The Vatican is getting back into its centuries-old tradition of arts patronage with its first-ever exhibit at the Venice Biennale, commissioning a biblically inspired show about creation, destruction and renewal for one of the world's most prestigious contemporary arts festivals.
The Holy See today unveiled details of its Venice pavilion, which opens 1 June and marks the Vatican's most significant step yet in a renewed effort to engage contemporary artists and intellectuals in ways that once created masterpieces such as the Sistine Chapel and Bernini Colonnade.
Yet the exhibit Creation, Un-Creation, Re-Creation is not religous art: There are no crucifixes or images of the Madonna or sacred objects that might find themselves on a church altar. Rather, the works explore themes that are important to the church and were executed by internationally recognized contemporary artists, including Czech photographer Josef Koudelka, who were given broad leeway to create.
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, Ravasi quotes Hegel as easily as Amy Winehouse — in multiple languages.
He has long lamented that the Holy See, whose artistic treasures fill the Vatican Museums and then some, has all but severed its ties with a contemporary art world that often finds in the Catholic Church inspiration for blasphemous art (think Andres Serranno's "Piss Christ").
Remarkably, the Venice Biennale, which features pavillions 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 Bienniale'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 the morals of visitors.
The mayor refused to take it down, and the picture went on to win a popular prize at the exhibition's end.
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 scandalous La Nona Ora, or The Ninth Hour — a life-size figure of John Paul being crushed by a black meteorite.
Art experts suggested the Vatican's initiative to have its own pavilion was perhaps a response to such perceived attacks.
"There is something about modern art that is resolutely secular," said Pepe Karmel, associate professor of art history at New York University and former art critic. "There is not a great deal of first-rate religious art from the 20th and 21st centuries."Ravasi, though, is intent on changing that.
"This for us is a germ, a seed to return to the hope that there can be even more commissions between churchmen, ecclesial figures and artists — quality contemporary artists," Ravasi told reporters.
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 a criterion: Vatican officials said they weren't even sure of the artists' faiths. Rather, the artists were selected based on the body of their pre-existing work.
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 center that when touched create 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 tryptichs exploring destruction: war, environmental degradation, and the conflict between nature and industry. Koudelka famously photographed Soviet-led tanks invading Prague in 1968 — images that were smuggled out to the United States and published anonymously because of fear that his family would suffer reprisals.
The third installment, Re-Creation, was given to Australian-born painter Lawrence Carroll, who often employs re-used materials in his work. He created a floor piece and four wall paintings, one of which has a freezing element that causes it to melt and refreeze cyclically.
To provide at least some reference point back to the Vatican's artistic patrimony, the exhibit opens with an homage by the 20th century Italian painter Tano Festa to Michelangelo, the Sistine Chapel and its depictions of Adam and original sin.
Micol Forti, head of the modern and contemporary art at the Vatican Museums, said her only regret about the Vatican's selection was that no female artists were included. Four were approached, but none was able to participate, Forti told reporters.
"Given the theme of Genesis and Creation, we would have wanted that voice reflected," she said.
The Holy See is one of eight countries being represented at the 55th Venice Biennale for the first time, joining Angola, Bahamas, Bahrain, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Kuwait, Maldives, Paraguay and Tuvalu. In a coincidence, the Holy See pavilion is located in the Sale d'Armi, right next to the Argentine pavillion.
The Argentine-born Pope Francis, known for his humble ways and focus on the poor, hasn't shown a particular interest in liturgical art or music. Whether Ravasi's initiative continues remains to be seen, but his office was quick to point out that the €750,000 (£637,000) pricetag — which includes the payment to the artists and Biennale organisers — was entirely covered by corporate sponsorship and private donations.
And the Vatican's presence at Venice isn't entirely out of the norm: The Holy See has a long history of participation in international exhibitions dating to the first World's Fair, the 1851 Great Exhibition in London.
The Venice Biennale, which also features the famous summertime Venice film festival, runs through 24 November.