People don’t usually think of Michelangelo as a modern artist.
He’s known for his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, the marble “Pietà” in St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s dome that dominates the eastern Roman skyline.
But it’s partly a Michelangelo sculpture that inspired Sister Mary Ann Osborne to create the contemporary wooden artworks that fill her Mankato studio and grace several churches, including Holy Rosary in Minneapolis and Pax Christi in Eden Prairie.
Known as the “Pietà Rondanini,” it was one of several pietà statues carved by the Renaissance artist. It was also his last; Michelangelo worked on it just days before his death in 1564.
Most historians consider this pietà an unfinished work because it lacks the smooth polishing and intricate dealing of his other work.
Sister Mary Ann thinks it may be otherwise: a modern piece before its time.
In it, Mary holds the crucified Christ vertically, his head resting on her shoulder. The marble is rough and tool marked, the faces undefined. A disconnected arm is suspended in front of Christ, revealing that Michaelangelo either changed his mind or reused another piece.
“I love more primitive pieces; they bring out the essence of what something is about,” she said. “Maybe that’s why I was attracted to Michelangelo’s piece, because it is more primitive.”
Mary and Jesus’ chests are touching, she pointed out, as if their hearts are connected. “It always spoke to me as something that [Michelangelo] knew at the end of his life that was different than when he was a young person,” she told me as she sat in her studio, surrounded by her art, raw wood and tools.
Professed for 35 years as a School Sister of Notre Dame, Sister Mary Ann has been making art for about 25 years. She works mostly in wood, but her sculptures also include glass, tile, paint and metal. Many of her pieces are large, and all of them are inspired by her Catholic faith.
“It’s really ancient truths told in new ways,” she said. “I cannot really separate who I am and how I pray from my art, because it’s one and how God speaks to me.”
‘Custodians of beauty’
On Nov. 21, Pope Benedict XVI hosted more than 250 international artists in the Sistine Chapel, where he invited them and their work into a deeper relationship with the church.
“Remember that you are the custodians of beauty in the world,” he told them.
For centuries, the church was the greatest patron of the arts, but in the last few centuries that relationship has waned, giving way to a growing disconnect between contemporary art and the church.
I haven’t always connected with it, either. Truth be told, for a long time, I detested modern and contemporary art.
I mean, it looks weird, right?
Its abstracted or stylized forms are confusing, and I’m often frustrated by my inability to immediately understand the message the artist is conveying. At first glance, some of it can look unrefined and childish.
However, I’ve changed my mind.
I’ve learned to appreciate the challenge of contemporary art, the way it coaxes me to really think about what I’m seeing.
Earlier art doesn’t always do that. Unfortunately, it can be easy to gloss over a medieval “Annunciation” painting, because its scene and meaning are so painstakingly clear.
However, a modern “Annunciation,” like the one in Sister Mary Ann’s studio, compels me to pause to consider the symbolism, to ask why the artist painted something in that way.
“I want to help people see things in a new way, or a deeper way,” Sister Mary Ann said.
His own relationship with art persuaded Pope Paul VI to inaugurate the Vatican Museums’ Collection of Modern Religious Art in 1973.
“We need you,” he had told artists in 1964 at a Sistine Chapel gathering strikingly similar to that of Benedict XVI. “We need your collaboration in order to carry out our ministry, which consists, as you know, in preaching and rendering accessible and comprehensible to the minds and hearts of our people the things of the spirit, the invisible, the ineffable, the things of God himself.”
Pope Benedict XVI reiterated these words Nov. 21, urging the artists not to seek “mere aestheticism,” but rather authentic beauty that liberates mankind from darkness and transfigures it, “unlocking the yearning of the human heart
. . . to reach for the Beyond,” ultimately spurring the heart toward God.
“Faith takes nothing away from your genius or your art,” he said. “On the contrary, it exalts them and nourishes them, it encourages them to cross the threshold and to contemplate with fascination and emotion the ultimate and definitive goal, the sun that does not set, the sun that illumines this present moment and makes it beautiful.”
As much as an exhortation to artists, the pope’s words are also an invitation to viewers: Don’t so easily write off the works of contemporary artists. Search out the beautiful, the true and the good within the works. Ask what they can teach you, and then be taught.