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Thursday, 16 November 2006 


Your Eminences,
Your Excellency, President of the Governorate of Vatican City State,
Your Excellencies,
Mr Director of the Vatican Museums,
Distinguished Authorities,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to offer my heartfelt thanks to those who have courteously invited me to be present here this evening at the inauguration of the exhibition entitled "The Laocoon:  to the origins of the Vatican Museums".

The exhibition focuses on the first and most important sculpture kept in the Vatican, which, as Dr Francesco Buranelli, Director of the Museums, has recalled, through the gradual and articulated development of the collection, gave rise to one of the world's best known and most prestigious museum complexes.

This exhibition, of great artistic value, is one of the events commemorating the fifth centenary of the Vatican Museums.

I would like first of all to express the gratitude of the Holy Father to those who prepared and executed every detail of this exhibition, and at the same time I would like to interpret his sentiments of gratitude to all those who, in their various capacities, are dedicated to safeguarding and preserving the works of art displayed here for the admiration of several thousands of pilgrims and tourists every day.

Especially in recent years, one can note the increasing number of visitors, and the masterpieces preserved in the Vatican Museums are ever more frequently requested for exhibitions in all parts of the world.

Because of the historical value of the sculptural group of the Laocoon, connected to the foundation of the Vatican Museums, the exhibition we are inaugurating this evening acquires special significance. It enables us to emphasize the value of the language of beauty, which speaks to man's intelligence and heart and at the same time in order to highlight the importance of art in the dissemination of the Gospel message.

So it was that everything started with the discovery of the Laocoon. Five hundred years ago, on 14 January 1506, four months before building began on the present-day St Peter's Basilica during the Pontificate of Julius II della Rovere, this masterpiece by the three Rhodian sculptors, Agesander, Polydorus and Athenodorus, was discovered in Rome on the Oppian Hill near the Baths of Titus.

Barely a month later, at the decision of Pope Julius II, the group statue found its way to the Vatican. Thus, the first nucleus of the Pontifical Collections was formed, later to become today's Vatican Museums.

This evening is a particularly favourable opportunity to pay homage to the love of art shown by the Pontiffs and to recognize that it is precisely thanks to their providential initiatives that we possess today an artistic heritage of indescribable value, which is available not only to the Catholic world but to the whole of humanity.

May I now be permitted to reflect briefly on this magnificent statue, the Laocoon, which has been recalled, written about, illustrated and represented in a splendid and fascinating way as the sacrifice of the Trojan priest Laocoon and his three sons, poisoned by two monstrous serpents sent by the implacable Athena, the divinity hostile to the Trojan people. Virgil, in the second book of the Aeneid, recounts that the drama took place on the shore of Troy, besieged and conquered by the Greeks.

The death of the priest, Laocoon, which marked the beginning of the fall of Troy, also gave rise to the providential sequence of events that later led to the birth of Rome. In the myth of Laocoon, represented in this sculptural group, the drama of the pain, deceit and sacrifice of life and of death is once again portrayed.

These themes, which recur frequently in the poems and in the tragic events of pagan mythology, were later to find a meaningful response in Christ and his Gospel of salvation. In the great tradition of the Church, suffering and death are in fact illuminated by the mystery of the death and Resurrection of Christ, Redeemer of humanity and Lord of the universe.

We learn a useful lesson from the myth of Laocoon, from the drama of his fate: that suffering and death find meaning in the providential design of history, guided by the hands and heart of God.

I would like to add a last consideration on the role that art can play at the service of catechesis and evangelization. The rich collection of the works on display here in the Vatican Museums offers us an idea for a fuller understanding of the value of the language of art in the area of faith.

Beauty, the product of human genius, is a reflection of the supreme Beauty that is God. Love of Beauty can then become desire for Good, a desire for God.

According to Nicolas Kabasilas, a Byzantine theologian who lived in the 14th century, beauty's task is "to produce a wound" and to deeply affect the human heart so that God, Source of all beauty, might leave traces of his passing in it.

And Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, in a Conference at the Rimini Meeting in 2002, said that "true knowledge is being struck by the dart of Beauty which injures man, being touched by reality, by the personal presence of Christ himself. This is why the Church has always believed in the language of art and has invested in art itself with foresight and multiple energies, as is strikingly visible here at the Vatican Museums".

Today too, the great service that art can offer to contemporary man is to help him turn his gaze to what transcends his condition and offers him the fullness of life. St Bonaventure said in the Legenda Maior that St Francis "contemplated the Most Beautiful One in beautiful things".

May we also be granted, and this is my hope, that through our admiration of these works of art we may be led to the encounter with God, the supreme Beauty who saves the world.