A Sculpture Spurned: When modern art meets religion

The city of Rome is preparing to unveil for the second time a controversial public sculpture by an acclaimed modern artist, Oliviero Rainaldi. His “Conversa-tions,” a 16-foot-tall bronze statue of Blessed John Paul II, was completed in time to commemorate what would have been the pope’s 91st birthday (May 18, 2011). The four-ton work was installed last spring in the Piazza Cinquecento in front of a bustling train station. Rainaldi’s work is unprecedented: it is the first time a statue of any pope has been erected in a public space in the city of Rome.

But the public panned it. It lacked physical likeness, people said. Worse, the papal zucchetto (or skull cap) made the figure appear bald, and passers-by said it resembled Benito Mussolini. Roman citizens, visitors and critics disliked the “unfavorable representation” of one of the world’s great leaders. So the sculpture has been concealed for months behind a high wooden fence, as it undergoes “renovation.” The proposed completion date is May 2012.


Though many people still prefer the idealized naturalism of 19th- and 20th-century art, their insistence on physical resemblance obscures the underlying issue: How can the public appreciate modern art and the manner in which modern artists express meaning beyond, and even without, figurative representation? That is the question. Whatever “improvements” may result from the city’s current intervention and the artist’s modest modification of his work, that public conversation is worth conducting. The public and the art world ought to reflect jointly on the relationship between modern art and religious subject matter, which have been at odds for quite some time. When the ceiling and front wall of the Sistine Chapel were unveiled, Michelangelo had critics, too.

So what is the significance and role of modern art for religion?

For one thing, a modern religious work may reveal a meaning deeper than can be initially seen in form or content. The vital nature of modern art is a kind of prophetic realization. Modern art is not bound to create realistic or idealized portraiture; it is not interested in figurative beauty or the sentimental. Rather, modern art has replaced the post-Kantian idea of art as the contemplation of beauty with the idea of art as social communication. This does not justify poor execution. Art must still be art.

“Conversations” pushes the boundaries of papal portraiture. The essence of Rainaldi’s work is social dialogue; its focus is on symbolic communication. To put it a different way, the artist communicates the meaning of human existence as “relatedness.” In this work Rainaldi has mirrored a sensitive 21st-century person. The artist has captured a human love finding its true meaning not in self-expression but in dialogue; not in the individualism of a pope but in the universal charisma of one in relation to all creation. This work shows the embodiment of the human person’s social and spiritual nature, hence the title “Conversations.”

“Conversations” is essentially a postmodern work—existential, minimalist, conceptual and abstract. In the original work, as the pope’s head leans forward, his eyes are cast down toward the ground to where his mantel or cloak lies wide open. This suggests a gathering in, like the outstretched arms of a loving father, protective and caring for his children. That immense space inside the pope’s mantle is an invitation to all. The artist fashioned no hands or feet to distract the observer from the universal embrace.

Who could have gazed upon this bronze work and forgotten the historic moment when Pope John Paul II hid a child in his own mantel, or those occasions when he spontaneously embraced a child? These gestures, redolent of the pope’s life, combine with monumental force in Rainaldi’s work to symbolize the strength of character of the leader of the Catholic Church. “Conversations” rendered relationship ever present—relationship to God, humanity and the world.

The work also initiated a dialogue with its audience through the gesture of self-emptying. The pope, in imitation of the kenosis of Christ, empties himself to embrace humankind. In this sense Rainaldi’s work renders its most sensitive and theological reading.

How does an artist sculpt acceptance and openness to all? A collective embrace? How does he or she express greatness of personality, human stature or a magnanimous soul? How does an artist capture in bronze a conversation, a dialogue with God, with humanity and society? Rainaldi has achieved these feats, despite unfavorable interpretations by his audience.

When “Conversations” is unveiled again, despite any shortcomings in the artist’s techique, the public would do well to reconsider the role of modern art in society and how issues concerning human existence may be resolved or examined in art.

Already, Rainaldi’s original “Conversations” has awakened the city of Rome, which does not conform to any particular style of art but embraces them all—from the ancient to the present. Perhaps the second unveiling of “Conversations” will reassure the public of Rome’s timeless and unerring eye for talent.

Rainaldi’s artwork would then join the city’s other modernist masterworks—Arnaldo Pomodoro’s “Sphere Within a Sphere” (1990) at the Vatican’s Cortile della Pigna; Igor Mitoraj’s doors of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (2005) and Richard Meier’s church of Nostra Pater Misericordioso (2000) at Tor Tre Teste. Then “Conversations” would feel at home in a city as modern as it is old.

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Ann Engelhart
5 years 5 months ago

One of the major problems with this sculpture is not in its conception (which I liked) but in its execution. It lacks the elegance of the original sketches which depicted the figure of JPII draped in a cloak which falls gracefully to the ground. Rather, this sculpture has been described by critics as resembling a 2 liter soda bottle. The other problem is one of proportion, especially as it relates to the size and shape of the head. A portrait doesn't need to be literal in its likeness, but it should capture something of the spirit of its subject. 

While I wouldn't evaluate a work of art based exclusively on the reactions of the popular culture (you rightly recall the initially negative reactions to many great works) ...I wouldn't underestimate the overwhelming response of the general public to this piece designed for a public space.

I hope that the Rainaldi is successful in his attempts to restore his original concept to this depiction of a larger than life man... and that Rome embraces them both.


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