The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and Art, which opens to the general public on Feb. 26 at the Metropolitan Museum here, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see some extraordinary art that normally can only be viewed in Rome.
The exhibition's 237 paintings, sculptures, textiles, works in metal, and other forms of art were drawn from the vast holdings of the Vatican Museums and the Apostolic Library, from St. Peter's Basilica and its Treasury and grottoes, and from the papal apartments.
These have been divided into five sections that trace the growth of the Vatican collections: ''The Popes and Old St. Peter's'' from Silvester I (314-335 ) to Julius II (1503-1513); ''Patronage and Collecting'' from Nicholas III (1277 -1280) to Alexander VII (1655-1667); ''The Creation of the Vatican Museums'' from Benedict XIV (1740-1758) to Pius VII (1800-1823); ''The Development of Museums'' under Gregory XVI (1831-1846) and Pius IX (1846-1878); and ''New Directions in Patronage and Collecting'' from Pius XI (1922-1939) to Paul VI ( 1963-1978).
The works range in date from Egyptian and classical antiquity to the 20th century, and include a few examples of religious art from non-Christian cultures.
Of particular interest, but looking somewhat lost among so many classical and Renaissance works, are a few contemporary pieces by, among others, Dix, Sutherland, Rouault, Shahn, and Matisse. Of these, only Rouault's ''The Holy Face'' seems at all comfortable in this setting.
There are some works in this show I would have flown across the country to see. Chief among them is Caravaggio's very great and art-historically important ''The Deposition,'' which was excellently restored last year - and is one of the high points of Western art. Following behind are Leonardo's oil study of ''Saint Jerome''; the 1st century BC marble fragment ''The Belvedere Torso''; Poussin's ''The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus''; Van Aelst's tapestry after a cartoon by Raphael, ''The Miraculous Draught of Fishes''; and Raphael's tiny ''Predela From the Oddi Alterpiece.''
I was also struck by Bernini's ''Bust of Pope Urban VIII,'' a pair of Egpytian granite lions, and Fra Angelico's ''Panels from the Perugia Triptych.''
But this list doesn't even begin to cover the wide selection of excellent and special art on view. There is something for almost everyone, and it's as beautifully displayed as one could wish.
It should be remembered, however, that this exhibition is as much about the Vatican collections as about art itself. Unfortunately, that is not the impression one receives from its publicity, and from its press coverage to date.
On the basis of what one reads, one would think this exhibition consists of nothing but towering masterpieces, and that anyone visiting it will see dozens of the very greatest masterworks of the past 2,000 or so years.
That simply isn't true. Magnificent as this exhibition is, it can only hint at what was produced during those years. There is nothing, for instance, by Michelangelo, and nothing really first-rate by any of the other great masters of the Renaissance - unless we accept Leonardo's study of ''Saint Jerome'' and Raphael's tiny panels and his tapestry cartoons as among their major works. The Caravaggio, true enough, is a very major piece, but I'm afraid it towers above all the other paintings. And besides, it's post-Renaissance.
While this range in quality and importance is particularly true of the Renaissance and the period following it, it is true of the other art epochs as well. In every instance, we find one or two major works, and a cluster of excellent but lesser pieces.
Now, this is no one's fault. This show was never intended to be an all-inclusive survey of the very greatest Western art, only a selective sampling of what the Vatican collections contain. Its beauty and importance result from its overallm high quality and stunning ensemble effect, rather than from the inclusion of one absolute masterpiece after another. And that is the way it should be viewed - regardless of what its publicity and press coverage might promise.
After its Metropolitan Museum closing on June 12, this important exhibition travels to The Art Institute of Chicago (July 23-Oct. 16) and then to the M. H. de Young Museum in San Francisco (Nov. 19-Feb. 19, 1984).
Tickets are required, and must be purchased in advance at TICKETRON outlets throughout the United States. There are no provisions for general groups. Visitors arriving as a group must enter the museum as individuals, having previously obtained tickets through TICKETRON. Words on big art shows
'd like to add a few words about blockbuster art shows. Valuable and important as they are, they tend to further the widespread misconception that works of art, especially those from great art-historical periods such as the Renaissance, are near-sacred objects before which the viewer should feel profound awe and even a touch of reverence.
Our museums, I'm afraid, do little to dispel this notion. If anything, they do all they can to glamorize the huge exhibitions within which such art is shown - and to create the impression that anyone failing to attend them is missing out on one of life's great events.
And yet, they cannot be blamed for trying to garner as much attention and support as possible. Blockbuster exhibitions are extraordinarily expensive, and without public, corporate, and governmental help would almost certainly never see the light of day. And neither can one blame the museums for the numerous viewings, receptions, and formal affairs that precede the public opening of such an exhibition. Patrons and contributing members of the museum deserve some form of thanks, and it's good publicity to have a formal ''opening'' with such luminaries as Nancy Reagan and Cardinal Cooke among the guests of honor, as was the case with the Vatican collections.
No, I think the problem lies in our confused attitude toward art itself. In our oddly superstitious feeling that virtue will somehow descend on us if we view great art with awe and reverence. And in our feeling that it is highly prestigious to be among the very first to see a blockbuster exhibition.
f it is ''virtuous'' to visit a great exhibition, it is even more so to view a famous traveling masterpiece. I'll never forget the rapt and devout expressions on the faces of those who filed past the ''Mona Lisa'' and Michelangelo's ''Pieta'' when those two works were shown in New York some years ago. And the same is true whenever the Metropolitan exhibits new multimillion-dollar acquisitions. The respectful hush that greets these works is most impressive, and would do credit to a house of worship.
Now, I wouldn't mind if this adulation of the great art of the past didn't interfere with our ability to respond to the very new. It's very difficult, after all, to appreciate the searching and often contradictory nature of emerging contemporary art if all we know about art is what we see labeled as great in our museums. We know that Raphael and Titian represent great art because we've been told so by experts - and because their works are displayed in the museums with all the trappings of sacred objects.
Wild and woolly contemporary art, however, is another matter. Why, we ask, doesn't it look like the great art we see in the Metropolitan? And why doesn't it give us the calm and serene feeling we have in front of a painting by Monet or Renoir? If art is what we see in a museum's old-master galleries, then what is this jumbled and wildly colorful mess we're looking at in a SoHo gallery?
It does no good to respond by pointing out that Monet's and Renoir's art was also considered a ''mess'' a century ago. That does not get to the heart of the problem. To accomplish that, we, and most particularly our museums, must do all we can to de-mythify art and to convince the public that art is not something to be held in awe. That it is, in fact, a language, the expression of highly talented individuals working to give form to their culture's realities and ideals. And that it is a living, breathing thing, not a static object to be hung on a wall and revered. But most of all, we must point out that artists of all ages have had a great deal in common. And that today's apparent ''mess'' may well be tomorrow's great classic art.