The Vatican Breaks Its Da Vinci Code

By Nadeau, Barbie | Newsweek, September 22, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Vatican Breaks Its Da Vinci Code


Nadeau, Barbie, Newsweek


Byline: Barbie Nadeau

The Catholic Church, after a few hundred years, gets back in the modern-art business.

WHEN Renzo Piano sketched his initial plans for the church of San Padre Pio in Puglia, Italy, in 1993, he envisioned a contemporary space decorated with modern interpretations of Roman Catholic symbolism. Sure, he included plenty of traditional mainstays in church design like nooks for fonts, crucifixes and statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Padre Pio himself. But he also incorporated a 150-square-foot sunshade printed with what he refers to as a mirthful interpretation of the apocalypse by Roy Lichtenstein. Back then, the Vatican was warming to the idea of stark modern structures instead of baroque palaces for its new churches--which is why Piano got the job--but it wasn't yet willing to compromise on how to decorate them. "Our feet echoed in the giant halls inside the Vatican as we walked in with 30 fragments of our happy apocalypse," Piano told NEWSWEEK, describing the day he presented the avant-garde idea to the Holy See. "But they simply wouldn't have it. They loved the church design, and they had no problem with the sunshade, but in the end I had to use a solemn 12th-century apocalypse interpretation from a book that was Vatican-approved."

The Catholic Church was once the world's most important art patron--or "Client No. 1," as Piano calls it. But it has not had any real influence on art since the mid-18th century. For the last hundred years, the church has simply played the role of collector, acquiring antique religious art but commissioning very few pieces. This fall, though, the Holy See hopes to revive its cultural side by searching for artists willing to create new interpretations of tired spiritual art. The Vatican campaign is nothing short of a genius hunt for a modern-day Michelangelo or Raphael. "We have made great progress with innovative church designs by top architects," says Monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi, who heads the Pontifical Council for Culture, which is spearheading the project. "Now we need artwork of the level we inspired centuries ago. We need to return to the spirit of the 1500s."

The artists will be chosen by a commission made up of art critics and art-savvy clergy. Ravasi suggests the artists might be given a theme--such as light, suffering or death--or they could be given a figure such as David or one of the saints as a starting point. Once these artists have completed their work, the Vatican will send the best forward, perhaps even to the Venice Biennale, a competition for contemporary artists the Vatican once dismissed as "the breakdown of art in modern times." By channeling the competition through the Biennale, Ravasi admits, the Vatican is hoping to be perceived as embracing the concept of modern art, not just changing its art-collection criteria, though the Vatican has no preferential treatment with Biennale organizers, which could ultimately snub the church.

Even before the artist hunt commences, the Vatican is diligently working to find sponsors or, more aptly, wealthy Medici-style patrons who would be willing to commission artists like British sculptor Anish Kapoor or American artist Bill Viola for a themed competition. The Vatican is already speaking to one potential British-based sponsor about pledging around $1 million for the project. Since Italy's old churches overflow with masterpieces, the concentration will be on new churches--which in Italy means those built in the past century. Eventually, the worthy artists will be commissioned to create sculptures, paintings, mosaics and even ceiling frescoes for churches such as Richard Meier's Jubilee church in Rome. …

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