The Vatican was once the world’s most awesome patron of contemporary artists. But two centuries ago, the Church turned away from modernism, retreating to the safer grounds of Michelangelo and Botticelli. Now things look ripe for change. Last month, the Vatican unveiled its first-ever contemporary art pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale. Three modern artists were commissioned to design works around a spiritual theme; their designs were not approved by Church officials, and the artists did not have to be Christian. (One was raised Catholic.) Biennale president Paolo Baratta dubbed the exhibit (which cost some $1 million to mount) “an act of courage.”
Mere decades ago, the Vatican’s move away from modern art was as deliberate as its early patronage had been. The Catholic Church from Byzantine times to the Renaissance had seen paintings as Bibles for the illiterate. But the Protestant Reformation interrupted all that. New Protestant branches purged their churches of religious iconography, inspiring an era of hostility to the painted, sketched and sculpted word. By the 20th century, Vatican animus was inspired less by theological unease or internecine strife, and more by the radical art itself. In 1907, a Papal Encyclical condemned “modernism” and the “modernist.” Suffice it to say the Vatican did not acquire a taste for the abstract and conceptual art of the 1960s.
Then, signs of a shift. First came stirrings from the Vatican Museums, whose director announced in 2006 that he “would very much like to have a Picasso.” In 2009, the often-reactionary Pope Benedict XVI issued a message to pontifical academies, speaking of “the urgent need for a renewed dialogue between aesthetics and ethics.” Most recently, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, lamented that while new churches continue to be built by respected architects, “inside these churches, there isn’t a dialogue with contemporary artists. There is only folk art.”
This year, the Vatican bows to an artistic habitat that has, in part, been shaped by Christianity’s absence. At the Biennale the Holy See asked its three artists to muse on the themes of “creation,” “uncreation” and “recreation,” with the Book of Genesis as a guide. The Milan art collective Studio Azzurro, assigned to contemplate “creation,” made a powerful interactive video depicting prison inmates and deaf mutes who respond to the movements of visitors. There were a few rude gestures, but the Biennele’s Baratta told Maclean’s “things went better than expected” at the exhibit.
Not all Vatican officials will extend the embrace. In 2007, German artist Gerhard Richter was denounced by Cardinal Joachim Meisner after unveiling his stained-glass window in the Cologne Cathedral. It consisted of coloured squares whose placement was randomly generated by a computer—a nod to the apparent chaos of God’s work. “It belongs in a mosque,” the cardinal scoffed.
The question of mastery still looms. Vatican officials speak of a spirituality that can inform artistic creation. In 1999, Pope John Paul II issued his “letter to artists,” which described modern artists as great bearers of religiosity. “No one can sense more deeply than you artists something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hand,” he wrote. But what of a Church that is, in turn, moved by new art? In the book God in the Gallery, art historian Daniel Siedell urged theologians to develop “a fuller and more nuanced” grasp of modern art—and to engage with it on an aesthetic level. Siedell told Maclean’s he regards the Vatican’s recent activity with some wariness. “You have a lot of talk about ‘the good and the true and the beautiful’—a lot of ‘transcendent values.’ ” That’s not a changed relationship, he warns. It’s an echo from a “theological fantasy land.”
Still, it’s worth noting that five centuries ago, what the Church took to Venice was the Inquisition trial of Paolo Veronese for his masterpiece The Feast in the House of Levi. This year, Cardinal Ravasi noted, “we are not sending any altar pieces.”