Saturday, May 21, 2011

Il Papa, non Il Duce: a defense of Rainaldi's statue of Pope John Paul II

By: James Fletcher
Recently a modernist sculpture of Pope John Paul II by Oliviero Rainaldi was placed in front of Rome's Termini Train Station.  Soon afterward, the official newspaper of the Vatican condemned the statue as unfitting to the memory of the blessed Pope. (1)  It has been condemned by Romans on two grounds: the similitude of the statue's head to the head of Mussolini, and the fact that it's non-representative, "it doesn't even resemble the late pontiff." (2)  This post defends Rainaldi's statue against these objections.
Images provided by the artist, and reproduced here with his consent.

To the first objection, that the statue is non-representative, I would point out that the Vatican museum itself features a collection of "Modern Religious Art" inaugurated by Pope Paul VI in 1973. This collection features works by such paradigmatically non-representative artists as Paul Klee and Kandinsky. It is apparent in the address by Pope Paul VI upon the inauguration of the collection, excerpted below, that he conceived of modern religious art as (potentially) more effective at communicating to the modern man.

Translation: "We collectively asked ourselves: is there today, within the framework of our lived experience, a modern religious art, a child of our time and twin to our secular modern art, which likewise enchants the eye and the human spirit of our century?"(3)
Even Pope Paul VI recognized that modern art may be more able to communicate to modern man and engage with modernity, after all that is the purpose of "modern" art, whether produced in the 1880s or the 1990s it employs a "modern" aesthetic to engage the "modern" man.

Rainaldi's use of "modern" non-representative form is particularly appropriate considering the content of the message he communicates using this form. The sides of the statue open up like outstretched arms, welcoming the audience. It is a reference to John Paul's much celebrated legacy of reaching out to other religious communities and welcoming back members of the Catholic church who had been discouraged by controversy and regressive policies. The modern form of Rainaldi's expression supports its content, of a modern Pope engaging and welcoming the audience.

The second objection, that the head resembles that of Mussolini, is perhaps best understood as a reflection of the audience more than actual or intentional resemblance. The large and oddly-shaped head may instead be an intentional conflation of the Pope's bald head and the form of the Papal Tiara (seen here), one of the most representative symbols of Papal authority.  The identification as Mussolini's head may be the result of the audience's association of monumental and modernist statuary with fascism and Mussolini. An example of the use of such monumental statuary is Mussolini's forum, and modernist Italian groups such as the Futurists actively courted the Fascist party to ensure their survival. This history, only briefly alluded to here, explains the ease with which an Italian audience would associate monumental modernist statuary with a fascist figure.

Non-representative art has been officially accepted by the Vatican as an appropriate modern expression of religious piety and sentiment. Rainaldi employed modern forms to communicate the message of a Pope fully engaged with the modern world, not only through the welcoming form he creates but through the choice to use modern form itself. The unfortunate association with Mussolini is a result of the audience's associations between such monumental sculpture and fascism.  Unfortunately, this dramatically modern celebration of a modern Pope---a modern Saint!--may soon be removed from its current site.
Image from side showing outstretched cloak and the texture of the sculpture.

Artist's Website: 

Articles Referenced:



        "Ebbene, chiedevamo allora collettivamente a noi stessi: esiste oggi, proprio nel quadro della nostra vissuta esperienza, un’Arte religiosa, attuale, moderna, figlia del nostro tempo e gemella dell’Arte profana, che ancora assilla ed incanta l’occhio, ed anche lo spirito dell’uomo del nostro secolo?" 

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed your article and I would be grateful to know you. Please visit my website and contact me.
    Oliviero Rainaldi