The Church Gives Contemporary Art Its Blessing

As the Vatican tries to build bridges between the Catholic Church and living artists, it also makes plans to exhibit new works.

Monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.


The hilltop Quirinal Palace, summer residence of the popes, overlooked a venerable but shabby fountain, so in 1629 Pope Urban VIII decided to do something about it. A prominent patron of the arts, he commissioned the elegant and perennially popular Trevi Fountain. By the time the fountain was completed in 1762 (more than 100 years after Urban VIII’s death), five eminent artists of the Baroque era—Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Nicola Salvi, Pietro da Cortona, Pietro Bracci, and Giuseppe Pannini—had contributed to its construction.

The new president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, the Monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi, plans to revive that sort of relationship between the Vatican and contemporary artists. “For a century now there has been a divorce between art and faith,” Ravasi, who is also a noted biblical scholar, teacher, writer, and TV commentator, told ARTnews. “The basic idea is to return to a dialogue on biblical and religious themes between the Church and the great artists of our time—artists such as Bill Viola, Anish Kapoor, and Jannis Kounellis.”

Ravasi, who was born in Merate, near Milan, in 1942, entered the priesthood in 1966. While teaching theology in Milan, he served as director of the Ambrosiana Library, a position he held until September of last year. Soon after being appointed the Vatican’s minister of culture last fall, he was suggesting a Vatican cultural presence not only at the Venice Biennale but at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and “an analogous presence in those places where the new artistic vocabulary is elaborated.” A popular lecturer on the New Testament, he has made many television appearances, as well as contributing to the cultural pages of the Italian financial daily Il sole 24 ore and such Catholic periodicals as Avvenire and Famiglia Cristiana. In July he began talks with Italian film director Ermanno Olmi for a proposed documentary on the life of Jesus, part of a RAI-TV series slated for this month.

The first showing of new Vatican contemporary artworks will likely be in Venice, concurrently with the 2009 Biennale. “Venice is a showcase for all the big countries in the world, and the Holy See would like to be there with them,” Ravasi said. “We are trying to get the best of international artists on our side, to create new works with a religious or spiritual theme.”

The Biennale has 30 permanent national pavilions. The Vatican would willingly have its own pavilion, but, as Ravasi explains, there is already a long waiting list for space. Nevertheless, the Vatican hopes to be present at other venues: a Venetian foundation has offered hospitality, and a number of Venetian churches also have suitable space, said Ravasi. “A British sponsor has offered to finance the costs of mounting our exhibition,” he says, speaking in his office a few steps from Saint Peter’s Basilica. “But we must work fast.” A committee of art historians and critics will suggest artists whose works will reflect the spiritual objectives of the Roman Catholic Church. Patrons willing to participate in upgrading and modernizing the art collection of the Vatican, or providing quality artworks for new churches, are being sought.

The Catholic Church’s patronage of the arts dates back to at least Callixtus I (219–222), who was responsible for the initial construction of the subsequently reworked church of Santa Maria in Trastevere; in the 12th century a pontiff commissioned a fine mosaic showing the Coronation of the Virgin for that church. The Vatican Museums were opened 500 years ago, and papal commissions during the Renaissance brought about such masterpieces as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes and Raphael’s tapestry series illustrating the history of the Church. But this was only one aspect of papal patronage, which extended to construction of aqueducts, roads, fine buildings, and libraries.

A number of factors led to a weakening of ties between artists and the Church. The unification of Italy in 1870 reduced Vatican possessions from a large swath across the peninsula to only 110 acres in the middle of Rome. As art trends gradually turned away from the figurative toward the abstract, many people, priests included, failed to keep up with changing tastes. “Today our problem is to get ordinary people to welcome this type of art,” Ravasi said. “We need to help them understand that art is part of the spirit.”

One major way in which contemporary art is making its presence felt in the Roman Catholic Church is through architecture. Catholic churches have recently been built by such renowned architects as Renzo Piano of Italy, Richard Meier of the United States, and Tadao Ando of Japan, and celebrated by parishioners as well as architecture critics. “The building of these churches and the pride the parishioners take in them show that we have a dialogue with the architects of modernity,” Ravasi says. But he also notes a problem: “Often the great Modern architects do not want interference with the purity of their buildings.”

This architectural purity can lead to churches whose spare, uncluttered appearance is at odds with the Roman Catholic Church’s reliance on religious symbols. When a church lacks a sufficient amount of those traditional Catholic symbols, the parish priests tend to take their own initiatives, with what, Ravasi says, are often indifferent results: “Church decoration became the province of craftsmen, not artists.”

Encouraging parishioners to be more welcoming toward contemporary art is not always simple. Ravasi told how he introduced segments of modern music into the Church liturgy on several occasions in Milan a few years ago. “The church was filled with young people,” he said. “It was a fine experience, but later I received letters of protest from older parishioners, some of whom considered the new music the devil’s work.”

Ravasi said that the key to parishioners’ acceptance of the new lies with the priests. “It has actually happened in a few of our very modern churches, which at first were not accepted by the parish but have become a point of pride.”

Reestablishing ties with current art and artists isn’t a totally new idea, however. During the 20th century several popes invoked a renewed commitment to modern art. In the 1960s Pope Paul VI, acknowledging that a “troubled friendship” existed between the Church and modern artists, worked to improve that relationship. The Vatican discreetly made a small number of acquisitions through a private gallery. These, together with numerous gifts, were exhibited in a special modern-art section inside the Vatican Museums in 1973. A number of the 700 works on view there today—which include Ben Shahn’s Third Allegory (1955), Georges Rouault’s Sainte Face (1946) and Carlo Carrí ’s Daughters of Lot(1940), as well as works by Matisse and de Chirico—are notable, but many more are of scant artistic interest. A proposed renovation of that collection would slate some of the lesser works for storage.

Pope John Paul II affirmed the enduring importance of art’s role in the Church in 1999 when he opened a special exhibition in the Vatican’s modern-art collection space. Lauding contributions by Giotto and Fra Angelico, by Dante and Manzoni, by Palestrina and Bach, the pope said that their paintings, writings, and music “opened the spirit to the mysterious fascination of the Transcendental, because in every authentic artistic expression there is present a mysterious and surprising spark of the Divine.” But he also acknowledged the importance of contemporary art, noting that “the Church cares in a special way and desires in our age that a new alliance with the artists can be achieved.”

Judith Harris is the author of Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery.

© 2019 ARTnews Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved. ARTnews® is registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

[add_to_cart item="107-09" showprice="no"]