In May, the exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) in New York, alongside the museum’s de rigueur gala at which Rihanna appeared to take direct inspiration from the wardrobe of the Pope himself, turning up in a heavily bejewelled Maison Margiela corset dress and papal mitre. Later that month, the Venice Architecture Biennale saw the Vatican present 10 contemporary chapels on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in the Venetian Lagoon. Even more unusually, at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, Wim Wenders premiered his new documentary, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, for which he received unprecedented access to the Pontiff himself.
Taken together, these events seem like a soft power coup for the Vatican in 2018. It is not, however, the first time that the Church has realised the importance of contributing to current cultural discourse. The Holy See has participated in the Venice Art Biennale for a number of years, for instance. For the 2013 edition, Micol Forti, curator of 19th-century and modern art at the Vatican Museums, organised Creation, Uncreation, Re-creation, an exhibition based on the first 11 books of Genesis. The Vatican pavilion at the 2015 edition of the Venice Art Biennale was entitled In the Beginning … the Word became flesh, and brought together three young artists from different corners of the world. In 2017 however, the Holy See decided not to participate in the Art Biennale. Monsignor Pasquale Iacobone, representative of art and faith at the Pontifical Council for Culture, said in a statement to The Art Newspaper that selecting artists posed too many challenges, as the individual “[does] not represent a country, but the interests of the Holy See and the Catholic Church”. A further statement from the Vatican Museums, which are administered by the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State rather than the Council for Culture, argued that “the Holy See is very different from other countries that have a permanent presence at the Biennale”.
The Vatican is very different indeed. Technically speaking, it’s an absolute electoral theocracy and a spiritual and administrative authority contained within the walls of Vatican City. It is also the world’s smallest sovereign country – with only around 800 inhabitants and an area of 0.44sqkm. Of course, that is not what gives the Vatican its influence; in principle, at least, it presides over 1.299 billion Catholics around the world, although falling church attendance and rightful exposition of numerous abuse scandals have put a dent in its moral authority. Nevertheless, other Christian denominations have fewer followers and similarly checkered histories; and although Sunni Islam now counts more followers than the Catholic Church, it lacks the hierarchy and centralisation of the Church of Rome. These features, in principle, allow the Vatican to project a coherent message through any medium it chooses, particularly in the arts. As with any large organisation, the Holy See is not wholly in control of the many different activities, cultural outreach included, which occur under the broad umbrella of Catholicism. It is the individual dioceses, for instance, that commission new church buildings according to their needs and their financial capacity. Style and taste are locally determined rather than centrally dictated.
It is also true that Vatican-led reform of the Catholic Church, whether artistic or liturgical, has often involved acknowledging and building upon practices previously begun at a grassroots level. Liturgical reforms undertaken at the Second Vatican Council or Vatican II (1962-65), such as preaching mass versus populum (facing the people), and in vernacular languages, are two examples of this. Both were already practised, although only within certain congregations. Announced by Pope John XXIII in 1959, the Council’s aim was to address the need for renewal within the Church in the aftermath of the Second World War. Engagement, both internally and externally, was the guiding principle behind many of the decisions taken by the council.
Vatican II also embraced modern art, another area in which grassroots movements within the Church had pushed ahead of mainstream Catholic thinking. In 1923, modernist architect Auguste Perret completed the first church in reinforced concrete at Raincy, near Paris, and in the 1930s, the French Dominican order took a radical turn towards modern art and engaged with Marxist thought as an antidote to capitalism and fascism. These efforts continued after the war with renewed intensity, and included the commissioning of further modernist chapels by the Dominicans such as the French architect Maurice Novarina’s 1950 Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce in Plateau d’Assy, in the French Alps, and Henri Matisse’s 1951 Vence Chapel, on the French Riviera.
Such projects, favouring modernism over historicist styles, were reflected in the pages of L’Art Sacré, a magazine edited from 1936 to 1954 by Dominican friar and stained glass artist Marie- Alain Couturier, who had also been involved in commissioning Perret. Pope Pius XIII may have seen these movements as dangerous insubordinations, but Father Couturier eventually prevailed, and his clandestine manipulations secured Le Corbusier, a student of Perret, commissions for both the Notre Dame du Haut pilgrimage chapel in Ronchamp, eastern France, and the Sainte Marie de La Tourette priory near Lyon. The Father was also adamant that the Catholic Church needed to embrace the best artists of its time, regardless of their faith. Writing in Harper’s Bazaar in 1947, he stated his conviction that “a great artist is always a great spiritual being”.
The Catholic Church adopted this attitude more explicitly post-Vatican II, and began seeking greater dialogue with the wider secular world. The Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers was established in 1965 and, in 1982, Pope John Paul II – who had attended Vatican II – established the Pontifical Council for Culture. The two bodies merged in 1993 to create a de facto cultural ministry within the Vatican, which is today responsible for the highest order of cultural outreach organised by the Catholic Church towards the world at large.
The current president of the Pontifical Council for Culture is Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who has held the post since 2007, and who was responsible for commissioning all three of the Vatican’s Venice exhibitions. Other Council activities include organising and partaking in academic conferences on topics ranging from anthropology to music, and sporting events at various Catholic universities in the United States. The council’s secretary, Monsignor Paul Tighe, recently spoke at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, calling for “compassionate disruption” as a digital strategy for the Church – using social media to spread a message of kindness and disrupt online negativity by offering alternative spaces for discussion. The Council for Culture does not, however, lead on all cultural outreach by the Church; for the Met exhibition, both the Archbishop of New York and other local Church figures led preparations, with Cardinal Ravasi contributing a personal essay titled ‘On Priestly Garments’. It is notable too that Wenders’ documentary was produced without any influence from the Council for Culture; instead the Pontiff’s participation was assured through a personal acquaintance with Monsignor Dario Viganò, who suggested Wenders shoot the film. Viganò is a cinephile and was the then Prefect of the Secretariat for Communication, but Wenders was nevertheless given final cut privileges. The filmmaker’s own religious affiliation – he is a convert from Catholicism to Protestantism – was not an issue.
At the 2018 Architecture Biennale, dialogue with non-believers is central. The Church’s project includes a roster of well-known architects such as Norman Foster, Flores and Prats, Smiljan Radić and Terunobu Fujimori, as well as more obscure names such as Carla Juaçaba and MAP Studio. Francesco Dal Co, a seasoned curator who had previously directed the Venice Architecture Biennale in 1991, was appointed to lead the project under the patronage of the Vatican. According to Monsignor Tighe, the initial idea was to produce an exhibition showing models and drawings of recently completed sacral buildings, but Dal Co instead proposed the idea of commissioning brand new structures.
Of the six countries participating in the Biennale for the first time in 2018, the Vatican seems to have generated the most enthusiasm among journalists. Some of the old prejudices endured however: The Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright commended the exhibition, but suggested the chapels could use more of the “camp theatrics” that many associate with Catholicism. Another critic quipped privately that even the famously secular Norman Foster was in the Vatican’s good graces, although both Dal Co and Monsignor Tighe were keen to stress that religious affiliation played no role in selecting either the curator or the participating architects. Indeed, the brief stated that each chapel had to contain just two liturgical elements – a pulpit and an altar – to represent, says Cardinal Ravasi, “The Word, and the bread and wine, which are the basis of Christianity”.
Liturgical elements aside, many of the 10 chapels are masterclasses in the different ways of delineating contemplative space. Dal Co’s brief used the Swedish 20th-century architect Gunnar Asplund’s 1918-20 Woodland Chapel in Stockholm’s Skogskyrkogården as the basis for the commission, and the story of this structure is told within an 11th pavilion in Venice. “With [the Woodland Chapel] – a small masterpiece – Asplund defined the chapel as a place of orientation, encounter and meditation,” says Dal Co, adding that the structure seems “formed by chance or natural forces inside a vast forest, [and] seen as the physical suggestion of the labyrinthine progress of life, the wandering of humankind as a prelude to the encounter”. The word “encounter” is often used to mean an encounter with Christ in Christian discourse, though in its broader sense it can mean an enlightenment or transcendent experience. The “Culture of Encounter” is also one of the cornerstones of the papacy of Pope Francis. Broadly speaking, it means building bridges and relationships between Catholic congregations the world over and their sometimes non-Catholic neighbours. The idea is to reach out beyond the Church’s usual audience using cultural influence, and it is surely no coincidence that Dal Co’s model for the architects was a non-denominational 20th-century chapel built in majority Lutheran Sweden. Furthermore, there’s nothing to mark out the resulting 10 structures as obviously Catholic, although the presence of crosses clearly identifies their Christian origins.
The 10 chapels are splendidly diverse, ranging from a relatively traditional edifice designed by Japanese architect and critic Terunobu Fujimori, which perhaps most closely recreates Asplund’s chapel, through to Carla Juaçaba’s composition of polished stainless-steel bars. These bars intersect in the middle of a nearby meadow to form a row of benches beneath a gleaming cross. Visitors are free to roam between the chapels and explore them at will, just as they would roam Stockholm’s Skogskyrkogården, although it must be said that the garden in which the chapels are placed does not afford the sense of being lost in a Nordic pine forest, and not all the chapels exude the quiet grace of Asplund’s prototype. Javier Corvalán’s boldly angled, hovering ring, consisting of plywood sheets attached to a robust steel frame, comes close to being the kind of grand gesture that became typical of Baroque churches, for instance.
There is also some truth to Dal Co’s assertion that “the designers have been asked to come to terms with a building type that had no precedents or model”. While freestanding chapels do clearly exist – think roadside chapels or Peter Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus Field Chapel in Bavaria – the Vatican’s Venice ensemble seeks to question traditional models, with the architects free to choose their own references and narratives. Ricardo Flores and Eva Prats, for instance, clearly drew inspiration from Antonello da Messina’s 15th-century painting St Jerome in his Study. Their chapel provides a kind of half-shelter from which to observe the world around them, but which nonetheless encloses the body, while a round opening in the chapel’s arch directs the first light of the morning onto the altar. Other architects indulge in their trademark moves. Foster + Partners’ chapel delights in showing off playful structural gymnastics, with two rows of timber slats undulating down from the structure’s slender steel frame. These slats focus the visitor’s gaze on the trees and lagoon beyond, and suggest a more outward-looking way of practising worship. Pluralism, which is so often the grassroots reality of any religious organisation, has been given concrete form.
But it is perhaps Andrew Berman’s understated contribution that is the highlight: a mysterious prism clad in white polycarbonate, the interior painted black, with only a small opening letting through a little light, but otherwise leaving the visitor in the dark. It creates a kind of confrontation with the self, an idea with a long religious tradition, and Monsignor Tighe explains that the chapels aim to induce transcendence as a way to create a shared experience for the faithful and non-believers alike. “Beauty and art, at their best, have the capacity to invite people to go in a little deeper, to break with what Cardinal Ravasi calls the scourge of superficiality,” he says. “It creates a space for reflection, for silence, to get in touch with what’s happening in their own heart and we would believe that allows the person to be in contact with God, whether he or she believes in God.” In this respect then, some of the architectural ideas shown in Venice represent spiritual continuity expressed through formal innovation.
The architecture critic Nikolaus Pevsner once wrote that a “bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture”, but the 10 Venice chapels challenged their architects to create beauty on the scale of the former. Beauty is one of the cornerstones of Catholic liturgy, celebration and architecture. The 11th-century Benedictine abbot Suger, who commissioned the French abbey of Saint-Denis, wrote: “When – out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God – the loveliness of the many-coloured gems has called me away from external cares[…] by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world”. The Vatican’s Venice pavilions possess a kind of beauty that Pope Francis’s Culture of Encounter might approve of – forward-thinking, perhaps a little sparse, but still able to contain the Church’s diverse flock and, most importantly, accessible to believers and non-believers alike.
While it is still uncertain whether the chapels will remain in place or be transported to parishes in need of such structures, Monsignor Tighe suggests that lessons may be learned from them in the form of new guidelines relating to the design of ecclesiastical buildings commissioned by the Church. “We would be hoping to speak with Catholic universities that have faculties of architecture,” he explains, “[and] to speak with dioceses which are in the business of commissioning churches and to look to this as something that tries to raise the bar on a distinctively Christian understanding of beauty and how that translates [into] church buildings.”
The Catholic Church’s cultural outreach is not, however, always quite so forward-looking: the exhibition at the Met, for instance, parsed Catholicism’s back catalogue with considerable gusto. The exhibition is split into three parts: the first scatters garments inspired by Catholic iconography through the entire museum, pairing them with artefacts from the Met’s extensive collection of fine and decorative arts. Visitors are encouraged to undertake a kind of pilgrimage through the museum’s Byzantine and Medieval galleries, which show the deep historical roots and unwavering presence of Catholic iconography that has undoubtedly had a deep impact on the designers featured in the exhibition, many of whom grew up Catholic. The second part consists of more than 40 items from the Sacristy of the Sistine Chapel, exhibited as a standalone exhibition at the Anna Wintour Costume Center – in fact, one of the conditions of the loan was that these sacred garments not be mixed with the profane ones. The third part of the exhibition is located in the Cloisters – a fanciful reassemblage of fragments of old European monasteries brought to Harlem in the 1930s – and showcases a more muted procession of profane couture.
Critics have been divided. Many praised the exhibition’s ambitious staging and impressive scope, with The Cut’s review resplendent with praise, calling it the “most ambitious show conceptually” staged under Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s head curator since 2015. Certainly, Bolton’s work on the exhibition is worth recognising. The Vatican does not regularly endorse such extensive loans and it took Bolton two years and twelve visits to Rome to seal the deal. The last time that items from the Holy See went on loan to the Met was in 1983 for the exhibition The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and Art. More than 890,000 people paid a visit then, making it the museum’s third most visited exhibition ever. Between its opening on 10 May and the beginning of July, Heavenly Bodies had already attracted half a million visitors and is on track to rank among the museum’s most successful exhibitions before it closes on 8 October. Criticism of the show, however, focused on its lack of diversity. The designers on show were mostly male and Western, and the clothes were mostly for women – a problematic proposition considering that executive power in the Catholic Church is, and always has been, in male hands.
Some critics pointed at the almost deferential treatment of the subject, with The Art Newspaper calling it “Church propaganda” and Refinery 29’s Connie Wang pointing out that for many of the featured designers, Catholicism was not “something to run towards but rather something to run from”. The loan from the Vatican was only secured after Bolton presented a lookbook to Archbishop Georg Gänswein, who helped pass on the curator’s request to Monsignor Guido Marini, the keeper of the Sacristy. It’s easy to imagine Bolton had to walk a fine line between kowtowing and curatorial vision – by definition,such archival research did not encourage a forward-looking approach.
While some Catholics would balk at any attempt to appropriate religious iconography and symbolism into something so seemingly superficial as couture, the exhibition gave no space to more forcefully subversive garments and objects, such as the quasi-religious garb that is regularly donned by pop stars such as Madonna and Lady Gaga. The only exception to this kind of appropriation was the inclusion of Rick Owens’s 2015 men’s tunics that expose the wearer’s genitalia, supposedly referencing characters from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Indeed, the Vatican’s contribution, which included the diamond-encrusted papal tiara once worn by Pius IX, seems out of tune with a Church that now preaches modesty, compassion, charity and poverty.
But the central thesis of the whole exhibition is the “Catholic Imagination” – a term coined by priest and sociologist Andrew Greeley in 2000 in his book of the same name, and who is quoted extensively in the exhibition catalogue. “Catholics live in an enchanted world,” he wrote, “a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation.” In this light, the exhibition would have you believe that the lavish, laboriously constructed vestments are presented not as self-serving, but as a celebration of faith and life within the Catholic liturgy.
There was, however, an aspect of the exhibition that the Vatican had little control over: the Met Gala. The event is one of New York’s most extravagant red carpet outings, marking the opening of the annual show and offering a chance to fundraise for the Costume Institute. Outrageous though the garments clinging to the stars may have been – Sarah Jessica Parker wearing a Nativity scene that seemed bizarre rather than subversive – the reactionary cries of cultural appropriation and blasphemy were countered by the presence on the night of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, while Cardinal Ravasi repeated, in interview after interview, that the garments on the red carpet actually demonstrated the power of Christian symbols. “The desire to desecrate is innate to the human soul,” he told Marina Valensise from Vogue Italia. “Only what matters can be desecrated.”
Heavenly Bodies continues the uptick in visitor numbers that major museums such as the Met increasingly rely upon, and, for its part, the Vatican has received extensive coverage in titles like Vogue – something of a coup for its overarching outreach mission. In the April issue of Vogue Italia, Cardinal Ravasi explained the connection between beauty, ecclesiasticism and fashion. He was also able to highlight the work of the Courtyard of the Gentiles, a forum that facilitates cultural debate between believers and non-believers. And for a good measure, he also mentioned the Holy See’s presence at the Venice Architecture Biennale. “Whoever enters a museum of paintings without knowing anything about the Bible,” the Cardinal said, “cannot understand 80 per cent of what he or she sees. It is precisely for this reason, that is, that we need [a] dialogue with the world of beauty.” Although the Church can no longer command Europe’s armies, its soft power, accumulated through centuries of cultural production and evangelisation, is unlikely to wane any time soon, and can only be amplified through its presence in magazines and broadsheets that normally do not report on religious matters.
But there is nevertheless the feeling that the Catholic Church cannot afford to stand idly by. The May 2018 Irish referendum on overturning the Eighth Amendment of the country’s constitution and creating a pathway for legal abortion sent shockwaves through the Irish clergy. In the Amazon, there have been calls to allow parish clergy to marry, as the profession is otherwise not attractive enough and many congregations have been left without a priest. The Vatican seems to recognise these realities – it is slowly starting to allow a degree of consultation on celibacy, while the Pope reached out to the LGBTQ+ community in 2013 when he said, “If a person is gay and seeks out the Lord and is willing, who am I to judge?” It must be said, however, that the Culture of Encounter often stops short of real dialogue, and there has been no official change in the Church’s doctrine regarding LGBTQ+ rights. On the more purely cultural front, progress seems more encouraging. The Pontifical Council for Culture is organising a conference entitled ‘Doesn’t God dwell here anymore?’ as part of the European Year of Cultural Heritage in November, which will look at the question of abandoned churches and the ways in which they can be used to enhance their communities. In Europe, at least, it seems that the Catholic Church will need to wield its cultural capital more deftly, even as it may reform itself internally for the sake of the rest of the world.
It is initiatives like this that could see the Pontifical Council for Culture play its biggest role yet – recasting the Catholic Church as a major and active cultural force in the 21st century. The Catholic Church also needs to engage further with initiatives outside its own walls. Monsignor Tighe spoke enthusiastically about London academic Aaron Rosen’s “extraordinarily powerful” Stations of the Cross, a guided tour of classical and contemporary art that includes museums, churches and site-specific installations spread across Britain’s capital. Rosen is Jewish, but conceived of the idea with his wife, an Anglican minister, creating an art pilgrimage that transcends religious affiliations. The Church can and wants to learn from these initiatives – after all, the exhibitions in Venice and New York show that it is willing to reach out and successfully engage believers, non-believers and those in between, the new cultural Catholics. “We want to make sure that the great heritage of religion that we have is not seen simply as a museum but as something that continues to speak to people, that can offer them hope, that can inspire them, that can lift them and encourage them with their own decisions,” Tighe concludes. In the future, the success of the Pontifical Council for Culture will therefore also likely determine the success of the Vatican itself on the world stage.