ROME – As accusations of sexual abuse have mounted against Slovenian Father Marko Rupnik, his art has come under a microscope, and recently attentive observers noted a curiosity – the face of the artist himself, along with two of his closest friends and allies, appears in an obscure section of perhaps his most famous work.

Rupnik’s giant mosaic in the Vatican’s Redemptoris Mater Chapel, sometimes dubbed the “Sistine Chapel” of the late Pope John Paul II, according to an inscription above the door, was installed by the Rupnik-founded, Rome-based Centro Aletti in 1999, and blends eastern and western motifs in depicting the history of salvation.

Rupnik, 69, whose famed murals adorn chapels and cathedrals around the world, including inside the Vatican and at the Marian shrine of Lourdes, is accused of sexually abusing at least 30 adult women, many of them nuns belonging to the Loyola Community he helped found in his native Slovenia in the 1980s.

In a small corner of the sprawling work, three figures are depicted in white robes who, upon examination, some say bear striking resemblances to the late Czech Cardinal Tomáš Špidlík, Rupnik’s great patron, shown holding a set of books; Nataša Govekar, a member of the Centro Aletti, who today serves as a department head in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communications, depicted with a laptop; and Rupnik himself, holding a painter’s easel.

Depictions, from left to right, of Czech Cardinal Tomáš Špidlík, Nataša Govekar, and Rupnik himself in the mosaic by Father Marko Rupnik inside the Redemptoris Mater chapel inside the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace. (Credit: Vatican Media.)

However jarring the images may seem now, Rome-based art historian Elizabeth Lev says they might actually be the least odd element of the entire Rupnik saga.

“Portraits of artists and patrons in works are very normal,” Lev told Crux, citing several examples.

Among them were Raphael painting himself into a mural in the Apostolic Palace along with Pope Julius and an advisor, Caravaggio peeking in from the “Martyrdom of Matthew,” Ghirlandaio routinely depicting friends and family, and the famous Arena Chapel in Padua where Giotto painted both Dante and Enrico degli Scrovegni, the patron of the work, into his fresco cycle. (Lev believes the Giotto fresco may have been the inspiration for Rupnik’s work in the Redemptoris Mater.)

“Nothing unusual about it,” Lev said of artists injecting such personal flourishes into their scenes.

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On the other hand, Lev said there’s a great deal unusual about the broader debate over the removal of Rupnik’s artworks which his abuse scandals have kindled – and insists that, contrary to popular opinion, things aren’t nearly as straight-forward as they may seem.

Calling the distinction between art and artist “complicated,” Lev noted that several prominent artists whose work is featured in the Vatican and beyond have their own nefarious histories.

“Raphael was a notorious womanizer, how he seduced women is not known, but that he did is well documented,” she said, noting that Caravaggio himself was known for his drunken antics and at one point killed a man in a violent duel.

Famed French artist Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was described by Lev as a “sex tourist,” while Gian Lorenzo Bernini, whose masterpiece canopy adorning the main altar in St. Peter’s Basilica is currently being restored ahead of the upcoming Jubilee of Hope in 2025, was an adulterer, at the time a capital offense, who at one point “slashed his mistresses face.”

Likewise, Lev said that Italian artist Carlo Crivelli served time for seducing a married woman, while Italian painter Agostino Tassi a century later was convicted for the rape of fellow artist Artemisia Gentileschi, and Italian sculptor Benvenuto Cellini apparently killed four men.

Lev voiced her belief that the core of the problem with Rupnik is that he “seems to have had no accountability for his crimes.”

“His crimes don’t seem to have been acknowledged by the Church writ large,” she said, lamenting the growing impression that Rupnik was protected by higher-ups and continued to be promoted even after allegations were lodged “as if nothing had happened.”

The appearance of Rupnik’s artwork on missalettes and other Vatican materials, she said, “makes a mockery of the entire ‘closeness to victims’ narrative – so as the Romans once did, instead of damning the man, at least one can damn his legacy.”

However, she said the situation is more nuanced than that, and flagged several considerations that as a historian she believes ought to be part of the broader debate.

Lev noted that Rupnik’s larger projects were not completed alone, but with the help of many well-intended believing members of the Aletti Center.

“Should they be punished too? This was their time and their effort making works they thought were evangelizing – or are we saying they are all complicit?” she said.

She also noted that, in Rome and beyond, Rupnik for decades was “lionized” by the Catholic community, including many of her peers, who appeared dazzled by his works and who would go to lengths to show off any mosaics they had.

“Now those people who thought he was God’s gift to art want to dump him? How were they such blind patrons?” she asked, adding, “If we don’t leave the works this question will never be asked, which I consider a problem.”

Lev compared “cancelling” Rupnik to destroying Caravaggio masterpieces once news of the murder and of his gambling and promiscuity came to light.

Centuries later, “we can look at his struggle between light and dark and learn from it,” she said, asking about Rupnik, “is there nothing we can learn from thinking about why he was so popular for so many years?”

Other concerns involve the immense cost of taking down and replacing Rupnik’s art, she said, noting that this also raises the question of what to replace it with, and whether whatever is found would survive as long as a Rupnik piece would have, before being taken down or replaced itself.

Referring to the explicit descriptions Rupnik’s alleged victims have given of his abuse, Lev lamented that “these poor women had to do that to get anyone to pay attention,” and voiced her belief that more attention ought to be paid to his current standing as a Catholic priest.

“Why are we more upset about his art that the fact that he is still allowed to hold a chalice?” she said, suggesting that the Church “Start with sacraments, then let’s talk about art.”

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Debate over the Vatican’s ongoing use of Rupnik’s art has flared recently after the head of the Vatican Dicastery for Communications, Italian layman Paolo Ruffini, recently sparked controversy for defending his office’s continued use of the artwork of the former Jesuit on its website.

During a June 21 session at the Catholic Media Conference in Atlanta, Ruffini was asked why his office continued to use Rupnik’s artwork on its website, despite the various allegations against Rupnik, and an ongoing Vatican investigation.

In response, Ruffini said the investigation into Rupnik had not yet been completed, saying, “who am I to judge the Rupnik stories?”

He said that “we’re not talking about minors,” and said that as Christians, “we are asked not to judge.” He also suggested that taking down the artwork would not signal any further closeness to victims and, when challenged by the audience on this, said, “I think you’re wrong.”

Nataša Govekar, who leads the department for Theology and Pastoral activity in the Vatican’s communications dicastery, is a member of the Aletti Center, founded by Rupnik and which for years has served as his base of artistic operations in Rome.

Ruffini’s remarks in Atlanta were met with a wave of immediate backlash, with many observers and survivors of clerical abuse calling them insensitive and a sign that the Church has learned nothing since the abuse scandals first exploded.

American Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors then wrote a letter to the head of all Vatican departments asking that they refrain from using Rupnik’s art out of respect for victims of abuse.

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In the letter, dated June 26, O’Malley asked for “pastoral prudence” in displaying Rupnik’s work, saying, “We must avoid sending a message that the Holy See is oblivious to the psychological distress that so many are suffering.”

In her comments to Crux, Lev said she believes Ruffini “made some good points” in his remarks, “but they were couched in such a cavalier, dismissive attitude, that he might as well have just slapped those women in the face.”

Speaking to journalists on the margins of a book presentation in Rome Monday, Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin claimed that he had not yet seen O’Malley’s letter, saying, “On the Rupnik issue, I’m not involved in it, so it’s difficult for me to give an opinion.”

“I really don’t know what to say to this, because I have not yet seen this letter,” he said, but referred to a decision announced by Bishop Jean-Marc Micas of Tarbes and Lourdes shortly before the book presentation stating that after 18 months of debating what to do with the Rupnik mosaics adorning the façade of the Marian shrine there, no consensus was reached, so it was decided to leave them for now, but to no longer illuminate them at night.

Parolin in referring to the decision said, “I don’t think they even proposed to take down the mosaics in Lourdes, those things are a little difficult,” but offered no further comment on the Vatican’s own use and display of Rupnik’s art.

Rupnik’s case is currently being investigated by the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), after authorities initially refused to lift a statute of limitations allowing an inquiry to take place, before reversing course at the pope’s request last fall.

Last summer, he was expelled from his Jesuit order, the same order to which Pope Francis belongs, after Jesuit authorities found the allegations to be “highly credible,” and after Rupnik refused to collaborate with an internal inquiry.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article stated that Nataša Govekar was depicted in Father Marko Rupnik’s mosaic inside the Vatican’s Redemptoris Mater chapel. This has been corrected to say that some believe a figure inside the mosaic bears a close resemblance to Govekar.