Flint native, Vatican museum expert to present on 'beauty' of restoring sacred art

A restoration expert touches up a painting in the Vatican Museums in this provided photo. On Nov. 27, the Flint Institute of Arts will sponsor a talk by Fr. Kevin Lixey, a Flint native and international director of the Patron of the Arts in the Vatican Museum, titled "Unveiling Ancient Beauty: The Hidden Art of Restoration in the Vatican Museums." (Photos courtesy of Flint Institute of Arts)

FLINT — John Hale has always been fascinated by the link between art and religion and its power to move people.

“In this era all forms of art, whether visual or musical, are an opportunity for the expression of beauty that points to God,” said Hale, co-chair of the Michigan Chapter of the Patron of the Arts in the Vatican Museums. “It is a means of communicating the love of God.”

Hale, a Northville resident, said members of his organization plan to attend the lecture “Unveiling Ancient Beauty: The Hidden Art of Restoration in the Vatican Museums” next week at the Flint Institute of Arts. The lecturer is Flint native Fr. Kevin Lixey, the international director of the Patron of the Arts in the Vatican Museum in Rome. His free lecture will take place Tuesday, Nov. 27, at 6 p.m.

Fr. Lixey, who is coming from the Vatican to visit his hometown of Flint, plans to talk about the inside view of art restoration taking place at the six Vatican museum conservation laboratories. He will present "before" and "after" images of restored works and talk about the biotechnologies being used in the restoration process.

"Few of the 6 million people per year who visit the Vatican Museum know that (it) is one of the key restoration museums in the world," Fr. Lixey said in an email interview with Detroit Catholic

Fr. Lixey said he is inspired by the "incredible collection of the patrimony not only of the Church but of humanity" housed at the Vatican Museums, from the days of Pope Julius II to the present day.

"Unlike many other museums, visitors get to see many of these works in the very way the artist intended them: as wall and ceiling catechetical lessons as well as masterpiece decor for papal chambers and avant-garde Renaissance architecture," Fr. Lixey said. 

Seeing the care with which such masterpieces are handled is equally inspiring to Fr. Lixey, who traces his roots to summer art classes at the FIA while a high school freshman at Flint Powers Catholic High School.

"I personally find the process of restoration almost as fascinating as the beauty of the art itself that is being restored," he said. 

Fr. Kevin Lixey, a Flint native and international director of the Patron of the Arts in the Vatican Museum, is pictured.
Expert restorers work in the conservation laboratory for ethnological materials at the Vatican Museums. Many of the 100,000 artifacts sent to the Vatican via missionaries over the centuries are made of delicate materials such as ostrich plumes, leather and glass beads. For their conservation, the Vatican has a 15-member staff of expert restorers in its state-of-the-art conservation laboratory. (CNS/courtesy Vatican Museums)

The process of restoring such priceless art is a serious one. Currently the volunteer, nonprofit Michigan chapter of the Patron of the Arts, one of only 25 chapters worldwide, is in the process of restoring a 16th century tapestry “The Blinding of Elymas” by artist Raphael. It is a is a seven-year process and is expected to be completed by 2020. Michigan members of the Patron of the Arts pay an annual fee that directly funds restoration projects at the Vatican. 

Members also attend local events and every other year take a trip to the Vatican.
Janice Henry, parishioner at St. Matthew in Flint, was instrumental in asking Fr. Lixey to take part in the series. She and her husband, FIA executive director John Henry, meet with Fr. Lixey in Rome last month and got an private inside view of the conservation labs.

“We were particularly intrigued that the person holding that position, which is a rather vaulted position within the Vatican bureaucracy, was a native son that was a graduate of (Flint) Powers Catholic High School,” Henry said.

Also close to Henry's heart is the topic Fr. Lixey will address: the precious artwork at the Vatican.

“These are treasures from all over the world that inform us about the history of our civilization and the history of our faith,” Henry said. “We have this rich heritage. It is our world history. It is very Catholic — very universal.”

Though Henry and her husband didn’t visit with Fr. Lixey with the intention of inviting him as a guest lecturer, she was elated when the priest agreed to speak back in his hometown while he is visiting with relatives.

The FIA staff is also looking forward to the event, which is expected to draw crowds from all over Metro Detroit and Flint. The institute is estimating as many at 350 guests, more than double the average, said communications director Chene Koppitz.

“We want to bring visual arts to people in our community in a tangible way,” Koppitz said.

Fr. Lixey’s lecture is nice intersection of the visual arts and religion, which is the goal of the FIA’s Sheppy Dog Fund lecture series, which was started to address topics of art, religion and history prior to the 19th century.

The series is funded by pediatric dentist Dr. Alan Klein, and named in tribute to Klein’s childhood companion, his dog Sheppy. A handful of lectures are offered each year.

Klein’s interest in bringing the series to Flint area was sparked as he traveled throughout Europe on vacation. He found himself drawn to the intersection of art, religion, history and literature – subjects in which he had never previously shown interest.

He was particularly awed by his visit to the Vatican, where he saw art as well as a repository of historical letters and books, including a letter from Marie Antoinette to the pope or works talking about the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.

“When I returned to Flint, I realized there is nothing in the community that offered the subjects I was now interested in,” Klein said. 

Since its inception 8 years ago, the FIA has hosted more than 15 lectures.

Through his work at the Vatican, Fr. Lixey hasn't had the opportunity to return often to his hometown, which he acknowledges has been hit hard in recent years. 

"Unfortunately, Flint is known for its water crisis and not much more," Fr. Lixey said. "I know this has been terrible and my heart goes out to all those who have been affected by this.

"Once a reporter asked Pope Francis, 'Holy Father, if you love the poor, why don't you sell the Vatican art collection and solve world poverty?'" Fr. Lixey added. "His response was, 'Even the poor have need of beauty!' Our world is in need of beauty that elevates and uplifts the human spirit. Hopefully, the FIA can help Flint in this way."