The Vatican and Modern Art

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. "We are trying to reignite the dialogue between the church and artists," says Ravasi. "For the last few hundred years the church and art have been moving in different directions."

To get in sync with the times, the Vatican will have to redefine its beliefs about modern art. The Vatican Museums have only a small section dedicated to modern artists like Giorgio de Chirico and Henri Matisse, and contemporary spiritual art is obviously absent from dioceses across the world. Instead, replicas of sculptures and reproductions of paintings dominate modern church décor. The Holy See tried to incorporate contemporary art into its spiritual repertoire once before, during Vatican II in the 1960s. Pope Paul VI tried to embrace contemporary art and its place in the liturgy. Then dioceses refused to abandon their dependence on what the church calls "figuration"—a definitive model that gives worshipers clear-cut images to use for meditation and prayer rather than abstraction, which would force followers to search their own souls for the greater meaning. Back then a Roman bishop explained that his parishioners could not possibly interpret modern art. "The church, in general, is for simple people," he said. "They must be able to understand what they are seeing."

Ravasi admits the church will have to educate the faithful to have an open mind and accept contemporary religious art in the same way they trust traditional works. The church's struggle with how best to represent its beliefs visually has been made more difficult by the fact that many of today's artists rely heavily on religious symbolism to provoke rather than inspire. Last year, German artist Gerhard Richter was commissioned to design a modern stained-glass window in Cologne's grand cathedral, replacing a window that was destroyed in World War II. But his computer-generated design was condemned by the church as bizarre and inappropriate. Richter claimed his picture depicted the divine spirit within the chaos of 11,200 colored pieces of glass. But the Cardinal of Cologne, Joachim Meisner, called for the window's removal. "If we are to have a new window," he said, "then it should clearly reflect our beliefs, not just any old beliefs."

Balancing contemporary expression with ancient beliefs is not a new challenge. When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel 500 years ago, Ravasi says, he constantly argued with Pope Julius II and others about the interpretations and representations in his intricate ceiling work. The recent book "The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican" claims that even the Renaissance artist couldn't resist taking a certain amount of liberty. The authors say Michelangelo hid secret messages in the ceiling that actually insult the pope and Catholicism. Ravasi dismisses the book as preposterous propaganda, likening it to Dan Brown's accounts of the Vatican's secret societies. "This was the Sistine Chapel," Ravasi says, laughing. "You don't think they were watching his every stroke? They were watching him so closely there is no way he could have slipped in any hidden messages." This time around, the Vatican promises to keep an open mind to whatever the artists come up with—as long as they retain the integrity of the church's beliefs, Ravasi says. "I am happy they are searching," says Piano. "And I think the project is a superb idea, but they have to give freedom or the project will never work." Patience, Renzo. Remember, Rome wasn't redecorated in a day.