Although the religious world and the art world are now riven, there was a time when churches, monasteries and the ecclesiastical like were the lifeline of painting, sculpture and architecture.
The earliest iconography in the world is spiritually thematic. Humbly fashioned talismans of resident gods and goddess are some of the first objects fashioned by man on record. During the Renaissance artists’ vied ruthlessly to secure commissions from the Mother Church, and many of the wonders of the world were made under the aegis of religion, from the temples at Machu Picchu to the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
For good or bad (and let’s face it there was a lot of bad), the circumstances that brought these two spheres of influence together in a way that dynamically affected art-making are gone, which is part of the reason why the holdings in the contemporary art and sculpture museums of the Vatican are so fascinating. The art world may have freed itself from the church, but the church has definitely been keeping tabs.
In the contemporary art museum housed in Vatican City, there is an extensive modern collection, with paintings from Giorgio de Chirico, Carlo Carrà, and hundreds of others. And to bring us right up to date, just recently the current pope, Benedict XVI, commissioned his first work for the museum. Claudio Parmiggiani, a leading Italian artist, was approached by church officials and asked to create a work based on his smoke paintings, which he did.