'Madonna with child Jesus' by Inuit sculptor Tivi Ilisituk (1933-2012) is in the Vatican Museums. This work was gifted to Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.

Vatican’s Indigenous collection opened to Canadian delegation

By 
  • March 30, 2022

As members of all three Indigenous delegations in Rome to meet with Pope Francis toured the Anima Mundi collection at the Vatican Museums, there were mixed feelings. Some were in awe, while some wanted to know how these examples of Indigenous culture ended up half a world away from where they were made.

Provenance issues plague all museums around the world that hold Indigenous art and artifacts. The Vatican Museums are intensely interested in discovering more about what they have in their collections and how it got there.

Not every item is controversial. Though photography at the private display put on for members of the delegations was forbidden, The Catholic Register has obtained a cell phone photograph of a Madonna and Child Jesus statue by Quebec Inuit artist Tivi Ilisituk.

Ilisituk, one of the acknowledged masters of Inuit sculpture, was still alive when this sculpture was given to Pope Benedict XVI in Rome in 2006.

The Vatican Museums have thousands of Madonna and Child Jesus images — paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and more — in its vast collection, from cultures spanning the globe and from every century since Mary actually carried her baby through the dusty streets of Bethlehem.

Ilitsuk’s image was made from the light grey stone he found by the Kovik River, which empties into Hudson’s Bay just south of what most maps call the Northwest Passage. Just as Italian masters such Jacopo Bellini or Giotto di Bondone portrayed their Middle Eastern Jewish subjects as 14th- and 15th-century Italians, Ilitsuk has made the Mother of God a young Inuit woman and her babe an Inuit child.

Motherhood is universal. The incarnation of God is universal. Inuit culture is part of that same universe in ways that only the Inuit can be.

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