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Vatican tries to woo back the art world

File photo of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel from April 2005
The Vatican's Sistine Chapel is the venue for a gathering of top artists

By David Willey
BBC News, Rome

Pope Benedict has invited international artists, sculptors, architects, musicians, film directors and even a solitary Italian prima ballerina to meet him under the soaring vaulted ceiling of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel in the Vatican on Saturday to begin a new dialogue between the Catholic Church and the arts.

Five hundred invitations were sent out to leading figures in the arts around the world last September, and more than 250 acceptances have been received at the Vatican.

Among them are such well-known names such as Anish Kapoor, whose current exhibition at the Royal Academy in London is drawing crowds; Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born British architect whose striking new Maxxi Museum of Modern Art has just opened in Rome; Daniel Libeskind, the Polish-born American who won the competition for the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre site in New York; and F Murray Abraham, the American movie star of Syrian descent who won an Oscar for Best Actor for his role as Salieri in the Mozart film, Amadeus, in 1985.

It is an eclectic list in which Italians outnumber all the foreigners. Among them are sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro; the doyen of film score composers, Ennio Morricone; and opera star Andrea Bocelli.

For the moment, the Vatican is being coy about revealing which artists refused the Pope's invitation or excused themselves on the grounds of a previous engagement.

The Sistine chapel choir will welcome the artists with a motet by the 16th Century composer Palestrina as they troop into the awe-inspiring chapel where Popes are elected, to hear extracts from a letter addressed by the late Pope John Paul II to the world's artists exactly 10 years ago.

Pope Benedict will then give his take on the long-established and rich connections between the Catholic Church as patron of most of the arts represented among his extensive guest list.

Crucified frog

Popes love to lecture their guests. John Paul described artists as "ingenious creators of beauty" in his address on the eve of the new Millennium, and distinguished between the roles of "creators" and "craftsmen".

"The Church needs art," Pope John Paul wrote, "but can it also be said that art needs the Church?" he went on to ask.

In today's growingly secular societies, art sometimes manages to offend the Church.

File photo of Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi from February 2009
The building of these churches, and the pride the parishioners take in them, show that we have a dialogue with the architects of modernity
Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi

A German artist, Martin Kippenberger, who exhibited a sculpture of a crucified frog at an art exhibition in Bolzano in northern Italy last year, caused a stir with the local ecclesiastical authorities.

Pope Benedict's new reaching out to artists is being masterminded by his newly-appointed culture commissar, Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, a biblical scholar, archaeologist and author, who now heads the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Church's commission for Cultural Heritage.

Within months of his appointment, Archbishop Ravasi was suggesting a Vatican cultural presence not only at the Venice Biennale but at the Frankfurt book fair and "an analogous presence in those places where the new artistic vocabulary is elaborated".

Addressing the issue of modern artists, he said in a recent interview with Osservatore Romano, the Vatican daily, "experience tells me that there is less a preconceived attitude of rejection [on the artists' part] than their conviction that the Church has long since taken another route. But when we show our interest, the responses we get are mostly positive".

'Devil's work'

The Vatican Museums were opened 500 years ago. A number of factors subsequently weakened the artists' relations with papal patronage.

Unification of Italy in 1870 reduced the Vatican possessions from a large swath across the peninsula to just 110 acres. As art trends gradually turned away from the figurative toward the abstract, many people, priests included, failed to keep up with the taste of art sophisticates.

Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid in October 2009
Zaha Hadid is among the group who will tour the Vatican's art collection

"Today our problem is to get ordinary people to welcome this type of art. We need to help them to understand that art is part of the spirit," Archbishop Ravasi said.

A number of Roman Catholic churches have been built recently by such renowned architects as Renzo Piano of Italy, Richard Meier from America, and Tadao Ando of Japan - and celebrated by parishioners as well as by architecture critics.

"The building of these churches, and the pride the parishioners take in them, show that we have a dialogue with the architects of modernity," Archbishop Ravasi explains, "but there's another problem here: Often the great modern architects do not want interference with the purity of their buildings."

This architectural purity can conflict with the Church's reliance upon religious symbols.

When a church is too lacking in the traditional symbols of Catholicism, the parish priests tend to take their own initiatives, often with indifferent results, Archbishop Ravasi said.

Changing parishioners' taste will not be easy, he admits, even when a parish priest forsakes craft work for the avant-garde.

He tells the story of his introducing segments of modern music into the Church liturgy on several occasions in Milan.

"The church was filled with young people," he said. "It was a fine experience - but later I received letters of protest from older parishioners, some of whom considered the new music the Devil's work."

A small collection of modern art was first put on view in the Vatican as long ago as 1932. But it was Pope Paul VI who decided in the 1960s to extend the Vatican's huge collection of antique art to include major 20th Century artists.

Before the Sistine Chapel meeting, the invited artists are being taken on a guided tour of this collection which includes works by Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland, Matisse and Georges Rouault. They will be gently encouraged to make a gift of one of their works to the Vatican collection.



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