ROME – As part of his mission to keep the deep ties uniting Catholicism and the arts fresh, the Vatican’s culture czar on Tuesday announced a Church exhibit in Venice featuring world renowned architects reimagining, and reinterpreting, the concept of the chapel.
This presentation, according to Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, has the potential to stimulate architects to be inspired by religious contexts, to encourage the Church to engage with the outside world, and, in line with the spirit of Francis’s pontificate, to “offer something beautiful” to everybody, especially the poor.
Ten architects from all over the world will be presenting their chapels at the Architecture Biennale in Venice, an exhibition recognized globally as one of the best in the world, which is taking place this year May 26 – Nov. 25.
This theme this year will be “Freespace,” and although it’s the 16th edition of the exhibit, it’s the first time the Vatican is making a showing.
The goal of the Vatican presence is “stimulating architects to look to holy spaces, the symbols of the chapel, the altar, the cross, the mystic space and light, which is also an important element,” Ravasi told Crux during an interview after a press conference at the Vatican March 20.
According to the cardinal, the architects answered the Church’s invitation with “great enthusiasm,” especially the acclaimed British architect Norman Foster, winner of the Pritzker Prize, who according to the prelate “would repeatedly come and visit, study [the site], entirely at his own expense.”
During his presser, Ravasi referred to “a lacerating divorce” that took place at the end of the past century between art and faith.
“They have actually always been sisters,” he said, “then, however, the roads divided.”
Many artists chose to devote themselves to types of art that are “self-referential or even sometimes desecrating provocations,” the cardinal said, while the Church retreated to imitating old styles and genres and sometimes resorted to creating parishes that look like “sacred garages.”
“We adapted to the ugliness that pervades the new urban suburbs and the aggressive building schemes, raising modest sacred buildings that are devoid of spirituality, beauty or an encounter with the new artistic and architectural languages that were meanwhile being elaborated,” Ravasi said.
In his role as the Vatican’s culture liaison, which he began in 2007, Ravasi has acted as an intellectual planter of sorts, fertilizing the most farfetched peripheries of popular culture with the historic, artistic, cultural and spiritual legacy of the Church.
His latest endeavor was making the Church and its century-old gilded religious vestments the focus point of the Met gala in New York, considered the “most elaborate night” in the fashion industry, with starlets, actors and trendsetters walking the red carpet on May 7.
Ravasi spearheaded the Vatican’s participation in the more famous Venice Art Biennale, sponsoring pavilions in 2013 and 2015, although the Vatican skipped the 2017 event in order to allow them to participate in this year’s Architecture Biennale.
The interest shown by the architects who will present their chapels at the exhibit in Venice demonstrates that if the Church reaches out to culture, the results can be positively surprising, according to the cardinal.
“If we stimulate the horizon, the horizon answers,” Ravasi said.
The ten chapels will be placed on the isle of St. George, just across the Piazza San Marco in Venice, in a wooded area that dominates more than two thirds of the island. The starting point will be sketches by Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund, who, in the 1920s, created a “Woodland Chapel” near Stockholm, which inspires the entire project.
The materials used differ from wood to plastic, and the designs incorporate different cultures and aesthetics. But for the cardinal it’s not only artists who get a chance to test their prowess on religious architecture and design, because the Church also has a lot to gain.
“The Church also must return to understanding that we cannot continue going forward by looking back,” Ravasi told Crux. “We must conserve our legacy and make it fruitful.”
He drew from the example of young people today who speak “a completely different language” from the one many at the Vatican or in the Church are accustomed to.
“We must then make sure that the Church looks outside and sees not only the construction of the modest local architect, but also how much [architects] can understand and gain intuition from these relevant figures,” he added.
Ravasi avoided using the term “sponsor” to define the role of the Church in promoting this endeavor, yet, according to the Associated Press, the Vatican has spent nearly $500,000 for the project and collaborated with various companies to promote it.
According to the prelate, the final objective of this exhibit “incorporates the spirit of this pontificate” by focusing on the Church’s ability to promote and offer beauty to the world. One only needs to take a stroll around Rome, or most cities in Italy, he said, to see examples of art and beauty available to anyone that the Church has left behind throughout the centuries.
“In the big cities of the past, the poor were the ones who built the big cathedrals, and they wanted it to be much more beautiful than their own homes. It was an element of pride almost, their symbol,” Ravasi said.
“Even the poor and those who belong to a miserable way of life have a right to have beauty,” he continued. “To the poor I don’t just have to give a piece of bread, but also a flower.”
The exhibit will not be free of cost, and the future of the chapels remains unclear. Ravasi said that already there have been requests to disassemble the chapels and take them to other parts of the world, such as Poland, after the Architecture Biennale is over.
If the ten chapels are eventually seen in other venues, perhaps this architectural testament to the rocky marriage between art and faith will live on.