Tiffany Jenkins: Vatican art revival good for all

The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child by Botticelli. Picture: National Galleries of Scotland
The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child by Botticelli. Picture: National Galleries of Scotland
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UNLIKE contemporary art, religious works show us something beyond the everyday, writes Tiffany Jenkins

The composer and devout Christian, Johann Sebastian Bach, once said: “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul. If heed is not paid to this, it is not true music but a diabolical bawling and twanging.”

As an atheist, it has long been of interest to me that some of the greatest works of art ever created have been in the service of religion. Many of my favourite paintings and musical compositions were inspired by God. Many were commissioned and paid for by Medici popes. There can be no doubt that these higher aims produced great work. Spend an afternoon in any gallery and –regardless of your own beliefs – you cannot fail to be moved by some of the most astonishing pieces, many of which were for religious purposes, such as The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child, by Sandro Botticelli, at the National Gallery of Scotland, which is an elegant, melancholic portrait of the mother and child, and may have been used in a domestic devotional setting.

I appreciate that the theatrics of a dying man, hanging half-naked on a cross, and a virgin mother cradling a baby born to die for our sins, is likely to grab one’s attention. But even if we account for the attraction of suffering, it’s still the case that religion influenced some of the most profound and lasting work.

But can it do so again? We shall see, for the Vatican is reviving its ancient tradition of artistic patronage. Centuries after it terminated its support of artists that included Michelangelo, Bernini and Raphael, and created works such as the Sistine Chapel, the Roman Catholic Church is supporting contemporary artists at the current Venice Biennale, the major biannual art exhibition.

The Holy See would once have ordered a particular artist to create a particular portrait. But times have changed, and in this case they have merely requested that the artists, which include the Czech photographer Josef Koudelka, reflect on the Genesis account of the creation of the world and the fall of humanity, under the banner of “Creation, Un-Creation, Re-Creation”. The artists do not have to be religious.

The Vatican’s culture minister, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, has signalled that this is a starting point for what he hopes will be a more fruitful dialogue between faith and art.

“This for us is a germ, a seed to return to the hope that there can be even more commissions between churchmen, ecclesiastical figures and artists – quality contemporary artists,” he explained.

Recent commentary on religion by artists, if it has existed at all, has been critical, such as the work by Maurizio Cattelan, an Italian artist: La Nona Ora, or The Ninth Hour – which is a life-size figure of Pope John Paul II being crushed by a black meteorite. Or there is Piss Christ, by the American photographer Andres Serrano, which shows Jesus on the crucifix immersed in urine.

I welcome the intervention from the Vatican. It’s timely. Although I am not suggesting that contemporary art has nothing to say to us, visiting the Gallery of Modern Art, in Edinburgh, recently, I encountered too many pieces that were deflating and discouraging.

In the current exhibition – “From Death to Death and other Stories” – the focus is on the human body. Pieces on display include Sarah Lucas’s Bunny gets Snookered, an ugly female mannequin made from lumpy legs and old stockings, stuck to a dining chair, accompanied by over-intellectualised text with the all too frequent critique of masculinity and the problems of being “trapped by femininity”. Unintentionally, the show as a whole demonstrates just how reductive artists have become about what it is to be human.

Nowadays, secular art tends to bring us down, to reduce men and women to nothing more than breasts, bums and legs, and as involved in nothing greater than the abuse of power. Of course, this is one exhibition, and I am partial. I concede that contemporary art can be good, and that art has to speak to its time, it cannot simply repeat what worked once before. But so much artwork today is limited to sneering at people and at traditional ideals.

A great deal of art today never really commits to anything, apart from itself; art since Duchamp has been very self-referential. Or it just pledges support for the idea of tearing things down. But meaning, belief in something – not necessarily a god – but perhaps a political persuasion, nature, children, or even fairies, is essential to good work. And this is missing.

The current at exhibition at the National Gallery in London, “Saints Alive”, by the Artist in Residence, Michael Landy, is a case in point. The gallery states it “intends to bring a contemporary twist to the lives of the Saints”. But the show falls into the trope of deconstructing, critiquing and questioning the lives of the Saints – not adding anything new. This should come as no surprise. One of the artist’s previous projects was “Art Bin”, where artists threw their work into a large skip. It may have been the best place for it, but this was no creative destruction. It was just destruction.

The difference seems to be that religious artists, those who excelled – and I concede, a great many didn’t – were often involved in expressing something they considered to be true. The artists weren’t all perfectly pious Christians, many behaved immorally, but their art shows a belief in something higher than us, and something beyond the everyday.

It is also human. This is not art simply in thrall to an abstract divine, but art and the artists working through the Biblical narrative to transcend the everyday, to enliven and enrich lives that were for the most part difficult. We do find this in secular art, naturally, just not that recently.

Art won’t reach the great heights of the past again unless it throws away postmodern irony, and starts reflecting on the truth of the human condition. This doesn’t have to be in a Christian or any theist context. Art could redeem human experience from transience and meaninglessness simply by believing in something more than just destroying the old idols.