Vatican Searching for Next Raphael. Or Roy Lichtenstein?

By John Murphy

Posted 9/20/08 at 6:16 AM


The Catholic Church used to be Western Civ's pre-eminent patron of art and architecture. But the past few hundred years have seen the Vatican slowly transition from commissioner to collector, safeguarding the long and luminous tradition of Church art. Tantalizing signs of change are looming, however. Newsweek is reporting on the Vatican's recent plans to reach out to the modern art world and reignite the dialogue between Church and artists: "This fall, 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.""

Part of the plan might be to encourage Medici-style sugar daddies—faithful Catholics with deep pockets willing to invest in new, innovative works of Church art. Catholics continue to produce great art independently, but constraints of time and cash make large-scale projects like the Sistine Chapel ceiling prohibitively costly without the support of the Church. The danger for current clergy and churchgoers is to mourn the passing of past greatness without investing hope and resources in the future.

It's worth remembering that in his own time an artist like Michelangelo was fiercely "modern," even provocative, often tussling with Pope Julius II over the form and content of his work. Who wouldn't love to hear a Requiem Mass composed by Ennio Morricone? Or visit a church designed by the next generation's Gaudi? Does the Church have the wisdom and courage to seek out art that synthesizes “the integrity of the church's beliefs” with “the shock of the new?” We’ll see. “I think the project is a superb idea,” said Renzo Piano, a long-time promoter of avant-garde art within the Church, “but they have to give freedom or the project will never work.”