For First Time, the Vatican Enters Prestigious Venice Biennale

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StudioAzzurro / Vatican Museum / REUTERS

A multimedia presentation inspired by Genesis.

The first thing visitors will see when they enter the Vatican Pavilion at the Venice Biennale—an art show dedicated to the modern and cutting edge—will be a nod to the past: a three-paneled triptych on which the 20th-century Italian artist Tano Festa reproduced details from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. The paintings, in tones of tan and ocher, serve two functions. They remind viewers of the Vatican’s past importance as a sponsor of art, and they serve as a frame for the rest of the show inside.

The theme for the pavilion, the Holy See’s first at the Biennale, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 24, is the same subject Michelangelo depicted in his famous ceiling: the opening chapters of Genesis. Spanning the history of biblical creation, from “Darkness on upon the face of the deep” through the collapse of the Tower of Babel, the events include the forming of the earth and the animals, the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel and Noah’s flood.

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Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who has been leading the effort, is careful to stress that the works are not liturgical—meaning they aren’t meant to be used as part of on altarpiece or otherwise be used in a religious ceremony. But it’s clear that he sees the art as serving a religious function, if only to offer a counterbalance to blasphemous iconic works of contemporary art like Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ or the Austrian artist Alfred Hrdlicka’s depiction of the Last Supper as a gay bacchanal—works that Ravasi argues demonstrate the continued power of religious symbols. “They found it necessary to attack them, to try to rub them out,” he says. The Biennale itself is no stranger to controversial works. In 1990, the American artist collective Gran Fury exhibited a piece titled “The Pope and the Penis,” a critique of the Vatican’s approach to AIDS. The 1991 sculpture by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan was even more direct, depicting Pope John Paul II crushed beneath a meteor. By entering into the discussion, Ravasi adds, the Vatican hopes to change its tone.

Art, of course, has changed in the past four centuries, and so the Vatican’s exhibit has none of the literal scenes or muscled figures of the Sistine chapel. Once past Festa’s triptych, the show is dedicated to contemporary works, with the rest of the space divided into three rooms, each entrusted to a different artist or collection of artists and each one describing one of three themes identified by Ravasi:: “Creation,” “De-Creation,” and “Re-Creation.”

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The first room was assigned to Studio Azzurro, a workshop of multimedia artists from Milan, which created an interactive work of projected images and recorded voices. In the second, a visitor will find 18 large black-and-white photographs of landscapes, ruins and abandoned buildings by Josef Koudelka, a Czech photographer. The final room was assigned to Lawrence Carroll, an American abstract artist, who works in wax, oil, paint and everyday materials, like wire and paper.

The Vatican did not require the contributors to be Catholic. Indeed, the organizers of the exhibit said they did not know the faith of the artists exhibited in the pavilion. According to Carroll, once the artists were chosen and shown the space, there was little pressure on the output. “I kept the Vatican away until last week,” he said. “I didn’t want to have to fit my work to their words.” The works, he said, were nonetheless warmly received.

Though the artists in charge of the three rooms did not formally collaborate, the show’s curators emphasize the interplay between the works, a progression that starts in the darkness of the first room, necessary for the projection of films, through the gray tones of Koudelka’s photographs, to Carroll’s large white panels. “One work recalls the others,” says Micol Forti, director of contemporary art at the Vatican Museums, who recruited and coordinated the artists.

It’s an effort that began in 2009, when Pope Benedict XVI hosted 300 contemporary artists—writers, painters, architects, musicians, sculptors—in the Sistine Chapel. Two years later, as a sort of trial run for the Biennale, the Vatican held an exhibition of contemporary art installed in the honor Benedict’s 60th year as a priest. The success of the show paved the way for the Biennale. Ravasi hopes that future shows will have Pope Francis’ blessing as well.

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