Rome, Italy - When one thinks of the Vatican and its art, images of Renaissance masterpieces such as Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" or Raphael's "Stanza Della Segnatura" spring to mind.
The Vatican's classical art collection is regarded among the most valuable in the world. But the Holy See has yet to leave a mark on the contemporary art scene - perhaps emblematic of the Catholic Church's struggles with modernity.
Recently, though, the Vatican announced it will take part in the 2013 Venice Biennale, arguably the most important contemporary art event in the world, and display artwork at a pavilion of its own. The Biennale opened on June 1 and will run until November 24.
According to Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture, the Church “wants to stimulate dialogue with contemporary culture”.
‘‘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.
Although the works displayed at the pavilion draw inspiration from the Book of Genesis, the artists on display in the Vatican pavilion come from outside the Church, and the Vatican has said they are not even aware of the artists' faith.
"What we have seen with the new pope is an opening to modern audiences. They are trying to start a dialogue that has been missing for a long time between contemporary art and religion."
- Barbara Martusciello, journalist
A group of internationally renowned artists - the Italian multimedia group Studio Azzurro, Czech photographer Josef Koudelka, and Australian-American painter Lawrence Carroll - were commissioned to interpret the Book of Genesis.
Cardinal Ravasi stresses, though, that the works of art on display “will not be liturgical, despite drawing inspiration from religious works".
Creation, uncreation, recreation
The exhibition at the Vatican pavilion is divided into three themes: Creation, Uncreation, and Re-creation. The theme “Creation” was entrusted to Studio Azzurro - a new media collective exploring the links between information technology and art - and their work consists of an interactive video installation.
The theme “Un-Creation” was assigned to Koudelka and comprises 18 photographs he took between 1986 and 2012. Koudelka, who won plaudits as a young photographer as for his photos of the 1968 Soviet crackdown on Czechoslovakia and for his work on Gypsies, deals mostly with social and political issues.
Finally, the theme “Re-Creation” was done by Carroll and is composed of an installation of four wall paintings and a floor piece, as well as lighting. Much of Carroll’s work uses recycled materials and is abstract in nature.
Paolo Baratta, president of the Venice Biennale, says he welcomes the Vatican's participation and hopes that it can create “vaster and more captivating debate on art”.
Yet rebellion and controversy are fundamental elements of contemporary art, and the Venice Biennale is no stranger to themes regarded by the Vatican as blasphemous.
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At the 1990 Venice Biennale, for instance, the Church condemned a piece depicting then-Pope John Paul II and a penis.
In 2001, the same pope was depicted by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan as crushed by a meteorite, drawing strong criticism from the Catholic Church.
But Barbara Martusciello, editor-in-chief of the online modern art magazine art a part of cult(ure), does not see an insurmountable conflict between the Church and contemporary art.
“It is true that the Catholic Church promotes values seen by many as very conservative," she says. "However, what we have seen with the new pope is an opening to modern audiences. They are trying to start a dialogue that has been missing for a long time between contemporary art and religion."
She applauds the decision to commission artists from outside of the church, artists whom she describes as being at the forefront of the modern art scene - noting, however, that none of them are women.
The Vatican's foray into the world of modern art comes as the new Pope Francis reaches out to disillusioned Catholics the world over, many of whom are put off by the child abuse scandal, allegations of financial improprieties, and what they see as the Church's old-fashioned values.
While the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis this March came as a surprise to many, it has now become clear that the new pope is leading the Church's charm offensive to win back the popular support it has lost.
The pope is embracing social media - his Twitter account has 2.5 million followers - and he is eschewing many of the Church's age-old traditions. Unlike previous pontiffs, Pope Francis wears more austere attire, his public appearances are more informal, and he chooses not to use a podium that would place him above the cardinals.
"Art has always been one of the key instruments with which people express spirituality."
- Marco Politi, Vatican analyst
The Vatican's decision to feature its own pavilion at the Venice Biennale fits well within the new pope’s approach.
Marco Politi, one of the foremost Vatican analysts in Italy, has criticised the Holy See on many occasions for its lack of leadership in face of the scandals. He says the church, once a great patron of artists, has lost pace with progress in the art world.
“The church and the modern art are worlds apart. Art has always been one of the key instruments with which people express spirituality," Politi says. "Many people also look for spirituality in art. The decision to feature prominently at the Venice Biennale shows that the Vatican is taking stock of this."