Pope Francis addressed approximately 200 prominent artists and other creative people from more than 30 countries in the Sistine Chapel on Friday.
Among the participants was the U.S. photographer Andres Serrano, creator of the controversial 1987 “Piss Christ” image, a photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in urine.
The meeting with Pope Francis in the Sistine Chapel was organized by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Culture and Education to mark the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of the Modern and Contemporary Art Collection in the Vatican Museums.
Other guests included contemporary painters, sculptors, architects, photographers, writers, poets, playwrights, musicians, actors, and directors.
The pope said the Church has a great friendship with the arts, which can bring much-needed hope to the world through beauty, harmony, and truth.
“Often, as artists, you attempt to plumb the depths of the human condition, its dark abysses. We are not all light, and you remind us of this,” the pope said June 23.
“At the same time, there is a need to let the light of hope shine in that darkness, in the midst of our selfishness and indifference,” he added. “Help us to glimpse the light, the beauty that saves.”
There were nine creatives from the United States, including Abel Ferrara, who directed the recent Padre Pio film starring Shia LaBeouf.
In his speech, Pope Francis said art and faith are alike in that they can both be troubling. “Neither art nor faith can leave things simply as they are: They change, transform, move, and convert them. Art can never serve as an anesthetic; it brings peace, yet far from deadening consciences, it keeps them alert,” he said.
The pope also reflected on art’s connection to beauty.
“As Simone Weil wrote: ‘Beauty seduces the flesh in order to gain entrance to the soul. Art touches the senses in order to enliven the spirit, and it does so through beauty, which reflects things that are good, just, and true,” he said.
“Beauty,” he continued, “makes us sense that life is directed towards fullness, fulfillment. In true beauty, we begin to experience the desire for God. Many today hope that art can return more and more to the cultivation of beauty.”
Pope Francis decried a kind of superficial, or “cosmetic beauty,” and said a way to recognize true beauty is through the presence of harmony.
“True beauty is always the reflection of harmony,” he said. “If I may say so, harmony is the operative virtue of beauty, its deepest spirit, where the Spirit of God, the great harmonizer of the world, is at work.”
He added: “As artists, you can help us to make room for the Spirit.”
Serrano has often received intense backlash for his works, which often incorporate bodily fluids, human feces, or photos of corpses.
His photo “Piss Christ” has been criticized as blasphemous and has been the subject of controversy since the late 1980s. U.S. Sens. Al D’Amato and Jesse Helms expressed outrage that the artist received $5,000 from the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts in 1986.
Cardinal George Pell, when archbishop of Melbourne, tried and failed to receive a legal injunction to prevent the National Gallery of Victoria from displaying the photo in 1997. The show was later canceled when someone tried to remove the work from a wall and two teenagers attacked it with a hammer.
A print of the image was also damaged in 2011 by Christian protesters when it was displayed in an exhibition in a contemporary art museum in Avignon, France.
Serrano has defended the photograph against accusations of blasphemy, calling it “an act of devotion” from someone born and raised Catholic who is now a practicing Christian.
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Other invited artists
Poet Patricia Lockwood, writers Enuma Okoro and Jhumpa Lahiri, Korean-born American playwright Young Jean Lee, photographer Bill Armstrong, artist Daniel Arsham, and sculptor Barry X Ball also represented the United States.
One of Ball’s more recent works is a portrait sculpture of St. John Paul II, a figure he said had fascinated him since his early 20s.
In a description of the work, Ball said despite being raised as a strict fundamentalist Protestant Christian, after he was introduced to art history in college, he “developed a particular affinity for the art of the Church, an almost exclusively Roman Catholic art.”
The sculptor said he was inspired to start taking classes to convert to Catholicism, though he never followed through with it.
“Although I ultimately did not convert, I have continued to spend time in Catholic churches, taking opportunities as they arise during my travels, to look at the art they contain and to bask in their palpable spirituality — so different from the severe white Protestant ‘boxes,’ devoid of art, where I worshiped during my Southern California childhood,” he said.
South Korean pianist Yiruma, Italian pop rock singer-songwriter Ligabue, and Ukrainian singer and actress Tina Karol were also in attendance.
During the event, Italy-based cellist Issei Watanabe performed a song on a cello built with pieces of wood from migrant boats.
The pope also urged the creatives to not forget the poor, “those especially close to the heart of Christ, those affected by all of today’s many forms of poverty.”
“The poor, too, have need of art and beauty,” he said.