With Catholicism’s long connection with the arts, from Michelangelo making the Sistine Chapel a place of transcendence to the Vatican Museums’ huge troves of artifacts and art, it’s worth looking at how the incoming pope may feel about contemporary visual culture. Yet while the outgoing Pope Benedict XII was surprisingly open about art and even convened artists at the Vatican in order to improve relations, the prospects for Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who will now be Pope Francis (he’ll become Pope Francis I once there’s a Pope Francis II), seem less promising.
As Artlyst reports, back in 2004, Bergoglio, who was then the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, decried an exhibition by Porteño artist León Ferrari in Buenos Aires as “blasphemous” due to its placing of religious icons like Jesus, Mary, and selected saints inside blenders and frying pans, and stated that he wanted it closed. The Catholic News Agency reported that Bergoglio stated: “For some time public expressions of ridicule and insult of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Most Holy Virgin Mary, as well as numerous exhibits against the religious and moral values we profess, have been on display throughout the city.” Part of this outcry was due to the exhibition taking place in a cultural center funded by tax payers. But it wasn’t just Ferrari, as at this time the Catholic Church authorities along with conservative protestors attacked three different exhibitions, with two being shut down, including Ferrari’s which a judge declared “wounded the sensibilities of Christians.”
However, Pope Francis doesn’t seem to hate all art, or at least not opera, as apparently he’s a big fan of the Met. He’s also cited Marc Chagall’s multilayered “The White Crucifixion” from 1938 as his favorite painting, a work that shows both the suffering of Jesus and of the Jewish people, according to Reuters. Of course, anecdotal evidence about his tastes and, rather unsurprising, if vicious, attacks against art that is blatantly confronting religion is one thing. More worrisome is his past unwillingness to speak out against the dictatorship in Argentina that left thousands in the country dead or missing between 1976 and 1983 in the “Dirty War.” As Salon reports, this was more a widespread inaction of the Catholic Church throughout the Dirty War, and not just Bergoglio, and this doesn’t mean his was a collaborator. Yet he has refused to appear in court and then, when he did, was evasive in trials about torture, murder, and the stealing of detainees’ children.
Pope Francis is evidently a very conservative pope coming on the exit of another conservative pope, and his inaction with things so intrinsic to his other country’s tumultuous history, and his radical reactions to confrontational art, do not seem promising for a more open Catholic Church.