FOR decades, the Roman Catholic Church has been the target of criticism over controversial works of art. Now in an apparent bid to redress the balance, the Vatican has commissioned its first exhibit at the Venice Biennale showcase of contemporary art.
Some see the move as an attempt by the church to return to its tradition of arts patronage, which gave the world such masterpieces as the Sistine Chapel and Bernini Colonnade.
However the Biennale exhibit, Creation, Un-Creation, Re-Creation, which goes on display from 1 June, is not religious art. Rather, the works explore themes important to the church and executed by internationally recognised artists.
The initiative is the brainchild of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican’s culture minister who was considered a papal contender in the conclave that elected Pope Francis. An Italian biblical scholar, Cardinal Ravasi quotes Hegel as easily as Amy Winehouse – in several languages. “We are not sending any altar pieces,” joked Ravasi, whose formal title is president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
He has long lamented that the Holy See, whose artistic treasures fill the Vatican museums, has all but severed its ties with a contemporary art world that often finds in the Catholic Church inspiration for blasphemous art.
Remarkably, the Biennale, which features pavilions for individual nations as well as a curated show of international artists, has provided a very visible venue for some of that blasphemy ever since its inception. In the Biennale’s 1895 first edition, the Patriarch of Venice asked the mayor of Venice to ban the exhibit’s most talked-about work, Giacomo Grosso’s Supreme Meeting, which featured a coffin surrounded by naked women. Religious leaders feared it would offend visitors.
The mayor refused to take it down, and the picture went on to win a popular prize.
Church officials complained about the 1990 edition, when the American artists’ collective Gran Fury, a branch of the gay activist group ACT UP, showed Pope Piece, an image of John Paul II and an image of a penis. It was meant as a critique of the pontiff’s opposition to condoms as a way to fight Aids.
And in 2001, Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan exhibited his La Nona Ora, or The Ninth Hour – a life-size figure of John Paul being crushed by a meteorite.
For its inaugural Venice commission, the Vatican picked three well-known artists and art groups and gave them a relatively simple source of inspiration, the first 11 chapters of the Book of Genesis.
The text describes Creation, the introduction of evil, destruction and sin into the world, followed by hope for mankind in a renewed creation.
Being Catholic wasn’t necessary – Vatican officials said they weren’t even sure of the artists’ faiths. The Milan-based multimedia group Studio Azzurro was selected for the Creation part of the three-space exhibit. It features a darkened room with a mass of stone in the centre that when touched creates images and sounds that recall the animal and vegetable kingdoms.
Czech photographer Koudelka provided the Un-Creation section, a series of 18 photos and three triptychs exploring destruction: war, environmental degradation, and the conflict between nature and industry. Koudelka famously photographed Soviet-led tanks invading Prague in 1968.
The third instalment, Re-Creation, was given to Australian-born painter Lawrence Carroll. One of his works in the section is a large panel with electrical wires and lightbulb sockets, some empty and some not.
“It’s vital that we have a dialogue between people and cultures and religions. I think it’s great that the Vatican is doing this,” Mr Carroll said.