Vatican City » The long tradition of Vatican patronage of the arts has given rise to such monuments to Christianity as St. Peter's Basilica and Renaissance masterpieces including the Sistine Chapel.
Under Pope Benedict XVI, the Holy See is seeking to revive the Vatican's cultural role, with plans to mount its own pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennial, the premiere international contemporary art festival, and start a "dialogue" with contemporary artists that hasn't existed for decades.
"We are reminded of the urgent need for a renewed dialogue between aesthetics and ethics, between beauty, truth and goodness not only by contemporary cultural and artistic debate, but also by daily reality," said Pope Benedict XVI, in a November message to pontifical academies.
Monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi, who heads the Pontifical Council for Culture, said the aim is to re-establish links with the contemporary art world for the benefit of both art and faith.
"The great religious symbols, the great stories and the great figures of spirituality -- these can stimulate an art that more and more often lacks any message" -- or is blasphemous, Ravasi said in a recent interview.
Ravasi also hopes to inspire art that is appropriate for the many modern churches built in recent decades by such noted architects as Renzo Piano and Richard Meier.
"So far, modern architecture has had very good results in dialogue with the liturgy," he said. "But inside these churches, there isn't a dialogue with contemporary artists. There is only folk art."
The Venice Biennial has featured the world's greatest artists who exhibit in "pavilions" that are erected by individual nations.
In 1920, Cezanne, Matisse and Van Gogh were on display; the 1948 edition featured Dali, Ernst, Kandinsky and Miro; 1977 saw Rauschenberg, Mondrian, de Chirico and Picasso. In the 1990s, Damien Hirst's formaldehyde-encased cow made an appearance. And more recently, Cy Twombly, Richard Serra and Joseph Beuys exhibited works.
Yet, the Vatican's decision to participate in the event is unusual, in part because the once-every-two-years art fair has incurred the wrath of church authorities for work that religious leaders considered a sacrilege.
In the Biennial's very first edition, in 1895, the Patriarch of Venice, who later became Pope Pius X, asked the mayor of Venice to ban the exhibit's most talked-about work, Giacomo Grosso's "Supreme Meeting." The work featured a coffin -- representing the demise of Don Juan -- surrounded by naked women. Religious leaders feared it would offend the morals of visitors.
The mayor refused to take it down, and the picture went on to win a popular prize at the exhibition's end.
More recently, church officials complained about the 1990 edition, when the American artists' collective Gran Fury, a branch of the gay activist group ACT UP, showed "Pope Piece," an image of John Paul II and an image of a penis. It was meant as a critique of the pontiff's opposition to condoms as a way to fight AIDS.
And in 2001, Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan exhibited his scandalous "La Nona Ora," or "The Ninth Hour" -- a life-size figure of John Paul being crushed by a black meteorite.
Ravasi said there's a risk that the Vatican's entry into the modern art scene could be viewed merely as a sacred counterpoint to profane displays. To avoid that risk, Ravasi said he plans to mount the Vatican pavilion away from the main exhibition spaces.
"I don't want it to be a provocation ... to be a spectacle," he said.
Ravasi plans to form a high-level commission that will identify artists across the globe who would participate on behalf of the Vatican. He has already heard from several interested artists. He declined to say what, if any, Vatican funds had been allocated for the initiative; private sponsorship would presumably help defray the costs.
"The interest is strong because it would be like returning again to the great tradition, when the popes of the Baroque and Renaissance, the great princes, had a dialogue with artists," he said.
Thomas Sokolowski, director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pa., said there were viable artists working today who could fit the Vatican's bill, suggesting artists such as James Turrell, who plays with light, beauty and the sublimeness of nature.
"If that's not holy, I don't know what is," he said in a recent phone interview.
But Sokolowski also said there was an equally good chance for terrible art, saying he wasn't particularly impressed with the Vatican's contemporary holdings at the Vatican Museums. He expressed concern about the impact on the outreach of what he considered Benedict's overly literal and conservative bent.
"With luck it won't be hideous," he said.
The president of the Venice Biennial, Paolo Baratta, has welcomed Vatican involvement.
"Ravasi's idea is a courageous gesture and something of great interest internationally," he told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. "The issue of the divine in art has always been a strong theme, confronted in recent years with some timidity. Now, a great new opportunity is opening."