how all of these postmodern elements do not clash with the ancient, Christian message but rather, again and again, enhance that message. The variation within the series is not simple permutation, such as a change in color, but rather additive to the message of the series – playing successfully with the long Western artistic tradition but also involving and implicating the viewer in complex metatextual and postmodern ways.

It is worth remembering that these are not the only contemporary works in the Vatican Museum. There are plenty of crucifixes and statues of Christ or Mary that are done in an Art Deco or even Cubist style. But in all those cases, however one admires the work, there is something unsuccessful in the wedding of ancient message with modern medium, as if old imagery is simply being recast in modern styles or, worse, as if that style actually works against the message, making it seem old and ridiculous. But the yellow sign series warning against falling weds the postmodern and the religious in new ways and to the enhancement of both.

While the Vatican Museum contains any number of important and powerful works, as well as perfectly good modern ones, none are as contemporarily relevant, nor as revolutionary today, as this brilliantly untitled series, hidden in plain sight.

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In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization, which publishes non-fiction and documentary films on comic books and promotes the medium as a legitimate form of art. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit. He currently lives in Illinois.

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Also by Julian Darius:

Dance until Dismembered




Watching People Burn


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