Friday, September 19, 2008

The Vatican Art Scene

There is a rather strange article in this week's issue of Newsweek by Barbie Nadeau--"The Vatican Breaks Its Da Vinci Code"--on how the Vatican is getting back into the commissioning of art from contemporary artists for churches and for the Vatican Museum. While I realize the article is geared toward the lay person and not the art specialist, I have some serious issues with a few things taken out of context. For starters, the main image they use is Michelangelo's Pietà (c. 1496-1499) and compare it to Jeff Koons's Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988). Other than the curious curve that these two works share (Christ dead in Mary's lap, Bubbles sitting in a reclining Michael's lap), these works are so far removed from one another that to even use them for this article borders on the obscene. In addition, the Koons work is magnified and the Michelangelo work is miniaturized, as if to somehow equate the two in scale and monumentality. In fact the shrunken Michelangelo deemphasizes the incredible grandeur of this work in favor of its apparent competition. And let's not even get started on the conspiracy-theory ideology that still permeates anything related to Catholic art. It's like we've moved from a pre-Dan Brown to a post-Dan Brown understanding of Leonardo da Vinci and Christ, when in fact all we've really done is generate millions of dollars in sales for a so-so novel about conspiracy theories in art. (In deference to Brown's talent as a fiction writer, I will at least encourage people to read his other conspiracy book, Angels & Demons, which easily surpasses The Da Vinci Code as a fun novel worth reading.)

Getting back to the art, however, I do realize that the editors chose the Pietà because, as they note, it was once considered contemporary art, and indeed the prodigy, a young sculptor from Florence, was commissioned by a French cardinal to create it. But the spiritual essence of this sculpture has no comparison--religiously speaking--to the Koons sculpture. And are we to assume from this juxtaposition of images that Koons, because he is a successful contemporary artist, epitomizes the type of art one is going to see from now on in the Vatican and other Catholic churches? If so, then why this image? Why not the photographs and sculptures of Koons having sex with his ex-wife Ilona Staller (former porn star and member of the Italian parliament)? Why are those works less spiritual than Michael Jackson with a monkey?

I know I'm ranting more about these images for this article, but my point is to write about the Vatican and art. The digital photograph of St. Peter's (note: Michelangelo's original design, enhanced by other architects over time) I took on one of my trips to Rome. St. Peter's Cathedral is an absolutely amazing place, where grandeur and awe inspire a sense of spirituality incomparable to many other places. The Vatican Museum has one of the best collections of art in the world. I've had the privilege of going there twice. Having the opportunity to stand in the Sistine Chapel and gaze upon Michelangelo's ceiling and The Last Judgment behind the altar, or to witness firsthand Raphael's School of Athens in the papal apartments, is an amazing wonder to behold. And the collections throughout the Museum are unparalleled. They have some of the most important pieces of classical sculpture, such as the Laocoön and the Apollo Belvedere. But this is also the Vatican Church, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, and as I've strolled through the halls of the Museum, I've pondered if there was some sort of travesty behind the Vatican holding onto these works and displaying them. Doesn't the Church have a responsibility to let go of material possessions and help those in need? Couldn't they sell of some of their work, such as their version of Canova's Perseus (after all, there's another version of it at The Metropolitan Museum of Art), and use the money from the sale to outfit an entirely new social structure in an impoverished country, provide assistance for AIDS victims, or feed starving children in Africa?

In the past, I might have said yes. Now, I would say no. I do still believe the Church has a responsibility in these areas, and they are doing their part to help. However, the Vatican is not just the Church. It's also a country, an independent state, as it has been for nearly 2,000 years. As a country, it also has a responsibility to support cultural heritage as does every nation, not just for its own people but for all people. So should the Vatican be commissioning contemporary work from artists? Absolutely. Should they be collecting contemporary art? Of course they should. And even though I don't agree with Monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who insists that "We need to return to the spirit of the 1500s" (the Church needs to evolve, not stand still in time or, worse, look backwards), I applaud the fact that the Vatican may be seeing the need to support cultural heritage and encourage the continuous flow of art, no matter the spiritual nature of its design.

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