VATICAN CITY — 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 on Tuesday unveiled details of its Venice pavilion, which 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, rather than inadvertently inspiring blasphemous art like Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ."
The exhibit "Creation, Un-Creation, Re-Creation," which opens June 1, is not religious 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 like creation 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 quotes Hegel as easily as Amy Winehouse and has forged a new Vatican initiative of reaching out to atheists and people of other faiths in regularly scheduled panel discussions around the globe.
"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.
Ravasi 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 frequently finds in the Catholic Church inspiration for headline-grabbing, shock art rather than sublime works of beauty.
Remarkably, the Venice Biennale, which features pavilions for individual nations as well as a curated show of international artists, has provided a very visible venue for such "blasphemous" art 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.
The Biennale president, Paolo Baratta, acknowledged Tuesday that the Catholic Church and the art world have long had a contentious relationship, noting that there was a time when Caravaggio paintings were considered blasphemous.
"This is a problem that I'm not going to solve," he told The Associated Press. "This is the problem of the coexistence of art and religion and faith."
But he said the Catholic Church had retreated and lost contact with the contemporary art world by remaining stuck in the "reliable" neo-Gothic, neo-Romantic, neo-Classical styles that are "perfectly coherent with religion."
"Every religion has to some extent switched off a bit its relations with art, not just the Cathoilc Church," he said. "It's time that all of them start rethinking their relationship with the creative artists and creative energy of the artist."
Australian-born painter Lawrence Carroll, who was commissioned to do the final installment of the show, "Re-Creation," agreed.
"This is vital, not just for the arts," he said. "I'm sure there was a lot of controversy within the church — that there were probably a lot of people who were against this thing, that it's foolish or wasteful or 'why are we spending money on something like this.' But I think it opens up a dialogue, and I think dialogue is important. It's a start. It's an invitation."
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 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 — images that were smuggled to the United States and published anonymously because of fear that his family would suffer reprisals.
The third installment, "Re-Creation," was given to 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. In a coincidence, its pavilion is located in the Sale d'Armi, right next to the Argentine pavilion.
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 ($975,000) price tag — which includes the payment to the artists for their materials and fees Biennale organizers — 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. Ravasi said Tuesday the Holy See would likely participate in the Milan expo in 2015.
The Venice Biennale, which also features the famous summertime Venice film festival, runs through Nov. 24.
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