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from issue no. 01 - 2008

Paul VI’s speech to artists in 1964 and the inauguration in 1973 of the Collection of Modern Religious Art

“We need you”

by Paolo Mattei

Paul VI, accompanied by his secretary, inaugurating the Collection of Modern Religious Art in the Vatican Museums, 23 June 1973

Paul VI, accompanied by his secretary, inaugurating the Collection of Modern Religious Art in the Vatican Museums, 23 June 1973

“We need you”. With these words in 1964 Paul VI addressed artists in the Sistine Chapel during the mass for the feast of the Ascension. It was a homily given in heartfelt tones, during which the Pope recognized the faults of the Church for the break that had occurred over time between it and artists, and asked their forgiveness: “We have sometimes put a lead cape over you, we might say; forgive us!” In this way the Pope aimed to re-establish with these people “creators, always alive, sparkling with a thousand ideas and a thousand innovations” a bond that had loosened because, he explained, “we have not had you as students, friends, conversers; therefore you have not known us”.
Pope Montini’s speech came a year after the writing of the Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy that deals in chapter VII with the theme of Sacred Art. The document, that proclaim the full freedom of art in the Church, recommending at the same time that “noble beauty” be favored over “mere sumptuousness”, also sets out a series of rules and recommendations addressed to artists in their function of creators of sacred works, and to bishops and ordinaries in their duty of overseeing and vigilance.
The hopes for renewed dialogue contained in Montini’s homily found a response in 1965 in the constitution Gaudium et spes that exhorted commitment “so that artists feel themselves understood by the Church in their work and, enjoying an ordered freedom, establish easier relations with the Christian community”.
Thirty-five years ago, in June 1973, Paul VI made another gesture of openness towards the art world by inaugurating in the Vatican Museums the Collection of Modern Religious Art, which began by bringing together eight hundred pictorial and sculptural compositions by Italian and international artists, and that has continued to expand with the acquisition since the ’eighties of approximately four hundred other pieces.
In the post-Council Church trends and tendencies have taken shape that manifest visions and demands diverging from the function and value of works of Sacred Art. The ever more invasive presence of images in the daily life of individuals – through the television, the cinema and, above all, advertising – has given origin to various reactions, like, for example, the nostalgic predilection for the nineteenth-century imagerie of the so-called Saint-Sulpice style (that tends to multiply stereotyped devotional images in figurative schemes) or, on the other hand, strong reference to a kind of aniconic cult, to a figurative silence that is alleged, by the few supporters of this current, to be effective testimony of a Christianity concerned with the values of the person. Beside “traditionalist” trends (the great spread in the West of the icons of the Russian or Greek Church – among other things not enthusiastically welcomed by certain Orthodox circles – is also according to some observers an expression of nostalgia) there are, by contrast, tendencies that encourage the use of every more modern instrument of visual communication to transmit the Christian message.
There is then a widespread leaning not to be influenced either by an exasperated present-past dialectic or by an attitude of opposition to the contemporary dechristianized world. In the circles that perceive this need it is hoped there will be advantageous coming-together of local Christian communities and the more representative artists in the respective figurative cultures and support for enhancing relations with even little known sculptors and painters should they share the history and tradition of the local Churches.

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