Benedict XVI to artists: your job is to make the invisible comprehensible

On November 21, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger, during a meeting with artists, gave one of his speeches considered most interesting by experts: the one on the role of art. We repropose it in full.

At 11 a.m. on Nov. 21, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger, held a meeting with artists: more than two hundred representatives of the visual arts, music, cinema, theater, architecture, literature, and poetry from all over the world participated (full list below). The meeting was sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture on the 10th anniversary of John Paul II’s Letter to Artists (April 4, 1999) and on the 45th anniversary of Paul VI’s Meeting with Artists (May 7, 1964). We reproduce below the full speech, in which the pontiff focused on what he believed the role of art should be.

Benedetto XVI durante l'incontro con gli artisti
Benedict XVI during meeting with artists

With great joy I welcome you to this solemn place rich in art and memories. I extend my cordial greetings to each and every one of you, and I thank you for accepting my invitation. With this meeting I wish to express and renew the Church’s friendship with the world of art, a friendship consolidated over time, since Christianity, from its origins, has well understood the value of the arts and has wisely used their multiform languages to communicate its unchanging message of salvation. This friendship must be continually promoted and sustained so that it is authentic and fruitful, adapted to the times and takes into account social and cultural situations and changes. This is the reason for our appointment. I warmly thank Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture and of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, for promoting and preparing it, with his collaborators, as well as for the words he has just addressed to me. I greet the Cardinals, Bishops, Priests and Distinguished Personalities present. I also thank the Pontifical Sistine Musical Chapel that accompanies this significant moment. The protagonists of this meeting are you, dear and distinguished Artists, belonging to different countries, cultures and religions, perhaps even far from religious experiences, but eager to keep alive a communication with the Catholic Church and not to restrict the horizons of existence to mere materiality, to a reductive and trivializing vision. You represent the diverse world of the arts and, precisely for this reason, through you I would like to convey to all artists my invitation to friendship, dialogue and collaboration.

Some significant circumstances enrich this moment. We recall the tenth anniversary of the Letter to Artists of my venerable predecessor, the Servant of God John Paul II. For the first time, on the eve of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, this Pontiff, himself an artist, wrote directly to artists with the solemnity of a papal document and the friendly tone of a conversation between “those who - as the address states -, with passionate dedication, seek new ’epiphanies’ of beauty.” The same Pope, twenty-five years ago, had proclaimed Blessed Angelico the patron saint of artists, indicating in him a model of perfect harmony between faith and art. My thoughts go, then, to May 7, 1964, forty-five years ago, when, in this same place, a historic event took place, strongly desired by Pope Paul VI to reaffirm the friendship between the Church and the arts. The words he had to utter on that occasion still resonate today under the vault of this Sistine Chapel, touching the heart and the intellect. “We need you,” he said, “Our ministry needs your cooperation. Because, as you know, Our ministry is to preach and to make accessible and understandable, indeed moving, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of the ineffable, of God. And in this operation -- you are masters. It is your trade, your mission; and your art is to pluck from the sky of the spirit its treasures and clothe them in word, in color, in form, in accessibility”(Teachings II, [1964], 313). Such was Paul VI’s esteem for artists that he was moved to formulate truly bold expressions: “And if We lacked your help,” he continued, “the ministry would become stuttering and uncertain and would need to make an effort, we would say, to become artistic itself, indeed to become prophetic. To rise to the force of lyrical expression of intuitive beauty, it would need to make the priesthood coincide with art”(Ibid., 314). On that occasion, Paul VI took on the ’commitment to “re-establish the friendship between the Church and artists,” and asked them to make it their own and to share it, analyzing with seriousness and objectivity the reasons that had disturbed that relationship and taking each with courage and passion the responsibility for a renewed, in-depth itinerary of knowledge and dialogue, with a view to an authentic “rebirth” of art, in the context of a new humanism.

That historic meeting, as I said, took place here, in this shrine of faith and human creativity. It is therefore no coincidence that we find ourselves in this very place, precious for its architecture and symbolic dimensions, but even more so for the frescoes that make it unmistakable, beginning with masterpieces by Perugino and Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli, Luca Signorelli and others, and ending with the Stories of Genesis and the Last Judgment, sublime works by Michelangelo Buonarroti, who left here one of the most extraordinary creations in all of art history. The universal language of music has also often resounded here, thanks to the genius of great musicians, who placed their art at the service of the liturgy, helping the soul to rise to God. At the same time, the Sistine Chapel is a singular treasure chest of memories, since it constitutes the setting, solemn and austere, of events that mark the history of the Church and humanity. Here, as you know, the College of Cardinals elects the Pope; here I too experienced, with trepidation and absolute trust in the Lord, the unforgettable moment of my election as Successor of the Apostle Peter.

Dear friends, let these frescoes speak to us today, drawing us toward the ultimate goal of human history. The Last Judgment, which stands behind me, reminds us that human history is movement and ascension, it is inexhaustible tension toward fullness, toward ultimate happiness, toward a horizon that always exceeds the present as it passes through it. In its drama, however, this fresco also places before our eyes the danger of man’s ultimate fall, a threat that looms over humanity when it allows itself to be seduced by the forces of evil. The fresco therefore issues a strong prophetic cry against evil; against all forms of injustice. But for believers, the risen Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. For those who faithfully follow him, he is the Door that ushers us into that “face to face,” into that vision of God from which full and ultimate happiness flows without more limitations. Michelangelo thus offers to our vision the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End of history, and invites us to walk the itinerary of life with joy, courage and hope. The dramatic beauty of Michelangelo’s painting, with its colors and forms, thus becomes a proclamation of hope, a powerful invitation to lift our gaze to the ultimate horizon. The profound link between beauty and hope also constituted the essential core of the evocative Message Paul VI addressed to artists at the close of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council on December 8, 1965: “To you all,” he solemnly proclaimed, “the Church of the Council says with our voice: if you are the friends of true art, you are our friends!”(Enchiridion Vaticanum, 1, p. 305). And he added, “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, is what infuses joy into the hearts of men, it is that precious fruit that resists the wear and tear of time, that unites generations and makes them communicate in admiration. And this thanks to your hands... Remember that you are the custodians of beauty in the world”(Ibid.).

The present moment is unfortunately marked not only by negative phenomena at the social and economic level, but also by a weakening of hope, a certain distrust of human relationships, so that signs of resignation, aggression, and despair are growing. The world in which we live, then, risks changing its face because of the not always wise work of man who, instead of cultivating its beauty, exploits without conscience the resources of the planet for the benefit of a few and not infrequently disfigures its natural wonders. What can restore enthusiasm and confidence, what can encourage the human soul to find its way again, to look up at the horizon, to dream of a life worthy of its vocation if not beauty? You know very well, dear artists, that the experience of beauty, of authentic beauty, neither ephemeral nor superficial, is not something incidental or secondary in the search for meaning and happiness, because such an experience does not distance one from reality, but, on the contrary, leads to a close confrontation with everyday life, to free it from obscurity and transfigure it, to make it luminous, beautiful.

Indeed, an essential function of true beauty, already pointed out by Plato, consists in communicating to man a salutary “shock,” which brings him out of himself, wrenches him out of resignation, out of theaccommodation of the everyday, it also makes him suffer, like a dart that wounds him, but precisely in this way it “awakens” him by opening again the eyes of his heart and mind, putting wings on him, propelling him upward. Dostoevsky’s expression that I am about to quote is undoubtedly bold and paradoxical, but it invites reflection: “Mankind can live,” he says, “without science, it can live without bread, but only without beauty could it no longer live, because there would be nothing left to do in the world. The whole secret is here, the whole story is here.” The painter Georges Braque echoes him, “Art is made to disturb, while science reassures.” Beauty is striking, but just so it calls man back to his ultimate destiny, puts him back on the road, fills him with new hope, gives him the courage to live to the full the unique gift of existence. The search for beauty of which I speak clearly does not consist in any flight into the irrational or mere aestheticism.

Too often, however, the beauty that is propagated is illusory and mendacious, superficial and dazzling to the point of stultification and, instead of bringing people out of themselves and opening them up to horizons of true freedom by drawing them upward, it imprisons them within themselves and makes them even more enslaved, devoid of hope and joy. It is a seductive but hypocritical beauty, which reawakens the lust, the will to power, to possess, to overpower the other, and which is transformed, very soon, into its opposite, taking on the faces of obscenity, transgression or provocation as an end in itself. Authentic beauty, on the other hand, opens the human heart to nostalgia, to a deep desire to know, to love, to move toward the Other, toward the Beyond from self. If we accept that beauty touches us intimately, wounds us, opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of vision, of the ability to grasp the profound meaning of our existence, the Mystery of which we are a part and from which we can draw the fullness, the happiness, the passion of daily commitment.John Paul II, in his Letter to Artists, quotes, in this regard, this line from a Polish poet, Cyprian Norwid: “Beauty is to enthuse to work, / work is to rise again” (No. 3). And later he adds, “As a quest for the beautiful, the result of an imagination that goes beyond the everyday, art is, by its very nature, a kind of appeal to the Mystery. Even when it scrutinizes the darkest depths of the soul or the most shocking aspects of evil, the artist somehow becomes a voice of the universal expectation of redemption” (no. 10). And in the conclusion he states, “Beauty is a cipher of mystery and a call to the transcendent” (no. 16).

These last expressions prompt us to take our reflection a step further. Beauty, from that which is manifested in the cosmos and in nature to that which is expressed through artistic creations, precisely because of its characteristic of opening and widening the horizons of human consciousness, of sending it back beyond itself, of overlooking the abyss of the Infinite, can become a path to the Transcendent, to the ultimate Mystery, to God. Art, in all its expressions, at the moment when it confronts the great questions of existence, the fundamental themes from which the meaning of living derives, can take on a religious significance and become a path of deep inner reflection and spirituality. This affinity, this harmony between the faith journey and the artistic itinerary, is attested to by an incalculable number of works of art whose protagonists are the characters, stories, and symbols of that immense repository of “figures”-in the broadest sense-which is the Bible, Sacred Scripture. The great biblical narratives, themes, images, and parables have inspired countless masterpieces in every branch of the arts, just as they have spoken to the hearts of every generation of believers through the works of local crafts and art, which are no less eloquent and engaging.

One speaks, in this regard, of a via pulchritudinis, a path of beauty that constitutes both an artistic, aesthetic path and an itinerary of faith, of theological research. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar opens his great work entitled Gloria. A Theological Aesthetics with these evocative expressions, “Our initial word is called beauty. Beauty is the last word that the thinking intellect can dare to utter, for it merely crowns, as a halo of elusive splendor, the double star of the true and the good and their indissoluble relationship.” He goes on to observe, “It is the disinterested beauty without which the old world was incapable of understanding itself, but which has taken tiptoe leave of the modern world of interests, to abandon it to its gloom and doom. It is the beauty that is no longer loved and cherished even by religion.” And he concludes, “He who, at its name, wrinkles his lips to a smile, judging it as the exotic trinket of a bourgeois past, of him one can be sure that-secretly or openly-he is no longer capable of praying and, soon, not even of loving.” The way of beauty leads us, then, to grasp the Whole in the fragment, the Infinite in the finite, God in human history. Simone Weil wrote in this regard, “In everything that arouses in us the pure and authentic feeling of beauty, there is really the presence of God. There is almost a kind of incarnation of God in the world, of which beauty is the sign. Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is possible. That is why all first-rate art is, by its essence, religious.” Even more iconic is Hermann Hesse’s statement, “Art means: within everything to show God.” Echoing the words of Pope Paul VI, the Servant of God John Paul II reaffirmed the Church’s desire to renew dialogue and collaboration with artists: "To transmit the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art"(Letter to Artists, no. 12); but asked immediately afterwards, “Does art need the Church?” thus urging artists to find in religious experience, Christian revelation and the “great codex” that is the Bible a source of renewed and motivated inspiration.

Dear Artists, as I draw to a conclusion, I too would like to address to you, as did my Predecessor, a cordial, friendly and passionate appeal. You are custodians of beauty; you have, thanks to your talent, the ability to speak to the heart of humanity, to touch individual and collective sensibilities, to arouse dreams and hopes, to broaden the horizons of knowledge and human endeavor. Therefore, be grateful for the gifts you have received and fully aware of the great responsibility of communicating beauty, of making people communicate in and through beauty! Be also, through your art, heralds and witnesses of hope for humanity! And do not be afraid to confront the first and ultimate source of beauty, to dialogue with believers, with those who, like you, feel like pilgrims in the world and in history towards infinite Beauty! Faith takes nothing away from your genius, from your art; on the contrary, it exalts and nourishes them, encourages them to cross the threshold and contemplate with fascinated and moved eyes the ultimate and final goal, the sun without setting that illuminates and makes beautiful the present.

St. Augustine, a singer in love with beauty, reflecting on man’s ultimate destiny and almost commenting ante litteram on the scene of the Judgment you have before your eyes today, thus wrote: “We shall enjoy, then, a vision, O brethren, never contemplated by the eyes, never heard by the ears, never imagined by the imagination: a vision surpassing all earthly beauty, that of gold, silver, woods and fields, sea and sky, sun and moon, stars and angels; the reason is this: that it is the source of all other beauty”(In Ep. Jo. Tr. 4:5: PL 35, 2008). I wish all of you, dear Artists, to carry this vision in your eyes, in your hands, in your heart, so that it may give you joy and always inspire your beautiful works. As I heartily bless you, I greet you, as Paul VI already did, with one word: goodbye!

Below is the list of artists who participated in the meeting

Painting and Sculpture: Gustavo Aceves; Roberto Almagno; Getulio Alviani; Tito Amodei; Kengiro Azuma; Marco Bagnoli; Caspar Berger; Venancio Blanco; Cecco Bonanotte; John Martin Borg; Christoph Brech; Amedeo Brogli; Carlo Busiri Vici; Angelo Canevari; Antonella Cappuccio; Nicola Carrino; Bruno Ceccobelli; Sandro Chia; Alfredo Chiappori; Roberto Ciaccio; Max Cole; Clelia Cortemiglia; Ugo Cortesi; Nicola De Maria; Lucio Del Pezzo; Giuseppe Ducrot; Giosetta Fioroni; Giuseppe Gallo; Gino Giannetti; Laurent Grasso; Emilio Isgrò; Pierluigi Isola; Mimmo Jodice; Roberto Joppolo; Anish Kapoor; Adam Kisleghi Nagy; Jannis Kounellis; Ernesto Lamagna; Felice Levini; Bruno Liberatore; Sergio Lombardo; Trento Longaretti; Carlo Lorenzetti; Giuseppe Maraniello; Paolo Marazzi; Eliseo Mattiacci; Igor Mitoraj; John David Mooney; Alessandro Nastasio; Armanda Negri; Ugo Nespolo; Mimmo Paladino; Giulio Paolini; Benedetto Pietrogrande; Cristiano Pintaldi; Ezio Pollai; Arnaldo Pomodoro; Massimo Pulini; Oliviero Rainaldi; Lucia Romualdi; Filippo Rossi; Marco Nereo Rotelli; Marco Rupnik; Sandro Sanna; Ulisse Sartini; Sebastian Sinisca; Mauro Staccioli; Laura Stocco; Alberto Sughi; Marco Tirelli; Natalia Tsarkova; Valentino Vago; Teodorus van Kampen; Giuliano Vangi; Grazia Varisco; Claudio Verna; Guido Veroi; Bill Viola; Simona Weller; Aleksandr Zvjagin.

Architecture: Eugenio Abruzzini; Sandro Benedetti; Mario Botta; Bruno Bozzini; Saverio Busiri Vici; Santiago Calatrava LLC; David Chipperfield; Vittorio Gregotti; Nathalie Grenon; Zaha Hadid; Daniel Libeskind; Pier Paolo Maggiora; Lucio Passarelli; Antonio Piva; Paolo Portoghesi; Pietro Sartogo; Tommaso Scalesse; Oswald Mathias Ungers.

Literature and Poetry: Eraldo Affinati; Edoardo Albinati; Alberto Arbasino; Alberto Bevilacqua; Elena Bono; Laura Bosio; Ferdinando Camon; Piero Citati; Giuseppe Conte; Maurizio Cucchi; Florence Delay; Luca Desiato; Luca Doninelli; Alain Elkann; Ernesto Ferrero; Sergio Givone; Vivian Lamarque; Franco Loi; Luciano Luisi; Claudio Magris; Paola Mastrocola; Margaret Mazzantini; Lorenzo Mondo; Roberto Mussapi; Salvatore Niffoi; Ciaran O’ Coigligh; Ferruccio Parazzoli; Daniele Piccini; Davide Rondoni; Susanna Tamaro; Maria Travia Morricone; Liudmila Ulitskaya; Patrizia Valduga; Alessandro Zaccuri.

Music and Singing: Vadim Ananiev; Claudio Baglioni; Martin Baker; Mite Balduzzi; Domenico Bartolucci; Andrea Bocelli; Angelo Branduardi; Bruno Cagli; Michele Campanella; Roberta Canzian; Riccardo Cocciante; Flavio Colusso; Daniela Dessì; Marco Frisina; Roberto Gatto; Gianluigi Gelmetti; Adriano Guarnirei; Angela Hewitt; I Pooh; Jean-Paul Lecot; Monica Leone; Giuseppe Liberto; Alma Manera; Valentin Miserachs Grau; Ennio Morricone; Carsten Nicolai; Marcello Panni; Arvo Part; Vincent Paulet; Roberto Prosseda; Enrico Rava; Claudio Scimone; Alvaro Siviero; Amii Stewart; Fabio Vacchi; Antonello Venditti; Bruno Venturini.

Cinema, Theater, Dance, Photography: F. Murray Abraham; Aurelio Amendola; Enrica Antonioni; Adriana Asti; Pupi Avati; Lino Banfi; Gabriele Basilico; Marco Bellocchio; Rachid Benhadj; Paolo Benvenuti; Mahesh Bhatt; Pooja Bhatt; Alessio Boni; Francesca Calvelli; Lino Capolicchio; Sergio Castellitto; Liliana Cavani; Vincenzo Cerami; Giovanni Chiaramonte; Liliana Cosi; Maddalena Crippa; Silvia D’Amico; Caterina D’Amico; Luca De Filippo; Roberto De Simone; Piera Degli Esposti; Bruno Delbonnel; Osvaldo Desideri; Francesco Escalar; Dante Ferretti; Arnoldo Foà; Jon Fosse; Carla Fracci; Matteo Garrone; Valeria Golino; Peter Greenway; Ugo Gregoretti; Philip Gr`ning; Tonino Guerra; Eleonora Guerra; Monica Guerritore; Roberto Herlitzka; Terence Hill; Micha van Hoeke; Claudia Koll; Giulia Lazzarini; Virna Lisi; Carlo Lizzani; Francesca Lo Schiavo; Samuel Maoz; Citto Maselli; David L. Miller; Mario Monicelli; Giuliano Montaldo; Laura Morante; Nanni Moretti; Lucilla Morlacchi; Franco Nero; Salvatore Nocita; Garin Nugroho; Gabriella Pescucci; Marco Pontecorvo; Giacomo Poretti; Anna Proclemer; Gianni Quaranta; Massimo Ranieri; Luca Ronconi; Giuseppe Rotunno; Maurizio Scaparro; Giacomo Scarpelli; Furio Scarpelli; Ettore Scola; Ballakè Sissoko; Aleksandr N. Sokurov; Ferruccio Soleri; Paolo Sorrentino; Marinel Stefanescu; Peter Stein; Andrej jr. Tarkovsky; Paolo Taviani; Stephen Verona; Pamela Villoresi; Bob Wilson; Krzysztof Zanussi; Franco Zeffirelli.

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