The story behind the Vatican’s colossal sculpture of Jesus rising from nuclear destruction
Last week, Twitter users across the world made a startling discovery: A viral photo of the Vatican’s Paul VI audience hall revealed a colossal, looming sculpture that frames the pope during his addresses.
“i’m sorry is this a normal thing the pope stands in front of” read a tweet on Aug. 25 that garnered over 172 thousand likes. And it’s a valid question. The sculpture makes an impression.
i'm sorry is this a normal thing the pope stands in front of pic.twitter.com/Q9XFAy3we0— picardie aurora (@picardie_aurora) August 24, 2022
The sculptor Pericle Fazzini designed the piece, “The Resurrection,” to represent Jesus ascending from the explosion of a nuclear bomb. It measures an enormous 66 feet by 23 feet by 10 feet. The wilted bronze color gives the piece a feeling of sickness and decay, while the misshapen knots around Christ’s feet evoke images of dismembered hands and skulls.
Commissioned in 1970 and inaugurated in 1977, “The Resurrection” comes from an era of widespread fear of nuclear annihilation, of duck-and-cover drills and neighborhood fallout shelters. Then and today, leaders in the Catholic Church have stated in clearest terms their opposition to nuclear weapons.
The sculptor Pericle Fazzini designed the piece, “The Resurrection,” to represent Jesus ascending from the explosion of a nuclear bomb. It measures an enormous 66 feet by 23 feet by 10 feet.
Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council only days before the Cuban Missile Crisis began. His relatively brief papacy was marked with impassioned statements against the use of nuclear weapons, including a call for peace over the radio to the U.S. and Soviet Union on Oct. 25, 1962, as Pope Francis mentioned in a 2013 address.
“With your hand on your conscience may each one hear the anguished cry which is raised to the skies from all parts of the earth, from the innocent children to the elderly, from the people of the communities: Peace, peace!” Pope John XXIII famously said in that address.
It was only a few months later that he issued the encyclical “Pacem in Terris,” which expressly condemned the use and possession of nuclear bombs.
“Hence justice, right reason, and the recognition of man’s dignity cry out insistently for a cessation to the arms race. The stock-piles of armaments which have been built up in various countries must be reduced all round and simultaneously by the parties concerned. Nuclear weapons must be banned,” he wrote.
It was John XXIII’s successor, Pope Paul VI, who commissioned Fazzini’s “Resurrection.” The commission was under debate for seven years, according to the Vatican Museum’s website, and only became official after the pope’s “personal intervention.” It has stood behind each pontiff when using the Paul VI audience hall since.
Commissioned in 1970 and inaugurated in 1977, “The Resurrection” comes from an era of widespread fear of nuclear annihilation, of duck-and-cover drills and neighborhood fallout shelters.
Catholic anti-nuclear activism has continued to develop since then. Three years after the sculpture’s completion, a group of Catholic activists called the Plowshares Eight entered a General Electric factory in King of Prussia, Pa., to protest the company’s work on nuclear weapons. They poured blood on parts for nuclear warheads and damaged them with hammers. All were arrested quickly.
“Christ broke the law. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and took charge of the temple. He cured on the Sabbath, He plucked grain on the Sabbath,” Father Kabat said.
The Plowshares movement has grown into a network of protestors, Catholic and non-Catholic, fighting the allocation of funds for weapons of mass destruction rather than care of the poor. They take their name Isaiah’s call for nations to “beat their swords into plowshares” for food production (Is 2:4).
“When the state puts such resources into weapons of destruction, it’s a healthy thing for Christians to be in trouble with the state,” Father Kabat said from a jail cell in 1979.
Civil disobedience has remained the primary weapon used by the anti-nuclear movement. Martha Hennessy, anti-nuclear activist and granddaughter of Dorothy Day, spent five months in federal prison from December 2020 to May 2021 for participation in a Plowshares protest in Kings Bay, Ga.
“We are not to commit murder, nevermind mass murder with these modern weapons. And the promotion of peace is certainly part of what we are called to do,” she said in an interview over the phone.
The sculpture acts as a reminder of 80-year history of Catholic responses to the threat of nuclear war.
Ms. Hennessy said that the public has grown used to the existence of nuclear weapons, and she fears that many have become apathetic to it.
“I do believe that the rhetoric and the language now is trying to soften us up for accepting limited nuclear engagement, which is all a fallacy,” she said. “It's all, as Dorothy called it, psychological warfare.”
She said in an email that she feels “conflicted” over the imagery of Fazzini’s sculpture, wondering whether it makes us more aware of the horrors of nuclear annihilation or actually desensitizes us.
In her official 2018 court declaration, Ms. Hennessy quoted extensively from the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” the Gospels and various documents by Pope Francis. She said she believes that church teachings are quite clear in their zero-tolerance for nuclear weapons and the military-industrial complex.
Pope Francis affirmed as recently as June of this year that “the use of nuclear weapons, as well as their mere possession, is immoral.” The risk to the environment and the divestment from the poor that nuclear weapons represent have been substantial points of his platform.
So although many on Twitter compared “The Resurrection” to the setting of a video game boss battle, the sculpture does act as a reminder of 80-year history of Catholic responses to the threat of nuclear war.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the location of the Plowshares protest in King’s Bay. It has been updated to reflect that this was in King’s Bay, Ga., not N.Y.