The Vatican is as fascinating for conspiracy theorists as it is for the Catholic believers. The statues of deities from all sorts of beliefs, which early Christians would have regarded as idols, are now displayed in numerous chambers of the Vatican Palace. The Greek and Roman mythology is best represented, including a hall reuniting much of the ancient pantheon, but the Egyptian art also has a distinct section inside the museum, and Babylonian and other cults are also on display.
For art lovers, these antiquities have long lost their religious significance and are admired solely for the artistic skills of those who made them. For those who accuse the Catholic Church of being part of a giant conspiracy, the occult symbols that are spread allover the place are a proof that the Holy See is holder of a secret doctrine, that is a source of knowledge and power.
The most popular of these conspiracy theories talks about the integration of ancient Greco-Roman beliefs into Christianity. Especially, it is suggested that the solar cult was accommodated with artistic representations of Biblical characters. For example, Apollo, the solar god of the Greeks and Romans, has several statues, including a giant one in the courtyard of the palace, which was used by Michelangelo for the physiognomy of Jesus in the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Those who reject this theory simply point out that Apollo was viewed as an ideal of male harmony, so was natural for the Florentine artist to use it as a model. The worship of the sun was also part of a complex system of beliefs originating in the Middle East, where astrology was developed. And astrological symbols are present as symbols of the wisdom of the Designer of the universe, though the legends of the mythological characters associated with planets and constellations are no longer considered as serious during the Christian age.

After Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire, and soon became a state religion, during an age that coincided with great migrations, many tribal pagan beliefs had to be reconciled with the new monotheistic faith. In some parts of the continent, this was done by the abundance of imagination used in the stories that told the lives of saints and their miraculous acts. But overall, the transition from polytheism to monotheism was done in a miraculous short time and apparently no survivors of the worshipers of the Greek and Roman pantheon. Some assume this capital of knowledge was transfered into inoffensive art, or in witchcraft and superstitions.
Another conspiracy theory goes a step forward and accuse the heads of the Catholic Church of being part of an even greater plot, which included secret societies like the free masons or the knights templars. The enemies of all these organizations accuse them of secretly worshiping the Devil, or at least some ancient Mesopotamian gods. According to this wild theory, an esoteric knowledge was in the hands of ancient paganism, in Egypt, Persia, Babylon and other places, and was transmitted through underground networks in an apparently Christianized world. From time to time, this type of mysticism would resurface, ever enriched with the speculations of the gnostic cults in Antiquity, rediscovered by the crusaders, who traveled to the Middle East and created their own secret societies, than revamped by the Jewish Kabbalah in the Middle Ages, to emerge in the melting pot of the New Age, in our days. Since mystery itself was the engine of these societies, it will be impossible to know for a fact what their real doctrine was, so we remain in the realm of supposition. The free-masons, for instance maintain that their order is just a means of self-improvement, which is not incompatible with Christianity. Turning to antique wisdom would only enhance the spiritual life of a Christian, some say, with beliefs in reincarnation or astrology. Others, point out that through esoteric brotherhoods paganism was carried on, together with the cult of oriental idols like Baal. The most vehement adversaries of any form of hidden knowledge claim that all these secret societies, sometimes in alliance with the Vatican, are in fact adversaries of the Christian God. Indeed, some occultists interpreted the Bible in a bizarre way, maintaining that man is capable of becoming himself a god, but was denied some essential information for his development, by a jealous Creator; thus Lucifer is viewed as someone who tried to enlighten mankind with his rebellion. Of course, Christians regard such fantasies as absurd, because the Devil is simply a deceiver, who acts through many idols and false gods, to make humans lose the distinction between good and evil, for illusory promises.
The variety itself of these theories (of which we’ve noted only a few) speaks of the power that ancient artifacts still have over our imagination. With or without hidden meanings, these beautiful works of art continue to impress the viewer after thousands of years. Here are some of the most admired gods and heroes represented in the sculptures collection of the Vatican Museum:

Zeus was the patriarch of Greek gods dwelling on Mount Olympus. Though Zeus was the god of heavens and fathered most of the gods and heroes in the pantheon, it was different than the monotheistic view of an omnipotent creator of the universe, inherited from Jewish religion in Christianity and Islam. Zeus himself was a son of Cronus, a fallen deity associated with Saturn. In astrology, Zeus has the equivalent name from Roman religion, Jupiter.
Zeus had some of the most impressive representation in antiquity, including the giant statue made by Phidias, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. In the Vatican Museum, there is a representation known as Zeus Orticoli, after the place near Rome where it was unearthed. The bust impresses through the painstaking reproduction of strands of hair and of the beard.

Apollo was the sun-god, with numerous equivalents in various religions that venerated the sun. Apollo had the same name in the Roman world and was considered a healer and patron of arts like music and poetry. Apollo was one of the numerous illegitimate sons of Zeus, and Artemis (Diana) was his twin sister. He was bisexual, with numerous female and some male lovers. In one of the two interior courtyards of the Belvedere Palace, known as Cortile della Pigna, there is a giant head of Apollo, masterfully crafted.

Pallas Athena was the goddess of wisdom, who helped those fighting in a just war. For Greeks and Romans (who called her Minerva) was providing courage and strength. The most famous temple of the ancient world, the Parthenon, on the Acropolis was dedicated to her, in the city that bear her name, Athens. In the statue at the Vatican she is depicted as usual, with her warrior helmet. It is one of the rare statues on which some paint is still preserved, coloring the eyes, as many antique statues used to be painted or adorned with precious stones. The virgin Athena gained the patronage of Athens by offering the locals the first olive tree. As Athena is associated with democracy and republic, as rational forms of organizing society, a large statue of her is also found in front of the Parliament of Vienna.

Venus (Aphrodite) is the renowned goddess of love and beauty. She was picked up by Paris as the fairest of the goddesses in Iliad. The legend of her birth might be shocking to a modern bashful audience, since she appeared from the foam of the cut pennis of Uranus, who’s organ was thrown into the see by Cronus. In Egyptian legends, Osiris is also cut to pieces, and the phallus is the only missing part when Isis recomposes the body. Some believe that obelisks might have exactly that phallic meaning. With time, probably due to the Christian influence, the public taste evolved and eliminated sexual innuendos from religious allegories and representations. In Italian, Venus is called Venere, and so are known many of her statues in the Italic peninsula, who came to stand for an innocent, unspoiled ideal of feminine beauty. Like Athena and other gods, Aphrodite is also born as an adult is miraculous circumstances. Due to her charms, attracting many of the Olympians, Zeus decided to marry Aphrodite to Hephaestus. With the god of fire and metalwork, she had an unhappy marriage, spiced by constant affairs with more attractive gods and mortals.

Demeter, called Ceres by the Romans, was the goddess of agriculture. Her cult was supposed to ensure good harvests for the ancients. Though she was mother of many gods and protecting earth and crops, she was distinct from Gaia, the primordial “Mother Earth”, from who’s union with Ouranos, the sky, all godly creatures emerged. A similar deity came from Middle East to Greece, in the person of Cybele, who took traits of both Gaia and Demeter. The cult of Demeter was not limited to a superstition of an agrarian population that depended on annual harvest. She was in the center on one of the oldest religious systems, that preceded the Olympian universe of classical Greece. The Mysteries of Eleusis were an initiating religion that involved popular ceremonies and secret rituals that remained a mystery to this day. In its main legend, Demeter brought drought and famine as a punishment for the kidnap of her daughter, Persephone, into the underworld. Zeus was convinced to intervene after this caused a human disaster and a cease of the offerings to the gods. It was a complex journey of descent, rebirth and promise of an afterlife of which only the initiates knew. It was obviously linked to the changing seasons and maybe enhanced with an astrological understanding of the life and universe. Though today Demeter is not viewed as an important deity of the Greeks, the Vatican rightly included it among the statues in one of its exhibit halls, that mimics the Pantheon in Rome.

Dionysus, or Bacchus, after his Roman name, was also a deity who was celebrated by both public festivities and esoteric initiations. Not surprising for a deity of the vineyard, the festivals of Dionysus were characterized by excess of wine. The drunkenness was accompanied by a state of ecstasy induced by music, dances and sensuality. The collective enthusiasm was a path to philosophical discoveries, as Plato suggests, in which theatric performances were used to communicate occult concepts. This young and attractive effeminate male is associated with a grape and mythological animals like the bull. In Rome, Bacchus was celebrated by Bacchanalia, a wild nocturnal ceremony at which only women were allowed, which involved sexual orgies, killing of a wild animal with bare hands and consuming its raw flash in a state of frenzy. The rite went underground after it was banned for the crimes committed with its occasion.

Cupid / Eros was a full fledge deity, honored as the most important of the entire Pantheon in some minor Greek cities (Thespiae) and whose altars received sacrifices even in Athens. Some believed he was a primordial god, without parents, while others thought he was a son of Aphrodite. Initially, Eros was presented as an adult male with wings, but his imagery turned to a child winged figure, with which the Roman Cupid became very popular in Renaissance and especially Baroque painting and decorations. This image of a chubby child with bow and arrow, aiming at those who were to fall in love became known worldwide in popular culture.

Hercules / Heracles has the only statue made of bronze in the Vatican pantheon, distinguishable also by the club he is holding. With his proverbial strength, Hercules managed to complete the twelve labours, which included killing or capturing various mythological beasts or obtaining special objects, like the golden apples. Hercules was made immortal after accomplishing these tasks.

Osiris was the Egyptian male god of the afterlife, central to the most important myth of that ancient religion. Egyptian and oriental beliefs are more present in modern occultism than the Greco-Roman pantheon, which has been in a way “domesticated” and secularized in European culture. The myth of Osiris, like any other oral tradition, knows lots of variations and is a story which sounds shocking and far fetched to modern ears, involving incest, intercourse with the dead and sorcery. The main characters are two brothers and a sister. Set, the epitome of evil, murders his brother, Osiris, to take his throne. The chopped body is found by his sister, Isis, except for the phallic part, which was probably represented by the obelisk. Using spells, Isis brings back to life Osiris only for a brief time, enough to conceive a child with him, Horus, the ever rising sun god. The entire mythology connected with Osiris and Horus was meant to transmit the idea of resurrection and the belief in an afterlife, crucial to Egyptians, who went at great lengths for preserving the body, as well as the belief in magical intervention in current life.

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