The Catholic Church’s Modern Art
In the Vatican Museums, after viewing the splendor of the Raphael Rooms and on the way to the Sistine Chapel, visitors must make their way through a maze of hallways and rooms that includes the “Collection of Modern Religious Art.” Anxious to get to the Main Event, most everyone rushes through, annoyed by the delay. At most, they glance at the displays on the walls of these curiously modern rooms, which stand in stark contrast to the centuries-old architecture they sit between. The comparatively dull installation begs one to ask what exactly “modern religious art” is.
Centuries ago, the Catholic Church was a powerful patron of the arts. A large portion of the masterpieces of the Renaissance were commissioned and paid for by various factions of the Church—think of the aforementioned Vatican frescoes or Titian’s monumental Assumption of the Virgin. Back then, art was practically synonymous with religious art. This oversimplification overlooks all the fantastic art inspired by classical myth and civic monuments, but the fact remains that the Church played a crucial role in shaping and funding what some might consider the high point of western culture.
The Vatican’s collection of modern religious art is a somewhat haphazard assemblage of artwork dealing with Christian themes. It contains a handful of great works, but I find it notable that these were not commissioned by the Church, and in fact the artists who created them represent somewhat of an antithesis to the Catholic agenda. The collection includes, for example, a Pieta by Van Gogh: a somewhat insane guzzler of absinthe who renounced religion early in life. One variation in Francis Bacon’s series of portraits of Pope Innocent X after the Velazquez painting stands out especially. What has become of the Catholic Church that they have resorted to displaying—in Vatican City, no less—a work by an avowed homosexual whose other pope paintings aren’t exactly flattering?
I wonder what the objective of this collection of art might be: to prove that Christianity is still represented in art? To visually reinforce great biblical stories, or the history of the Church? It is an attempt to stay culturally relevant? I believe the inclusion of the collection, especially positioned as it is between the landmarks of the Vatican Museums—proves just the opposite, that the Church has descended from a shaper of western art and culture to a insignificant side note as artistic progress marches on without it. In fact, the collection undermines the Church’s stance as a fierce culture warrior. The great paintings of the collection, ostensibly religious in subject matter, are the product of the same secular society that the Church is fighting against. The Catholic Church’s irrelevance in the art world serves as a synecdoche for its fading influence in all other parts of society, as it gasps desperately for air.