The Baroque era was, however, the last one in which the Catholic Church was able to throw significant weight (and money) around in the art world. As many Western countries transitioned into modern industrial states and adopted new economic models, the Vatican saw its role as a patron and promoter of art shrivel, while the art market expanded.
“The rise of capitalism further removed capital from the hands of the [Catholic] Church, as more and more of it circulated through the market rather than being held within institutions,” said Oliphant.
So, for many decades—especially in the first half of the 20th century—the Catholic Church was minimally involved in commissioning new art. One of the Vatican’s priorities in this period was acquiring art and antiquities for its museums, and significantly building out and modernizing those institutions. During World War II, the Vatican Museums closed to the public and served as a storage depot for safekeeping art from Italy’s war zones.
In the second half of the 20th century, and during the Second Vatican Council (or simply Vatican II) in the 1960s, the church encouraged a break with the aesthetics of its last great artistic hurrah, the Baroque. Instead, Vatican II called for “a general ‘simplification’ of art, architecture, and music in Catholic churches,” McGinley said. A 1977 document offering guiding principles for church architecture and ornamentation stated that “the attempt to recover a solid grasp of Church and faith and rites involves the rejection of certain embellishments,” “a simplifying and a refocusing on primary symbols,” and “more austere interiors, with fewer objects on the walls and in the corners.”
In the midst of Vatican II, the newly-instated Pope Paul VI made a plea to artists. On May 7, 1964, he held a meeting with contemporary artists in the Sistine Chapel, calling for a rapprochement between the Catholic Church and the art world to reinvigorate the rigid conventions of religious art. The pope implored the artists: “We must again become allies.” Nine years later, he inaugurated the Vatican’s Collection of Modern Religious Art (now called the Collection of Contemporary Art
), which includes more than 8,000 modern and contemporary artworks, and has been assembled largely through donations and gifts from collectors, artists, and an assortment of public and private organizations. It includes works by
, and even
Since Paul VI’s meeting with the artists in 1964, and especially over the last three decades, the Catholic Church has made small but not insignificant efforts to rekindle its role as a patron of the arts beyond Vatican City.
“Since the 1990s, there has been some rethinking of that simplicity and a call for a return to a more important pride of place for the arts in Catholic liturgy,” McGinley said. This has been accompanied by a deviation from Vatican II’s mandate for an aesthetics of austerity.
In in a letter to artists
in 1999, Pope John Paul II seemed to advocate for an aesthetic of maximalism, in hopes of inspiring awareness of “the sacredness of life and of the human person” in the viewer. “Artists of the world,” he wrote, “may your many different paths all lead to that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy.” If not exactly a call for a return to the Baroque, it certainly suggested a renewed awareness of art’s capacity to articulate the dogma to Catholics and nonbelievers alike.