The late never to be forgotten Alice Thomas Ellis once wrote that if you arrived in a place you did not know and searched out the ugliest building, that building would almost certainly be the Catholic church of the place.
She had Britain in mind, of course, and she was not far wrong. She, and I, and many of us have often lamented in the past the sheer ugliness and banality of modern Catholic design. And we have all been told to shut up on numerous occasions. When we have asked why the Church can’t employ great architects and artists as it once did, the not very convincing answer has been along one of the following lines.
First, we are hankering after the past, and that is bad.
Second, the bad art we affect to despise is in fact good art, it is just that we are too blind to see it.
Third, there are no artists like Borromini and Pugin around today; so we have to make do with what is on offer.
I have never been convinced by any of the above, and after a recent trip to Sicily, I think I am now vindicated, because I have found evidence that there are good artists available to the Church today, and that they produce truly great works.
Noto Cathedral, you may remember, fell down in 1996 but was later reconstructed – thankfully no modern person was on hand to try to replace it with something else. (The pictures at Italian Wikipedia are worth looking at.) The rebuilt cathedral meant great opportunities for contemporary artists, and, more importantly, for commissions by the ecclesial authorities, all of which, I have to say, have led to extraordinary results.
The Stations of the Cross are by a Carravaggesque artist called Roberto Ferri, whose works can be seen here. Ferri’s technique is sublime and his stations very good, though one is rather disturbed by some of his secular mythological works – but there is something dark (in every sense) and disturbing in Caravaggio too. Ferri was born in 1978, so it is good that the Church took the risk of commissioning a young man.
The interior of the dome is the work of a Russian artist called Oleg Supereco. It shows the Blessed Virgin and the Apostles waiting for Pentecost, a good theological subject, which I have never seen in a dome before, and which is splendidly executed.
The nave and the apse have been decorated by Lino Frongia and Bruno D’Arcevia respectively, whose websites are worth exploring. The overall effect of their work is breath-taking. Particularly fine are the representational figures of the four cardinal virtues by Frongia.
I know absolutely nothing about contemporary Italian art, so I cannot say whether these artists represent the very best that Italy has to offer. But one thing is for sure, and that is that they have made Noto Cathedral a place everyone needs to see. And they have proved a point too, namely that what is new does not have to be ugly and can quite easily sit well with the past.
But this leaves us with a question. If it can be done in Italy, why can’t it be done here? If Italian bishops can commission good, indeed great, works of contemporary art, why can’t their counterparts do so outside Italy?