In a recent exhibit walk-through at the Toledo Museum of Art, Adam Levine could anticipate the question that his Catholic audience would ask beside a final piece:
What’s up with Paul?
The piece to which he had drawn the group’s attention was a tray, Silver Paten Depicting the Communion of the Apostles (547-50 A.D.), which he pointed out showed two images of Jesus distributing communion to two apostles; he identified one as Peter, the other Paul.
The sticking point, as he knew his audience would pick up on, is that the latter’s conversion to Christianity would not have taken place until after the crucifixion.
So the deputy director and curator of ancient art offered a preemptive explanation, describing theological, rather than historical, reasons for the chronologically questionable scene: “It was a very standard formula in early Christian art to show things that weren’t historically possible,” he told the group, “in order to make a theological point.”
Glorious Splendor: Treasures of Early Christian Art has been on display at the Toledo Museum of Art since November. In its nearly three-month run, which ends Feb. 18, it has drawn notable interest from local Christian communities, whose familiarity with the roots of their faith lends them a particular appreciation for the pieces and the story they tell.
Several churches have organized trips to the museum in recent weeks, including Monroe Street United Methodist Church, whose Worlds of Belief UnSunday School Class visited the exhibit in late January.
Trinity Episcopal Church, 316 Adams St., welcomes Mr. Levine for a free lecture at 1 p.m. Sunday, and Catholic Bishop Daniel Thomas co-leads a discussion on the exhibit with the curator at the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle, 2445 Monroe St., at 6 p.m. Feb. 15.
The latter event is likewise free and part of the museum’s masters series.
When Mr. Levine explained the symbolism of the paten late last month, his audience was the men and women of Legatus, a group of Catholic executives and leaders in their professions who see themselves as workplace ambassadors to their faith. Several members said they appreciated the exhibit, from a religious perspective as much as a historic or artistic one.
“I think it was awesome,” said Dale Seymour, who saw the exhibit for the first time with Legatus. “It causes you to reflect on your church and the symbolism that it created.”
Toledo boasts the Genesis chapter of Legatus, which was founded in Ann Arbor by Tom Monaghan of Domino’s Pizza in 1988. Mr. Monaghan’s chapter moved to Toledo in the ’90s and today counts more than 70 couples as members, positioning it among the largest chapters in the country.
The local group meets monthly. Its January outing began with a Mass at Historic St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and continued to the Toledo Museum of Art. There, members enjoyed a peek at the exhibit, a dinner at the GlasSalon, and a presentation on early Christian art by museum director Brian Kennedy.
Approximately 30 metal, stone, gold, and silver pieces make up the Glorious Splendor, which is displayed in Gallery 18, a relatively small area of the museum that is suited to relatively small pieces. As Mr. Levine explained to the business leaders and their spouses in January, the pieces collectively illustrate a shift from a pagan to a Christian society that began in the third century A.D. with Emperor Constantine’s deathbed conversion.
Artistically speaking, at least, it was a subtle shift. Glorious Splendor draws attention to the continuities in the methods, materials, and styles that artisans used before and after the emperor’s history-making conversion.
Anne Marie Blank also listened to Mr. Levine’s account of the exhibit with Legatus.
“It’s fascinating to me, to see how those objects were made in the third, fourth, fifth century, with the limited tools they must have had back then,” she said.
Ms. Blank, like Mr. Seymour, said she felt her familiarity with the history of Christianity helped her to understand and appreciate Mr. Levine’s commentary of several key pieces.
That’s especially true of the paten, which warranted perhaps the most involved explanation of any piece highlighted in the tour. In addition to its question-raising depiction of Paul, it also puzzles with a dual depiction of Jesus — two images, side by side, one distributing bread and one distributing wine.
There are several possible explanations as to why the artist would have portrayed Jesus this way, Mr. Levine told the group, including one that is a familiar concept to Christian audiences: The double image could underscore that Jesus’ nature as both human and divine.
Several Lutheran churches also engaged with the exhibit in recent weeks.
Pastor Tim Philabaum of Zoar Lutheran Church in Perrysburg and Pastor Chris Hanley of Glenwood Lutheran Church in Toledo gave a presentation on the time period over brunch at the HeART Gallery, at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, on Jan. 21. Thirty-six members of the three churches then headed to the museum for a tour of the exhibit and several Reformation-related works.
“Everyone really enjoyed it,” Kate Philabaum, of HeART Gallery, “especially after hearing the lecture because it gave you such a good historical background.”
Trinity Episcopal Church is looking forward to welcoming Mr. Levine on Sunday, and church and community members are encouraged to attend. Elizabeth Cousino, communications coordinator, said the presentation fits well with the church’s efforts to engage with the downtown community.
Ms. Cousino said it’s a particularly good fit for the church, which also hosts nonreligious events and performances through its Performing Artist Series.
Lynne Hamer, a coordinator for Worlds of Belief at Monroe Street United Methodist Church, said her group enjoyed exploring Glorious Splendor. It’s not the first time the alternative Sunday school class, which explores religion and spirituality through local resources, has engaged with the museum.
“We definitely see it as a great Toledo treasure,” she said, “and resource for understanding traditions and appreciating the ways people have expressed their beliefs.”
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