Restoring Art to a Place in the Community: New Lessons from Early Renaissance Italy #2

For three weeks in the summer of 2016, twelve faculty members from the art, art history, theology, biblical studies, and Christian ministries departments of both Catholic and Protestant liberal arts colleges gathered at Gordon College’s residence in Orvieto (Italy) to explore how to overcome the divides that often keep these two areas of the undergraduate curriculum in separate compartments. 

Participants were invited to write brief personal narratives that highlighted one or two particular aspects that encapsulated the experience.  This series of posts features several of these essays.

Anne Greeley (Indiana Wesleyan University)

On Sacred Art in the Modern Age: The Musei Vaticani

Interposed between the Stanze di Raffaelo and the Cappella Sistina at the tail end of the sprawling Musei Vaticani in Rome is the youngest of the Vatican art collections, the Collezione d’Arte Religiosa Moderna, born out of the efforts of Pope Paul VI (r. 1963-78) to achieve a rapprochement between contemporary artists and the Church.

At the closing of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council in 1965, the pontiff had exhorted artists thus: 

We now address you…who are taken up with beauty and work for it…To all of you, the Church of the council declares to you through our voice: if you are friends of genuine art, you are our friends. 

The Church has long since joined in alliance with you. You have built and adorned her temples, celebrated her dogmas, enriched her liturgy. You have aided her in translating her divine message in the language of forms and figures, making the invisible world palpable. Today, as yesterday, the Church needs you and turns to you. She tells you through our voice: Do not allow an alliance as fruitful as this to be broken. Do not refuse to put your talents at the service of divine truth. Do not close your mind to the breath of the Holy Spirit.[1]

Driving this allocution was the sobering reality that the once-great alliance of art and Church, evinced in the magnificent and ubiquitous religious art and architecture of the pre-modern and early modern periods, had fractured and dissolved under the secularizing forces of modernism. 

The institution of modern art, born of European socialist thought during the revolutionary period of nineteenth-century France, had been founded on a thoroughgoing rejection of the socio-political values and structures of the ancien régime––chiefly, the orthodoxies of the French Academy with its special preference for religious narrative paintings. Not only were religious subjects anathema to the project of avant-gardism, that project was fuelled by a utopian socialist belief in the revolutionary, redemptive power of art itself to transform the lives of individuals and society at large. Art’s emancipation from, and eventual supplanting of, religion in the modern age is strikingly foreshadowed in Henri Saint-Simon’s call to artists, in 1825, to fulfill their “priestly” duty of “exercising…a positive power” over society, and of “marching forcefully in the van[guard] of the intellectual faculties.” As Daniel Siedell has observed, Saint-Simon’s and others’ re-envisioning of the artist as a privileged member of a new spiritual vanguard entrusted with spreading “news ideas” among men provided the intellectual justification for the arts to shirk the authority of Church and state and advance its own ‘religious’ values as an autonomous institution.[2]

This rigorously anti-clerical posture, together with the decline in papal patronage that occurred in the aftermath of the Italian Risorgimento, conspired to drive a deep wedge between art and the Church. Hence, religion, as distinct from mere spirituality, was radically estranged from art in the modern age. Or so one hears echoed down throughout the historiography of modern art.

While this narrative is powerfully affirmed by the conspicuous absence of religious artwork from historical surveys and museums of modern art, it is challenged by the Vatican’s aforementioned modern art collection, established by Pope Paul VI in 1973. Boasting over 500 artworks by such modernist luminaries as Salvador Dalí, Giorgio de Chirico, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso, the collection proves that modern art’s alleged ‘divorce’ from religion was ‘never de facto,’ to borrow the words of one art historian.[3] But be that as it may, the collection is also a testament to what James Elkins has appositely deemed religion’s ‘strange place’ in modern and contemporary art.[4]

Where religious themes and subjects do explicitly and unironically appear in modern art, they tend often to be treated in a highly idiosyncratic or abstruse manner that renders the meaning of the work ambiguous and the artist’s motives unclear. Indeed, it is fair to ask just how many works in the Collezione d’Arte Religiosa Moderna could be said to meet the criteria for religious art laid down by the modern Catholic philosopher and defender of modernism, Jacques Maritain: namely, that it be legible and finished; that it be in absolute dependence upon theological wisdom; and that it be above all religious, made by an active participant in the spiritual life of the Saints.[5] Though some might dispute the last of these criteria, the first two are unquestionably fitting, and are contravened by much of the modern art on view at the Vatican. 

There are nevertheless a few works that might appropriately be regarded as sacred art, by which I mean religious art that inspires an attitude of worship––the consummate example of these being, to my mind, Gerardo Dottori’s 1927 Crucifixion.

It was this image that kept me from bypassing the collection altogether on my recent trip to the Vatican as part of the Lilly Fellows Program Summer Seminar in Orvieto. Fatigued from having walked miles across Rome, and then having been herded with countless other visitors through the museums’ myriad antecedent galleries, I admit that even I––a declared lover and historian of modern art––was wholly resolved upon leaving the Raphael rooms to hurry through the Borgia Apartments to the Sistine Chapel, as so many wearied visitors are wont to do. All the sooner to rest my feet. But as I hastened after my companions who were striding toward la pièce de resistance, I was stopped in my tracks by Dottori’s painting, which caught the corner of my eye as I crossed the first gallery. 

I knew the image from reproductions, but had not expected to see it there at the Vatican. Even in its degraded printed and digitized forms, the painting had long struck me as a profoundly beautiful and intensely poignant image of Christ’s death upon the cross. 

As I stood there contemplating the stunning fluidity of form that connected the hands of the grieving women to the broken body of Christ in a holy mystical union, I found myself wanting also to kneel at my Savior’s feet and commune with Him in prayerful adoration. But such a response is prohibited by the rules of museum decorum. 

In the secular context of the museum––to which virtually modern and contemporary art is relegated––one is not only discouraged from overt displays of religiosity, but is encouraged to see all artworks, dispassionately, as autonomous aesthetic objects unsullied by any mediating function. The museum space annuls any stimulus to spiritual devotion, conditioning the viewer to see even such a profoundly religious image as Dottori’s in strictly formal terms. Within the neutralizing space of the museum, Dottori’s Crucifixion operates much less as a pious and affective meditation on the redemptive sacrifice of Christ than as a splendid example of Futurist aeropittura composed on a sacred theme.

It struck me as I lingered there in front of the image, imagining how much more power it might draw forth if it were hung over the altar in a church, as was customary in the pre-modern period, that the real tragedy of art in the modern age was not so much that of art’s severance from religion––for as the Vatican collection clearly demonstrates, that break never occurred in toto––but of art’s institutional displacement from sacred space and liturgy.

[1]  Pope Paul VI, “Address of Pope Paul VI to Artists” (8 December 1965),, accessed 14 July 2016.

 [2] See: Daniel Siedell, ‘A Christian Approach to the History of Modern Art,’ The Cresset (May 1998), pp. 24-5.

 [3] Christopher Evan Longhurst, ‘Forty years of modern art in Vatican City,’ L’Osservatore Romano, 35 (2013), p 12.

 [4] James Elkins, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (New York: Routledge, 2004).

 [5] See Jacques Maritain’s talk to the Journées d’art Religieux of 23 February 1924, which forms the second appendix of Art and Scholasticism.