Thursday, August 28, 2014

Contemporary Art at the Vatican Museum

"Hey, you're not supposed to be in there. Don't touch that!"

Not exactly words you want to hear when visiting the Vatican Museum.

Vatican Museum, Arnaldo Pomodoro
Sphere within a Sphere by Arnaldo Pomodoro

It all began when we walked into the museum's Courtyard of the Pinecone after buying our tickets. In the middle of the courtyard surrounded by classical architecture sat a huge, golden sphere. It almost looked like a DeathStar under construction or a globe in the process of shedding its layers. Creation or destruction? I couldn't tell what was going on. So, I asked our tour guide, an art historian with Context Travel specializing in family tours, what in the world I was looking at.

This giant ball made out of brass, not gold, is titled Sfera con Sfera  (Sphere within a Sphere) and was created by Milan-based artist Arnaldo Pomodoro. It weighs 18,000 pounds and measures 4 meters in diameter. What surprised me the most is that the Vatican exhibits works by living artists. I've always thought of the Vatican as a repository for the ancient and the long gone.

The sphere in the Vatican is just one of many of Pomodoro's spheres on display around the world. You can see them in places as diverse as the United Nations Headquarters in New York, Tel Aviv University, University of California at Berkley, Trinity College in Dublin, and the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in Iran.

According to Pomodoro, "the sculpture is intended as a metaphor for the coming of a new millennium, a promise for the rebirth of a less troubled and destructive world." Rebirth. Well, now its place in the Vatican was beginning to make sense. 

Then, our guide encouraged my kids to step up to the sphere and rotate it. Seeing that it was surrounded by a low chain, they hesitated.

"Go on," she said. "Go up and turn it." I figured that she must have given this tour a hundred times and knew when it was okay to flout the rules. The other casual visitors were a little appalled to see the children cross the chain and lay their hands on a priceless work of art.

Working together, my oldest and my youngest pushed. And without much trouble, that globe began to turn on its axis. All 18,000 pounds of it. As interesting as it was visually, I was equally amazed by the engineering. 

As we walked away, our guide explained that the Vatican actually has a vast collection of contemporary art. It is housed in the basement of the Sistine Chapel and the former apartments of Pope Alexander VI Borgia. Basically, people like to give the Pope gifts. However, he's no longer as much of a player in the art world as his predecessor was 500 years ago when he sent Michelangelo a message saying "Yo Mike! I got a ceiling in a chapel that needs a little spiffing up." 

Henri Matisse 

Chapel of our Lady of Our Rosary of Vence
Sketches for The Chapel of Our Lady of Our Rosary of Vence by Henri Matisse

I think the best pieces in the Vatican Museum's contemporary art collection are the plans created by Henri Matisse when designing The Chapel of Our Lady of Our Rosary of Vence in the French Riviera from 1949-1951. To convey his idea for the stained glass windows, he cut out pieces of brilliant blue, bright yellow, vivid green and black paper and put them together just as he wanted the glass assembled. He made a sketch of what would eventually become one of three giant murals in the chapel. His version of The Madonna and Child shows her offering her son up to the whole world instead of the more typical depiction of her holding the child to herself. The final product is made of black paint fired onto large white tiles. Matisse considered The Chapel of Vence to be his greatest work and instructed his son to donate the prepatory sketches and plans to the Vatican. Although the Vatican has had these in their possession since 1980, it took 3 decades for them to find a room with the right temperature and humidity to properly display these delicate works.

There was one piece in the room that seemed oddly out-of-place. 

Vatican Museum, Contemporary Art
Madonna by Lucio Fontana

This tall and lumpy sculpture of The Madonna was created by Lucio Fontana. It was in the room before Matisse's works took it over but was so heavy that the Vatican just left it there. Okaaaaaaayy....

Salvador Dali

Angelic Landscape by Salvador Dali
What do you think of Dali's contribution to the Vatican entitled Angelic Landscape? Like much of Dali's other works, it sets me off balance. Yes, those may be angels, but the chartreuse hues and that melting, collapsed blob on the bottom left make me feel maybe we're looking in on Purgatory. I can't tell if the angels are dancing or fleeing.

The Splendor of Truth, The Beauty of Charity

El Anatsui, Vatican Museum, contemporary art
Then, Flashes of the Spirit, 2011 by El Anasui
(and a photobombing boy)
In 2011, the Vatican marked Pope Benedict XVI's sixty years of priesthood by commissioning 60 works from around the world that fit the theme "The Splendor of Truth, The Beauty of Charity" in hopes of connecting today's artists to the religious themes that used to be more dominant in art.

The above work titled "Then, Flashes of the Spirit" was created by the one of the most important African artists today, El Anatsui from Ghana. It's formed out of hundreds and thousands of discarded metal pieces. The Vatican has displayed this piece in a way which seems rather mundane and static to me. Getting up close (but don't touch) is when it really becomes interesting.

Detail of  Then, Flashes of the Spirit
I couldn't believe the amount of work it must have taken to create this. I saw an official photo of this work online where it was displayed in a much more dynamic manner. Instead of being stretched out and staidly tacked to the wall, the official picture had it rotated and draped, almost as if it could serve as cloak to protect you.

Once Again, I Have No Clue

As I was flipping through my Vatican Museum photos, this one caught my eye. I have no clue what's going on. I didn't take any notes in this room because we'd already been looking at art for 150 minutes. Is that a statue of a man removing his shirt? That woman in the painting seems to be looking at him disapprovingly. And what's up with the brass door closer and the bright red fire extinguisher that my eyes keep gravitating to? The Vatican Museum is on the warm side since it has no air-conditioning. Maybe that's why the shirt is coming off. This whole set up seems a little voyeuristic to me — as if I'm intruding on a special moment. What's your interpretation?

Are you a fan of Contemporary Art? Would you expect to encounter it at the Vatican?

This post is part of the following linkups. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration. 


  1. Sphere within a Sphere looks amazing...

  2. Oh, I love this! How many times have I gotten home and looked at a photo and had no idea what was going on. . .obviously some reason I took it, but what might it have been? Love this post!

  3. The museum has such an impressive art collection ... the sphere within a sphere is such an interesting concept

  4. Hi Michelle, this post just reminded me of my last visit to Vatican wth my mon lfew months ago. We spent a lot of time in the modern art section bec I skipped it the first time I visited the museum (I had to run to see the Sistine Chape as it was about to close). I was really surprised with the wealth of the modertn collection. and my Mom really enjoyed it as well. We both loved the Matisse collection. I didn't know that the Sphere could move! I saw a yound couple trying to push it but I thought they were just goofing around. Sorry I can't help you wit the last photo. I don't remember seeing it. My mom has better memory maybe she'll remember it. Thanks for this post. It took me back to the spcial time I spendt with my mom.

  5. We were in this courtyard a few years ago and wish this sphere within a sphere would have been on display. I wish I could understand and see what an artist is trying to convey too. I'm glad we had an excellent tour guide to point out what we should see when we were looking at the many rooms of art. Beautiful and thought provoking story as always.

  6. Re: then flashes of the spirit. Our daughter is an artist and one thing I know is artists have an enormous amount of patience and attention to detail. Love the Sphere within a Sphere and Salvidor Dali.

  7. The only thing I remember from your photos seeing is the Sphere because you really can't miss it. We must have been too busy looking at the ceiling or tapestry collection more and totally missed the Vatican Museum's contemporary art collection. I love your interpretation of the last photo and I think it's spot on. I hope you're almost unpacked :)

  8. Michele, I haven't been to the Vatican in years. It sounds like it's time for another trip! Thanks for linking up with Weekend Travel Inspiration!

  9. We went through the Vatican and the museum so fast it was as if we were your photobomber in your photo. It's nice to see what we missed.

  10. Love the Sphere within a Sphere! I didn't know there was so much contemporary art at the Vatican - I love Matisse in particular. This has just booted the Vatican up the wish list! Thanks for sharing :)

  11. Amazing stuff. We didn't get to the Vatican on our last Rome visit. Next time...

  12. Ahhh this brought back some fond memories. How damn amazing is the Church's collection??? I loved that sphere, and I think it would look fab in my backyard :) Thanks for linking up with us for #SundayTraveler again.

  13. As I was reading this post and looking at the pictures I kept thinking about how hot I was when I visited the Vatican and then you mentioned that in the last paragraph which gave me a good laugh. I highly recommend visiting first thing in the morning before the crowds arrive to avoid some of that heat. I thought all the art was interesting just as you've captured here, yet it was the Sistine Chapel that captivated me the most. Fun post!

  14. I love contemporary art and I'm bummed that we didn't have the time to check any out while at the Vatican. I would love to start collecting and investing in some contemporary pieces in the near future. I'm a huge Dali fan - his paintings are usually so mysterious and eerie. I love the Matisse sketch as well. And thanks for sharing the piece by El Anatsui. I've never heard of him or seen his work before, and the detail in his piece is incredible!

  15. Well, this was quite an eye opener for me. I knew that the Vatican had an enormous collection, but had no idea it included such modern and eclectic works. I love Sphere within a Sphere by Arnaldo Pomodoro! I saw another of his sphere within a sphere works at the United National HQ in New York.

  16. Haha, I don't think that anything being stored at the Vatican would surprise me! In the 1980's they actually discovered elephant bones buried at the Vatican as one of the prior popes in the 1500's had a pet Asian elephant that had been given to him as a gift:) The history of that place is amazing!

  17. I have a love/hate relationship with contemporary art;-) Although yes, definitely a bit surprising to hear that it's at the Vatican of all places! So cool that the kiddos got to interact with the art, though!

  18. I would never had guessed they had such modern at at the Vatican Museum! Some really interesting pieces though, and while I'm not really religious kind of love the idea of Madonna holding up the baby to the world rather than cradling him.

  19. I never think of the Vatican and contemporary art - only religious art that doesn't really do much for me - so thanks for opening my mind. I love the interaction too.

  20. Contemporary art really confuses me. Most of the time I don't understand it, but maybe that is the point? Who knows. I love that globe thing though. I saw the one in Dublin, but definitely didn't attempt to touch it.


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