Pope Francis kissing a figurine of the baby Jesus during a Mass for the feast of the Epiphany at St. Peter's Basilica on January 06, 2023 in Vatican City, Vatican (photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Last Friday, June 23, the Vatican Museums’ collection of Modern and Contemporary Art celebrated its 50th anniversary with the help of Pope Francis, who invited over 200 artists for a commemoration at the Sistine Chapel. The collection was inaugurated by the late Pope Paul VI in 1973 to help rekindle the church’s relationship with artistry, considering the entwined narrative between the two has yielded some of the most iconic works in art history, including Michelangelo’s fresco on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.

“One of the things that brings art closer to faith is the fact that it disturbs a little,” Pope Francis noted in his address to the audience of creatives at the Chapel, which included the controversial artist Andres Serrano. “Art and faith cannot leave things as they are: they change them, transform them, convert them, move them,” the Pope continued. Serrano, known for his photograph “Piss Christ” (1987) depicting a crucifix submerged in his own urine, has also been criticized for artworks and comments that some perceive to be gratuitously tasteless or offensive.

Invitees in attendance at the Sistine Chapel also included German contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer, Bengali-American author Jhumpa Lahiri, and Dutch violinist André Rieu, among many others. Surrounded by Florentine Renaissance frescos and 16th-century tapestries, the audience took in the Pope’s words on unity and interdependence between faith and art that were peppered with references to Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Romano Guardini, and multiple Bible verses. Pope Francis urged attendees “not to forget the poor” as they too have a “need of art and beauty.”

“You can choose to become the interpreters of their silent plea,” he emphasized before thanking his guests and requesting a prayer.

In light of Pope Francis’s seemingly progressive opinions about art’s tendency to expose hard truths, it’s worth noting that he hasn’t always stood by artists who have used Christian motifs critically in their practices. In 2004, while serving as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires prior to his papacy, he decried an exhibition by León Ferrari as “blasphemous” and “a shame” for Ferrari’s juxtaposition of a crucified Jesus figurine on a United States bomber plane and other Christian icons in kitchen wares.

In anticipation of the anniversary, the Vatican Museums’ Department of 19th Century and Contemporary Art curator Micol Forti, assisted by Francesca Boschetti and Rosalia Pagliarani, selected newly acquired or famous 10 artworks for display throughout the institution. Works by El Anatsui, Mimmo Paladino, Monica Bravo, and several others were chosen with the intention of “weaving a dialogue between past and present,” as reported by the Vatican News. Forti, Boschetti, and Pagliarani also edited the upcoming Italian volume The Vatican Museums’ Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art 1973–2023. Origins, History, Transformations, set to publish soon through Edizioni Musei Vaticani.

Neither the Vatican Museums nor the Vatican Dicastery of Culture and Education immediately responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

The “Salette” of the Borgia Towers also has a free exhibition of archival photographs tracing the history of the Vatican Museums’ modern and contemporary art collection on view through September 24. The exhibition, Contemporanea50, draws attention to the work of Pope Paul VI, who inaugurated the collection in 1973 — nine years after he decried the separation between faith and art during an artists’ mass at the Sistine Chapel in 1964.

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...