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November 18 2011

Splitting image: Benetton's banned advert

So the pope-kissing-imam ad was shouted down? The Vatican has been carefully controlling the pope's image for 500 years

You can understand why the Vatican got so angry with Benetton for creating an image of Pope Benedict XVI kissing the grand sheikh of Cairo's al-Azhar mosque. After all, the modern church has such a pristine image to protect – it's not as if it's beset by widespread accusations of clerical abuse or anything like that. A plainly fictional image of the pope kissing a Muslim man was, clearly, the worst thing to tarnish the Vatican's image in recent years. Much more serious than anything revealed about such Catholic institutions as St Benedict's school in London.

Benetton's adverts are actually a homage to a renowned Berlin wall graffiti painting of Communist leaders Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev kissing. Everyone finds it funny to see former leaders of the defunct Soviet bloc snogging, it seems, but when contemporary figures from the western world are similarly mocked the cannoli hit the fan.

Why is the Vatican so displeased, and why did Benetton so readily surrender? The image of the pope is one of the greatest triumphs of marketing in history. A church that is led by a venerable celibate might seem to have an in-built selling-point problem. How can popes, who necessarily take the throne of St Peter as old and often ailing men, be made to seem charismatic and glamorous in a world that values youth and physical vigour?

The papacy tackled this problem five centuries ago by calling in some of the greatest image-makers in world history. Today's advertising gurus have nothing on Raphael and Titian. One of the most influential images of power in the history of the world hangs quietly today in London's National Gallery: Raphael's portrait of Pope Julius II created a new paradigm for papal portraiture by showing age as dignity, inner wisdom and sad knowledge. The power of this portrait was emulated and refined by Titian, then by Velázquez. Popes were reimagined in the Renaissance and baroque eras as men whose age and restraint conferred great natural authority.

Even in Italy, this cultivated image has been mocked in modern times. Federico Fellini staged a clerical fashion show that travestied the Church in his film Roma. But the impression that was crafted by some of the world's greatest artists is still tremendously potent, in Italy and abroad.

Benetton's mistake was to underestimate how profoundly the church has succeeded in sacralising the image of the pope, in spite of every modern menace to its authority. No parliament on earth exerts the fascination of the Vatican as a power complex. The pope's image truly is infallible, and Benetton realised it had crossed an invisible line that has endured every onslaught of the secular world.


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September 01 2011

The pope in pictures

Spanish photojournalist Jorge Guerrero joined AFP in 2009. He recently photographed Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Madrid



September 19 2010

Catholic art: once the domain of Titian, now of Susan Boyle

My father, the non-Catholic parent of three Catholic children, had never a good word to say for the Catholic church. He knew as little about the church as the average British journalist, though he had been obliged to take instruction before he could marry my mother. It didn't help that the priest who instructed him slurred his words and stank of cheap whisky. My father thought that Catholics were rogues who broke the laws of God and man at will, then toddled off to confession, gabbled three Hail Marys and started all over again. He could produce ample evidence that Catholics were bare-faced liars, cheats, thieves, adulterers, pornographers, whoremongers and gangsters, to whom the church sold forgiveness in return for hard cash. When he was serving with the RAF in Malta, his contempt for priests grew more bitter, because no matter how little there was for soldiers or civilians to eat during the siege, the priests managed to remain sleek and fat. Daddy was anti-religion generally, but the religion that made him shudder was popery.

My father's revulsion stemmed as much from the style of the Catholic church as anything else. He was repelled by its trappings, the bells, the candles, the incense, the mumbo jumbo, the superstitions, the bad art, the tawdry vestments and the general staginess. The stories of the saints he regarded as preposterous fables invented to hoodwink a gullible and illiterate populace. When I regaled my mother with the extravagant accounts the nuns gave us at school, of the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima and Padre Pio's stigmata, he would leave the room and shut the door.

My father's revulsion is pretty widely shared in these islands. In a poll commissioned by the BBC, almost six out of 10 Catholics said that their faith was not generally valued. They might as well have said that it was heartily despised. My father was particularly disgusted by the venality of the church. Hardly a week passed without my bringing home from school a book of raffle tickets or a demand for a donation. My father's conviction that the Catholic church existed to steal money out of the pockets of the faithful is fully borne out by the "Pope Benedict XVI in the United Kingdom Official Online Store", which will charge you a tenner for an official souvenir programme, a quid for a "holy card" and £18 for a t-shirt. If you paid your £20 or £25 for a "pilgrim pass" to be in the "audience" for an actual event, you might have got to hold the merchandise up and have the Pontiff bless it. I suppose I should be mildly relieved that it is not being sold pre-blest.

As the curtain-raiser for the open-air Mass at Bellahouston Park, Susan Boyle sang How Great Thou Art and I Dreamed a Dream and Michelle McManus, who won Pop Idol in 2003, sang something written by her cousin Michael, while James MacMillan's setting of the actual Mass could best be described as perfunctory. Where once Catholic church music was written by artists like Monteverdi – whose astounding Vespro della beata Vergine (1610) was a highlight of the last week of the Proms – to be performed in churches designed by the likes of Palladio and Bernini, and filled with paintings by Tintoretto and Titian, church art is now feeble, derivative and kitsch. The most beautiful buildings in England were built and served for hundreds of years as Catholic churches, but these days we get Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, dismissed by anti-Catholic scousers as "Paddy's wigwam".

Among the chores the pope had to carry out on Saturday in Westminster Cathedral was the blessing of a mosaic of St David, designed by Ifor Davies and realised in sparkly gold and pearly white by Tessa Hunkin. Believers contemplating works of such timid mediocrity must conclude that the Paraclete has not breathed on Catholicism for many a generation. Westminster Cathedral's most significant artefact is the Stations of the Cross carved by that exemplary Catholic Eric Gill, who did not shrink from recording in his diaries his regular abuse of two of his daughters. Art lovers who tell us that we should not reject Gill's Stations of the Cross simply because the man who made them was vile can be reassured. They can be confidently rejected on the grounds of their own ordinariness.

To those of us who wrestled with Catholic dogma from the ages of four to 17, and relieved our overwrought feelings by singing Pachelbel, Palestrina and Mozart in virtuoso convent choirs, the Catholic church will remain dear, even as we all grieve for its present moral and spiritual bankruptcy. His Holiness is a formidable theologian who refuses to abate one jot of the implacable rigour of Catholic doctrine, yet he is prepared to allow religious experience to be dumbed down to idiocy. When he blessed the embarrassing mosaic of St David, he sprinkled it with healing water from the "holy well" of St Non, the saint's presumed mother, who is supposed to have given birth to him on that very spot on the coast of Pembrokeshire in the midst of a thunderstorm, c.500 AD. People who are capable of the heroic acts of faith required of today's Catholics should not be mocked by being fed such meretricious pap.


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August 25 2010

Raphael recalls era of Vatican intrigue

The Catholic church's loan of Renaissance tapestries to coincide with Benedict XVI's visit has the unfortunate consequence of reminding us of the papacy's history

The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain this autumn comes at a time of controversy for the Catholic church. It is therefore fairly obvious why the Vatican is making a flamboyantly generous cultural gesture to mark the occasion. Raphael's cartoons for a set of tapestries to hang in Rome's Sistine Chapel have long been among Britain's great art treasures, and this September the Victoria and Albert Museum will host a one-off exhibition in which the tapestries themselves, lent by Rome, can be compared with the prototypes.

A treat for lovers of high art, this is also a timely allusion to the great artistic inheritance of the Vatican. The message is surely: forget the recent scandals, remember the church-sponsored glories of the high Renaissance. But is that epoch really such a good one to stress if you want to distract from the moral failings of the clergy?

The popes who commissioned Raphael and his contemporaries to rebuild and ornament Rome were among the most scandalous in the entire history of the church. Some of the first art works of Rome's Renaissance were commissioned from Pinturicchio by Pope Alexander VI – born Rodrigo Borgia. The Borgia papacy and the doings of the pope's children (that is, the grown-up ones he'd sired while still a cardinal, as opposed to those conceived when he was actually pope) inspired shock and rage across contemporary society. Modern historians doubt some of the wilder rumours, but even if you discount these you can't quite avoid the problem of a pope having sex and fathering kids. Cesare Borgia, the son Alexander VI fathered with long-term mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei, was even scary enough to be an inspiration for Machiavelli's The Prince.

Nor can even the most devout historian deny that the next great pope, Julius II, though he avoided charges of sexual excess, gave in somewhat to the temptations of Mars. This "warrior pope" loved combat and even led his army into battle. When Michelangelo asked if he wanted to be portrayed with a sword or a book in his hand, he reputedly said: "A sword! I don't read books."

Leo X, who commissioned Raphael's tapestry cartoons in 1515, did read books. Specifically, he loved to read expensive illuminated manuscripts like the one he's enjoying in Raphael's portrait of him. A Medici, he'd grown up with a silver spoon in his mouth and loved all the pleasures of a rich, hedonistic life – apparently saying when he took up office: "I have waited a long time for this, and I mean to enjoy it."

So, the Vatican is of course right to remind us of its central position in the history of western art. But does beauty prove moral worth? Does great religious art have to come from truly religious epochs? Was the Renaissance without sin? Pull the other one.


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May 27 2010

Raphael's Sistine Chapel tapestries to head to V&A museum

Vatican lends four tapestries to Victoria and Albert museum in London to coincide with Pope Benedict's UK visit

Raphael tapestries from the Vatican are to be displayed alongside the artist's original cartoons in the V&A in London, where they are considered too fragile to ever leave.

The Raphael cartoons are among the greatest Renaissance art treasures in Britain, bought by the future Charles I in 1623 and now owned by the Queen.

They were the original designs for Raphael's tapestries, commissioned by Pope Leo X to hang on celebratory days in the Sistine Chapel, two years after Michelangelo painted the ceiling.

It was announced today that four of the 10 tapestries would travel to London in September to coincide with Pope Benedict XVI's visit to England and Scotland.

V&A director Mark Jones said: "It's an overworked term but this really is unique. It's never happened before and I can't imagine it happening again, we're very excited."

The scale of the loan is unprecedented, said Jones, and the suggestion came from the Vatican. "They were thinking of different ways in which they might celebrate the state visit."

The exhibition will run for six weeks. It will be free but with timed entrance tickets. The tapestries are displayed in the Vatican on high days and holy days, but this will the first time they have been with the cartoons since they were created in the Brussels workshop of the well-known Flemish weaver Pieter van Aelst. The cartoons and tapestries differ only in the images being reversed because the weavers worked on what would be the back of the tapestries.

They were commissioned in 1515 and they depict episodes from the lives of saints Paul and Peter and serve, should anyone have ever been in doubt, to emphasise the pre-eminence of the Roman Catholic church.

The four tapestries going to London are The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, Christ's Charge to Peter, The Healing of the Lame Man and The Sacrifice at Lystra.

While the tapestries have stayed in one place for 500 years, the cartoons have had a more circuitous history.

After the papal commission – it cost Pope Leo 16,000 ducats, five times the amount paid to Michelangelo – the cartoons were passed around Brussels workshops. They became popular, with monarchs, including Henry VIII, commissioning sets of tapestries.

By 1623, seven of the original 10 cartoons had made their way to Genoa and it was here that they were purchased on behalf of Charles I, then Prince of Wales, for £300.

That they weren't sold off by Oliver Cromwell after the revolution is something of a puzzle. It has been suggested that Cromwell was intending to commission another set of tapestries for himself.

After the Restoration, the cartoons went back to the royal family, hanging for a time in a Hampton Court palace gallery, commissioned by William III from Sir Christopher Wren. Their popularity soared in the 19th century, and Queen Victoria lent them to the South Kensington museum – now the V&A – in 1865, where they have remained.

Pope Benedict is visiting England and Scotland on 16 to 19 September and the V&A exhibition will run from 8 September to 17 October.


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