‘We are in need of a new beauty’: Pope opens new contemporary art gallery in historic Vatican library

"Cultures become sick when they become self-referential," says Pope Francis at gallery launch

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The Sistine Hall of the Vatican Library Photo: Anna & Michal

The Sistine Hall of the Vatican Library Photo: Anna & Michal

The Vatican is making another foray into contemporary art with the launch of a dedicated space for exhibitions of works by 21st-century artists. The new permanent venue is housed in the 15th-century Apostolic Library. “The [library] inaugurates a new exhibition hall to support the culture of encounter,” says the Vatican’s librarian Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça in a statement. The move comes after the Vatican Museums cancelled an exhibition in 2018 of works by Andy Warhol which was intended to explore the Pop artist’s “spiritual side”.

According to the Catholic journal Crux, the inaugural exhibition—Everyone: Humanity on the Move (until 25 February 2022)—features centuries-old geographical and allegorical maps in the library’s collection interspersed with new works by the Rome-based artist Pietro Ruffo.

Ruffo has also transformed the Sala Barberini room in the library into “a lush tropical forest”, say the organisers, placing rolled botanical prints on the 17th-century bookshelves. Other map works by Ruffo on display focus on migration. “The map is a fixed element that is traversed by different people,” the artist told local press.

“I appreciate this endeavour to open a dialogue. Life is the art of encounter. Cultures become sick when they become self-referential… when they exclude instead of integrate,” said Pope Francis at the launch of the new exhibition space. In the wake of the pandemic “we are in need of a new beauty,” he added.

The library exhibition space is funded by the heirs of the US philanthropist and movie studio mogul Kirk Kerkorian; according to Forbes, he was worth $4.2bn in 2015 when he died aged 98.

In 2018, the Vatican Museums were in talks with the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh to stage a show of the Pop artist’s religious works in 2019. But the exhibition was cancelled after the Warhol show clashed with the Vatican’s Leonardo da Vinci blockbuster held in 2019. In 2018, the Vatican took part for the first time in the Venice Architecture Biennale, unveiling ten chapels by international architects in the rarely visited woodland on the island of San Giorgio.

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