At the press preview of the exhibition “Divine Beauty,” on at Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi through January 24, 2016, Giuseppe Cardinal Bettori referred to a benchmark sermon given by Pope Paul VI to a group of artists on May 7, 1964. The Holy Father had said, “We must re-establish the friendship between the Church and artists… Our friendship has never been broken, in truth […]. We have not fallen apart, but we have disturbed our friendship […] You have abandoned us in a way, going to distant places, drinking at other fountains, in your (legitimate) quest for expressing other things; but no longer our own. […]But […] we recognize that we have caused you some suffering. We have caused you suffering because we imposed imitation as the primary canon on you who are creators, infinitely vivacious, spouting forth thousands of ideas and thousands of innovations[…] We can say that sometimes we have placed against you a leaden burden; please forgive us! And then we have abandoned you. We have not explained our things; we have not introduced you into the secret cell where the mysteries of God make man’s heart leap with joy, hope, happiness, and exaltation.”
Bettori then went on to say that Pope Paul VI’s brave statement clearly refers to those two half centuries, the subject of “Divine Beauty.” Between 1850-1900, although the Roman Catholic Church actively encouraged the most innovative forms of artistic expression and advocated an art of popular input capable of moving the simplest of the faithful, the artists seemed uncertain about the destination of the sacred genre. Between 1900-1950 were grim times with runaway inflation, the Holocaust, Nazism, Fascism, and two world wars, when sacred art took a back seat to politics.
The exhibition of over one hundred works, mostly paintings but interspersed with sculptures and liturgical items, is the outcome of a collaboration between the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, the Archdiocese of Florence, the former Soprintendenza Speciale per il Patrimonio Storico, Artistico, ed Etnoantropologico e per il Polo Museale di Firenze, and the Vatican Museums. It’s one of many events in Florence during the fifth National Bishops’ Conference here from November 9-13; Pope Francis will be in attendance.
“From Salon to Altar,” the first of the seven sections of “Divine Beauty,” demonstrates the artists’ uncertainties about the destination of sacred art. As Carlo Sisi tells us in the catalog’s opening essay, Swiss-born Antonio Ciseri (1821-91) felt obliged to declare, regarding The Maccabees, that his was not “a historical painting, but a painting of reverence for the Altar”; while Pope Pius IX in setting up the Gallery of Saints and the Beatified in the Vatican Museums in 1869, actively campaigned for contemporary religious painting to embrace the naturalistic, narrative style of historical painting then in vogue.
Again, as Sisi tells us, “At the turn of the century, facing acute anticlerical propaganda and modernist movements for autonomy from the Church of Rome, idealistic movements were being affirmed throughout Europe…The figure of the Virgin, the ‘Rosa Mystica’ of the second section, corresponded to the desired encounter between the human and the divine expressed in art…” The “portraits” of the Virgin here range from Domenico Morelli’s highly romantic, Impressionistic Mater Purissima to De Carolis’ symbolist and Pre-Raphaelite Madonna, Praise Be to You for the Light You Shed on Earth, to Tullio Garbari’s naïve Our Lady of Peace, to Eduard Munch’s two disquieting and swirling lithographs, at the time judged scandalous, of the Madonna.
The third section, “Life of Christ,” consecutively follows the “Rosa Mystica” by opening with several artworks depicting the Annunciation. The rest is displayed in chronological order: the Nativity, the Flight to Egypt, Christ’s childhood in Nazareth, his miracles: Walking on Water, the Raising of Lazarus, followed by the events of Holy Week, the Crucifixion (the event depicted here with the largest number of artworks), and the Deposition. Only one by Émile Bernard, a reinterpretation of a Michelangelo drawing now in Windsor Castle, depicts the Resurrection (1925-30) and is on loan from the Vatican Museums, which has generously loaned several other works: Gaetano Previati’s Georgica (1905), a bucolic nativity; Maurice Denis’ Beardsley-like Nazareth (1905), showing Jesus as a child; Pietro Annigoni’s spookily-lit sepia-like The Raising of Lazarus (1946); Giuseppe Montanari’s The Kiss of Judas (1918) with a heavy-set Judas standing on tip-toe to kiss a rigid, skinny Jesus under a starry sky; Gaetano Previati’s gloomy and resigned Jesus Crowned with Thorns (Station 1 of the Cross) (1901-2); Georges Rouault’s The Veil of Veronica (1946) and his Ecce Homo (1952); Otto Dix’s Christ and Veronica (1943) in a modern setting but with Biblically-attired protagonists; Max Ernst’s Crucifix (1914) dripping blood, an early work and one of his few religious works; Graham Sutherland’s Study for Crucifixion (1947); Felice Carena’s Deposition (1938-39); Van Gogh’s The Pietà (c. 1889) (painted shortly before the artist’s death, it had been inspired by the humanity and the ability to recount pain and sacrifice of the figures in Delacroix’s Pietà, although Vincent never saw the original); Matisse’s Green Chasuble (1951); Munch’s woodcut of “Old Man Praying” (1902), and Adolfo Wildt’s huge gilded marble bust of Pius XI (1926).
In addition to Van Gogh’s Pietà with its redhead Christ bearing a strong physical resemblance to the Dutch artist, the exhibit’s two other stars depict the Crucifixion. One is Renato Guttuso’s (1940-1) from the collections of Rome’s Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna. Because of the nudity of the thieves, of Christ, who isn’t the central figure, and of Mary Magdalene, the Church considered the painting “indecent”; Archbishop Adriano Bernareggi of Bergamo immediately forbade his priests to see it. The other is Chagall’s White Crucifixion (1938) from the Art Institute of Chicago, the only work of art on loan from the United States. It’s said to be Pope Francis’ favorite painting, maybe because of its bold interfaith spirit, although up to now he has never seen it in person. Here Chagall has replaced Christ’s loincloth with a prayer shawl and His crown of thorns with a kippah, and added figures in traditional dress, shtetls and synagogues burning, and people fleeing in fear.
During his presentation Archbishop Bettori expressed disappointment that the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, had refused to loan Gauguin’s Yellow Christ (1889). Gauguin painted this Christ after a visit to Van Gogh in Arles shortly before Vincent’s death. Gauguin’s portrait of Christ, like Van Gogh’s, is a self-portrait. Together with his Green Christ, currently located in the Royal Museums of Art in Brussels, it’s considered to be the key work of Symbolism in painting.
The most light-hearted section, the fourth, is devoted to the mural and mosaic decorations by Gino Severini (Cortona 1883-Paris 1966) in Swiss churches: Semsales (1925-26), La Roche (1927-1928), Tavanes (1930), Saint-Pierre at Fribourg (1931-32; 1950-1), and Notre-Dame du Valentin in Lausanne (1933-4).
A leading member of the Futurist movement, Severini’s art mirrors the spiritual philosophy of his close friend Jacques Maritain: “The source of Christian art is a heart inhabited by grace.” (Jacques Maritain, 1882-1973, an enthusiast of St. Thomas Aquinas and the French ambassador to the Vatican 1945-1948, later taught at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto, Columbia, the University of Chicago, and Princeton.)
The most unusual section, Five, “Spaces of Sacredness,” simultaneously shows three videos on three different walls of “modern” church architecture. It concerns churches built during the exhibition’s two half-centuries. Examples: the American Episcopal Saint Paul’s Within the Walls in Rome, the first Protestant church built in Rome (1872-80) containing the largest works by the English Pre-Raphaelite, Edward Burne-Jones; as well as the Perret brothers’ concrete Notre Dame del la Consolation at Raincy near Paris (1922-23); the crypt of the monastery of Tourette at Eveux near Lyon (1956-60) and the Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp (1954), both by Le Courbusier, Perrets’ one-time employee. Not to be overlooked are the renovations of the facades for the cathedrals in Naples, Amalfi, and Florence.
Section Six, “The Church,” is a bizzare pot-pourri of church decorations like Maurice Denis’ oil wall panels (1899) inspired by the Raphael Rooms in the Vatican, and Piero della Francesco’s frescoes in Arezzo, and Benedictine Father Desiderius Lenz’s Beuronese-school pencil drawings and watercolors, studies for the decorative cycle (1876-9) representing St. Benedict’s life for six rooms in the upper part of the Torretta of Montecassino’s Abbey; the finished works were destroyed in the bombings on February 15, 1944. Also on display here are Matisse’s ultra-modern Green Chasuble and Wildt’s bust of Pius XI and another by him of a mystical St. Francis, not to mention Ravasco’s sumptuously bejeweled, gilded silver, lapis lazuli Reliquary of Saints Gervasius and Protasius (1936) and Manzù’s impressive bronze statue Great Cardinal (1955).
The highlight of “Prayer,” the seventh and last section, is Millet’s spellbinding Angelus (1857-9), a universal paradigm of devotion deeply rooted in work and the flow of seasons. The splendid catalog (available in English and in Italian for 35 euros) reports: “Millet said that he’d created Angelus while thinking of his grandmother, who, at the ringing of the church bell, interrupted her work in the fields and invited everyone to pray, men hat in hand…”