The Vatican, Home to Centuries-Old Masterpieces, Opens a Contemporary Art Gallery

Pope Francis calls for a “new beauty” that is reflective of a new, more diverse world

Pope Francis speaks at the installation's opening
Ruffo’s installation features rolled botanical prints filling 17th-century wooden bookcases. Vatican Media

A space in the Vatican previously only accessible to researchers is now a gallery focused on contemporary art. The Vatican Apostolic Library recently opened an inaugural show featuring works by Italian artist Pietro Ruffo, Caroline Goldstein reports for Artnet News.

The show, “Tutti. Umanità in cammino” or “Everyone: Humanity on Its Way,” mixes centuries-old manuscripts and maps with new work.

“The Church must bear witness to the importance of beauty and culture, dialoguing with the unique thirst for the infinite that defines the human being,” Pope Francis said at an opening event for the show Friday, according to Catholic News Agency (CNA)’s Courtney Mares.

Ruffo’s installation, The Clearest Way, features rolled botanical prints filling the 17th-century wooden bookcases of the library’s Sala Barberini. The effect is intended to evoke a tropical forest. 

Ruffo, who frequently works with maps and takes migration as a theme, also created a new version of one of the library’s ancient maps. It runs side-by-side with the original, a map of the Nile created by Ottoman explorer Evliya Çelebi in the 17th century.

“The dialogue between my research and the terrestrial and celestial maps of different eras and cultures outlines a humanity that is increasingly interconnected and responsible for the fragile relationship with its ecosystem,” the artist said.

The Vatican, Home to Centuries-Old Masterpieces, Opens a Contemporary Art Gallery
The installation takes inspiration from the pope's 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti, or “Brothers All." Vatican Apostolic Library

The installation takes inspiration from Pope Francis’s 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti, or “Brothers All,” the Associated Press reports. In that letter, the pope called for defense of the environment and greater economic justice in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“In this epochal change that the pandemic has accelerated, humanity needs new maps to discover the sense of fraternity, of friendship and the common good,” Pope Francis said in his introduction of the installation. “We need a new beauty, that isn’t the usual reflection of power of some but a courageous mosaic of everyone’s diversity.”

Vatican librarian Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça says in a statement that the exhibition explores “non-geographical cartography.”

“Throughout the history of humanity, people have used the representative power of the map not only to describe the objectivity of the Earth, but also our own interiority, ideals, journeys, discoveries, and convictions,” he says, adding that Ruffo’s work includes “allegorical, theological, satirical, and sentimental maps, as well as maps of desire and of protest, of humanity’s dreams and desperation.”

The new gallery space is funded by the estate of movie and real estate mogul Kirk Kerkorian, who died in 2015. Francis has pushed the library to be more open to the public. He also opened the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo as a museum. 

Per Apollo magazine, in his 2015 book Pope Francis: My Idea of Art, the pope advocated for the Vatican Museums to “embrace new forms of art.” In 2018, the Vatican Museums worked with the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh on an exhibition of Warhol’s Last Supper series, though the Vatican City portion of the show was ultimately cancelled. That show focused on exploring the “spiritual side” of the pop artist, Gareth Harris reports for the Art Newspaper.

The new exhibition runs through February 22, with tickets available online