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Vatican swaps Old Masters for modernity with Venice Biennale debut

Story highlights

  • Vatican is to exhibit works at the Venice Biennale for the first time
  • Holy See better known for its Renaissance masterpieces than for modern art
  • Venice Biennale is one of the world's most prestigious contemporary art exhibitions
  • Cutting edge works are displayed in national "pavilions" across the city's Castello district

Its art collection is the envy of galleries the world over, but until now the Vatican has been better known for Renaissance masterpieces rather than hip modernist artworks.

That may be about to change: the home of the Catholic Church has announced it will exhibit at the ultra-fashionable Venice Biennale for the first time later this year.

In a bold move away from the works of Michelangelo, Rafael and Giotto for which it is renowned, the Holy See picked Italian new media art collective Studio Azzurro, Czech-French photographer Josef Koudelka, and Australian-born U.S. painter Lawrence Carroll to interpret its chosen theme.

But the subject itself is one of the oldest and most traditional: the pavilion, inspired by Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is entitled "In the Beginning."

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said the stories of Genesis were "fundamental for culture and for Church tradition," and had inspired some of the greatest works in the history of art.

Ravasi said the book -- and the artists' works it had given rise to -- examined "the mystery of man's origins, the introduction of evil into history, and our hope and future projects after the devastation symbolically represented by the Flood."

Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, said Studio Azzurro's installation explored the theme of "Creation" using "the immaterial image, light, sound, and sensory stimuli."

Paolucci said Koudelka had selected a "specific and extremely evocative sequence" of his photographs to examine the idea of destruction, or "Un-Creation," "[exposing] an abandoned, wounded world."

He said Carroll had used salvaged materials to form a meditation on "Re-Creation" and the "continuous and cyclical action of recovery and erosion... forcing fragility and monumentality to coexist."

Ravasi said the result was "a vital, rich and elaborate dialogue," which he hailed as a sign of the Vatican's "renewed, modern patronage" of the arts.

Paolo Baratta, president of the Venice Biennale, welcomed the Vatican's debut at the show, hailing it as "an event of great importance."

The Venice Biennale is one of the world's best-known contemporary art exhibitions; founded in 1895, it is held every two years. The work of leading artists is showcased in national "pavilions" across the city's Castello district.

The 55th Biennale will take place from June 1 to November 24, 2013, and will feature works by Ai Weiwei, Jeremy Deller, Carl Andre, Mark Manders and Miroslaw Balka.

Among the other countries taking part in the event for the first time in 2013 are Angola, Bahrain, the Bahamas, Kuwait, Paraguay and the tiny island nation of Tuvalu.