Picasso in the Vatican? A Possible Short List

Caravaggio Sheds Light on a Martyr's Death

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, AUG. 31, 2006 (Zenit.org).- This summer, Francesco Buranelli, director of the Vatican Museums, was interviewed by the Italian newspaper La Stampa, revealing his ambition to add a Picasso to the Vatican collection.

This struck me as somewhat strange. While Picasso was undeniably a great artist, why would the Vatican Museums want to display the work of a man who undermined the Christian message for seventy years?

Of course from a purely technical angle, Buranelli's aspiration makes good sense. What museum director, after all, wouldn't want a work by the most celebrated name in 20th century art?

But perhaps I am missing something. After all, there are so many styles and periods in Picasso's work, maybe one would indeed complement the art collection of the Catholic Church?

So I did a little research and compiled a short list of possible contenders for a place alongside Michelangelo, Raphael and other great Christian artists represented in the Vatican Museums.

"The Crucifixion"

This would be perhaps the most obvious choice, as this is the only religiously themed work by Picasso from 1897, until his death in 1973.

Pablo Picasso was born in 1881 into a Spanish Catholic family. He rejected his Catholic upbringing in his early 20s, mostly because he saw religious morals as an obstacle to the burgeoning sexual freedom of his age.

More prodigious than prodigal, Picasso never publicly returned to the church, although a priest was present at the artist's funeral.

Picasso sidelined Christ in the painting the way he had sidelined him in his own life. Picasso's "Crucifixion" features a small Christ at the top center. The crucified Jesus seems overwhelmed by what appears to be weeping women superimposed on him.

It is difficult to tell friend from foe in the work, and the clearest image of all is the soldier playing dice in the lower left.

Done in crayon colors, the painting seems more like a self-pitying tribute to Picasso's personal troubles (his wife and mistress were not getting along) than any real exploration of the meaning of Christ's suffering.

"Man with Sheep"

This bronze sculpture, representing a man holding a sheep, was created in 1944 at the end of World War II. This piece could be displayed next to "The Good Shepherd" statue in the Pio Christian Museum.

Viewers could contrast the youthful gentle face of the good shepherd, one of the earliest Christian symbols for Jesus, next to Picasso's stark, distorted man with the bulging eyes and fierce expression.

In the Christian version of the subject, a tranquil lamb curls gently around the shepherd's shoulders, but in the modern vision, although the shepherd clasps the sheep in one arm like an infant, the animal twists its head away, open-mouthed and protesting. Unlike the good shepherd, the savior who has found a lost sheep, Picasso's figure seems like a butcher bringing a lamb to the slaughter.

Picasso sculpted this work at the same time he joined the Communist party, so the distortion of one of the oldest symbols of man's salvation makes an apt metaphor for the artist's new ideology.

"The Demoiselles of Avignon"

This work, painted in 1904, of course refers to Avignon, home of the Papacy for over 70 years in the 14th century, so it bears a nice papal point of reference.

The painting has all the hallmarks of a masterpiece; employing the techniques of the old masters, Picasso made 106 preparatory sketches for it, which resulted in an innovative, gripping effect.

Unlike Michelangelo's Mary in the Pieta, who renders the sublime beauty of God's grace and her exemplary obedience to divine will, Picasso's five female figures are imbued with a very different kind of "feminine genius." The demoiselles pose, strut and squat in a brothel.

Like Renaissance artists, Picasso explored the sacred in this work, except his "holy" inspiration was drawn from the tribal African masks. Speaking of the "Demoiselles," the Spanish painter said that the African masks "were intercessors … against everything," adding that the painting was his "first canvas of exorcism!"

True, this work is a watershed in the history of art and most curators would allow themselves to be contorted into one of Picasso's misshapen figures to own it, furthermore, they would be completely justified given the nature and function of their secular museums.

The Vatican Museums, however, were not intended to be just another general exhibition in the history of art.

Michelangelo and Bernini and Fra Angelico created works that incite devotion, glorify God and stir viewers to transcend themselves. Secular museums do not have to reckon with two thousand years of propagating the Christian message.

My real question became: What do these works have to offer to the Christian audience looking for signs of God's sublime presence in our troubled modern times?

One of Picasso's early works might offer a solution to the selection dilemma.

"Science and Charity" was painted in 1897 by a 17-year-old Picasso.

This academic painting shows a woman on her deathbed, a doctor on her right and a nun on her left. The doctor looks away from the patient as he takes her pulse and goes about his science. The religious sister holds the woman's soon-to-be-orphaned child, proffering a glass toward the woman offering comfort.

Both the nun and the doctor wear the same colors of black and white, and appear as two sides of a scale. But the balance is tipped slightly toward the sister as the light shines on her while the doctor is cast in shadow. At the moment of death his science is useless, but the charitable care of the sister can offer solace.

Given that Picasso was to reject religion and embrace science as his guide -- from optics in cubism to psychology in his surrealist phase -- if nothing else, this painting would serve as a reminder of how God's gifts of talent, vision and genius can be used for both good and ill.

Is there a place in the history of art for Pablo Picasso? Most assuredly. I doubt very much, however, that it is in the Vatican Museums.

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A Transcendent St. John the Baptist

One of the saints I have grown to know and love better since I've lived in Italy is St. John the Baptist. After many years of seeing sculptures, paintings and churches dedicated to this extraordinary man, I can see why Florence took him as patron saint and no last judgment could be complete without him.

To commemorate the feast day of the beheading of St. John the Baptist, Aug. 29, I wanted to call to mind my favorite painting of the subject. While many artists have shown the beheading, Caravaggio's version seems to transport the viewer to the very moment of the saint's death.

Caravaggio painted the giant canvas of the "Beheading of St. John" on the island of Malta in about 1608 to earn a place among the Knights of Malta. One of the biggest works Caravaggio ever executed, the painting spans almost 12 x 17 feet.

In an unusual composition, Caravaggio chose to place St. John the Baptist on the ground with a group of four people standing around him. Only one elderly woman shows true grief at the death of the innocent prophet, the rest are engaged in the task of procuring the Baptist's head.

In the painting St. John has already been smitten with the sword and now the executioner reaches down to grasp him by the hair. The dagger behind the man's back will be used to sever the head while a young woman proffers a bronze salver. This final humiliation to the body of Jesus' cousin takes place in a back alley with a few onlookers peering through the prison window.

The somber brown and black tones of the painting are enlivened by the pool of scarlet blood around the Baptist and the brilliant light that shines down illuminating the martyr on the ground. The light indicates that no matter how concealed the execution may have been, it was visible to God.

Caravaggio's painting is particularly striking when considered in light of the Picasso painting above. Known as the "bad boy" of art, Caravaggio certainly had a more problematic personal life than Picasso. After twenty years of general troublemaking in Rome, Caravaggio had to flee to Malta as a refugee from justice after having murdered a man over a tennis bet.

Caravaggio did not live an exemplary Christian life, yet in his art, he succeeded in spurring others to do so. He did not reject the Church and her teachings because he failed to live up to them; instead he showed the way, the pitfalls and the difficulties of accepting the Christian challenge.

The suffering body of John lying in his own blood and about to be decapitated is not your typical heroic portrayal, yet Caravaggio's use of light shows how the saint has transcended earthly suffering, through his acceptance of this humiliating death at the hands of a capricious girl.

Great Christian artists don't use art to justify their personal shortcomings or celebrate their self-indulgent lifestyles. They express the beauty of the human struggle to achieve holiness.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.