Church Meets Art for Pope's 60th; Marred Talents

«Splendor of Charity; Beauty of Truth» Honors Benedict XVI

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JULY 7, 2011 ( What do you get the Pope, who has everything?

For the 60th anniversary of the priestly ordination of Benedict XVI, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, went over the top and organized an exhibit of 60 contemporary artists in honor of the Pope.

The exhibit, held in Paul VI Hall (itself a piece of contemporary architecture by Pier Luigi Nervi from 1971), features 18 painters, 12 sculptors, six goldsmiths, six musicians, six architects, seven photographers and five poets from the 20th century and is titled «Lo Splendore della Carità; La Bellezza della Verità» (The Splendor of Charity; The Beauty of Truth).  

It will be open to the public free of charge until Sept. 4.

The exhibit called on artists from all over the world — from Japan’s Kengiro Azuma to Russia’s Natalia Tsarkova to James MacMillan from Scotland, who brought his manuscript composition «Tu Es Petrus,» performed for Benedict XVI during his visit at Westminster Abbey on Sept. 18, 2010.

The intention of the exhibit is to continue the dialogue between the Church and art undertaken by the Pope during his meeting with artists Nov. 21, 2009, in the Sistine Chapel. There is a dazzling variety of works, from a tapestry made of recycled material in homage to the «green Pope» to a composition written by Ennio Moricone in the form of a cross, «a convergence of music and iconography» as described by the artist.

A few looked like they had escaped from somebody’s attic — one, tentatively titled «Blue» by Agostino Bonalumi from 1966, presents a blue canvas stretched over what seems like two columns with a blue quilted cushion in the center — I guess in this case it’s the thought that counts.

Photography stole the show. Jackie Nickerson presented two photographs of Catholic life in her native Ireland. The first, «Altar,» shows the sanctuary of a church in darkness with the glow of the cross lighting the emptiness. The church stands ready, Christ awaits. The second, placed below it, titled «Refectory II,» has simple wooden tables bearing the remains of a frugal breakfast. The mismatched humble disarray is also surveyed by a crucifix: Both in the great rite of the Mass and the simple service of our daily lives, Christ is omnipresent.

I found the «Solidarity Cross» photographs of Austrian Claudia Henzler profoundly moving. Taken in Haiti during Easter week of 2010, three months after the devastating earthquake, the five pictures are arranged in the form of the cross. At the center two hands are clasped, one black and one white, drawing the energy to the heart of the cross. To the left and right two people are lost in contemplation: one a man holding the Bible and the other a woman embracing her daughter. Meditation, prayer, silence and love are beautifully expressed. At the foot of the cross a child sits with his back turned and head bowed between his hands, earthly grief; but at the head of the cross a child looks out at the viewer, his huge eyes searching for hope. Henzler’s ability to unite recent events and modern technique with ageless Christian iconography gave a fair amount of hope to this art historian.

The architectural marvels garnered the lion’s share of attention. Spaniard Santiago Calatrava presented his plan for the transept for New York’s St. John the Divine Church with its soaring spires in white steel. It seems like an extreme evolution of the Gothic style of the building, familiar yet nonetheless incongruous. Reflecting on the centuries of craftsmen who labored on the Gothic cathedrals careful to meld their work with the preceding generation, Calatrava’s addition evokes our new age of the individual, where the personal mark overshadows the collective effort. The planned bio-greenhouse and roof garden extol the newest religion of ecology, overshadowing the altars.

The 103-year-old Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer added his project for a cathedral in Belo Horizonte. The church appears like a comet that has landed with its high tail still trailing above for 104 meters. It certainly catches one’s attention but how it proclaims that it is space to worship God-made-man escapes me.

One project caught more attention than the others. Baroque art historian and celebrated architect Paolo Portoghesi (who also designed Rome’s principal mosque) presented a model for a church for Benedict XVI, dedicated to St. Benedict of Norcia. Inspired by «The Spirit of the Liturgy,» written by the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, Portoghesi (who claims to have read all of Benedict’s writings) designed a curving dynamic space not unlike that of Baroque architect Francesco Borromini, his field of expertise.

Although the building is eight-sided with the traditional Christian imagery for the eighth day of redemption, it maintains an axis toward the altar where the tabernacle rests in accordance with St. Charles Borromeo’s writings on church design. The confessionals are located at the entrance to the church much like the Confiteor opens the Mass. Special areas open onto the nave for the reading of the Word of God, following Benedict’s own interest in the use of ambones. It is a very Baroque church, bound to cause controversy for its spirals and complex geometric designs, but also supremely focused on the liturgy and drawing people to Christ.

Many of the works have no relation to the Church, but the exhibition intends to call artists to engage with great truths instead of subjective trivialities. The fact that artists try to recognize universal truths in nature, in humanity or in individual creativity seems already to be a step in the right direction.

Pope Benedict addressed the artists of the exhibition on July 4, telling them that the modern world «needs that the Truth shine forth and not be obscured by lies or banalities; it needs to be inflamed by charity and not overwhelmed by pride or egoism.»

While the Church and art are still far from the rapport they shared in the days of Raphael and Bernini, a continuous and intense dialogue seems like the best way to draw these two worlds back together.

* * *

Gaga over Gaga

Whatever qualms about form and meaning that contemporary art might raise, at least Calatrava and Arnaldo Pomodoro can lay some claim to the hard-earned title of artist. This week I was confronted with another use of the title, the pop star.

While I was taking two girls, aged 11 and 13, through the Vatican the other day, just as we left the Sistine Chapel the older one asked me, «Who’s Judas?» I had no illusions that these girls were looking for a catechesis on the passion of Christ, but you can’t blame an art historian for trying. I answered that he was Jesus’ friend who betrayed him by selling him to his enemies for money and then, unable to believe that he could be forgiven, killed himself in despair.

Lighting up, the girls said, «Lady Gaga did a song about him; she’s my favorite artist!» (The «artist» in question had just performed in Rome for a Gay Pride concert.) After an afternoon with Michelangelo, Raphael and classical Greek sculpture, I must admit I found the young ladies’ cultural reference a bit jarring.

Artists of the stamp of Michelangelo — who, 500 years after his death, still draws 5 million visitors a year to the hot, crowded halls of the Vatican to marvel at his extraordinary achievement and glorious declaration of the value of the human person — have little in common with Lady Gaga (neè Stefani Germanotta), whose «message» is remarkably trivial by comparison.

Warming to the defense of their heroine, the girls said that Ms. Germanotta’s message is that people are «born the way they are and should be free to live as they like.» So, I mused, pyromaniacs and kleptomaniacs and serial adulterers who all claim to be born with these tendencies should be allowed to «live as they like»? Germonotta’s mantra «born this way» has to be the lamest excuse for misbehavior since «the d
evil made me do it.»

My consternation at this message drew the inevitable accusation from the 13-year-old, «So you don’t like bisexual people?»

Somehow, in the eyes of these girls, rejection of Ms. Germonotta’s incredibly irritating music and absurd get-up as art turned me automatically into a «homophobe.» Failure to walk in lockstep with secular culture seems to be the one intolerable act in a self-styled tolerant society. In Ancient Rome, to doubt the emperor’s divinity constituted high treason, as many Christians found out in the arenas. Teaching children to judge their elders in this fashion was likewise not unusual in the Third Reich. Ms. Germanotta may be screaming a message of tolerance, but only for herself and her followers.

On the threshold of St. Peter’s Basilica, I turned to them and said, «I don’t believe that defining yourself by who you have sex with reflects who you really are.» The girls giggled and whispered excitedly to each other.

This conversation remained in my head for the next few days as several points troubled me deeply.

As a penitential act, I watched Lady Gaga’s videos (mostly with the sound off — it’s not Lent after all) and I was struck by the fact that of the enormous casts assembled for the four-minute productions, the only face that is ever featured is Ms. Germanotta’s. The magnificent bodies that gyrate and undulate are almost always devoid of faces. They seem like machines to provide pleasure (and profit) for one person alone: Ms. Germanotta. Her world is decidedly Gaga-centric — everyone else is a satellite in the shadows.

Michelangelo arrayed a similar number of bodies (even less dressed) for his Last Judgment. These bodies revolve around the figure of Christ the Judge, much as Ms. Germanotta’s back-up dancers orbit around her. Michelangelo’s nudes, however, have faces — and more importantly souls. The spectacle of swirling bodies around a 25-year-old girl who proclaims there is no such thing as sin (except not embracing her lifestyle) is like a Mad Magazine parody of Michelangelo’s Christ triumphant who draws souls to him after suffering and dying to redeem the sins of humanity.

Which brings me to the most striking point in Lady Gaga’s extravaganzas. It seems that all these years later, in our secularized world, there is still no imagery as powerful for love, suffering and total commitment as that produced by Christianity. I am afraid that most of her followers don’t know what a religious sister is (indeed the two girls were fascinated by nuns), but the religious habit still proclaims chastity and commitment to something and Someone beyond oneself. It maintains its power, which is why many a pop star has tried to exploit it. In videoland where less (clothing) is more and novelty is everything, tradition can still captivate and unsettle. Ms. Germanotta may try to exorcize her Catholic roots with gags about nuns-in-latex — but the chaste simplicity she ridicules will always be more iconic than her excited buffooneries.

No one has ever been able to surpass the imagery of suffering for love exemplified by the passion of Jesus Christ. The crown of thorns, outstretched arms, wounds and humiliation have been fodder for many a pop star looking for attention. No pop star fantasizes about Aztec heart extraction or the beheadings of the French Revolution, but even as they eroticize the suffering of Christ, they also acknowledge its lasting effects. Jesus did suffer, not for a vain physical titillation as Ms. Germanotta offers, but so that we would know the depth of his love — a love that is available to all. And again Ms. Germanotta misses the point that an omnivorous sexuality is not the same as a universal love.

Stefani Germanotta grew up in a Roman Catholic family. She received the sacraments and went to Catholic school, unlike her adoring fans who are often ignorant of Christianity. Ms. Germanotta took her «talents» as it were, and sold them for considerably more silver than her predecessor, Judas. One can still hope and pray that she doesn’t follow him down the road of despair, bringing her disciples with her.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at

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