Monday, July 14, 2008

The Pope and a meteorite


This past June 30th was the 100th anniversary of the Tunguska event. So Nature dedicated several of its articles on impact craters both on Earth and on other bodies in the Solar system. But there is also an interesting commentary by historian of art, Martin Kemp, on the sculpture shown above:
Pope John Paul II, dressed in his ceremonial regalia, lies prostrate on a rich red carpet. Clinging to his crucifix crozier, he frowns with disquieting intensity, his eyes tightly shut. Nearby lies a scattering of glass shards. A chunky meteorite has plummeted from the heavens, smashed through the gallery skylight, and come to rest in the crook of his bent leg. We presume that the life-size representation shows the pontiff as dead or injured.

What are we to make of this provocative work by the Italian sculptor Maurizio Cattelan? The sculpture is deemed culturally important. It is of high financial value, and was sold to a private collector in 2004 for US$2.7 million. Exhibited in prestigious galleries throughout the world, it uniformly attracts media attention and religious controversy.

The message of the sculpture is not clear. But Kemp offers some possibilities:

Cattelan leaves some clues. The title, La Nona Ora, or The Ninth Hour, refers to the time of Christ's death on the cross. This representation of the death of Pope John Paul II might be an imitation of Christ's. In a typically elusive interview, Cattelan said, "I like the idea that someone is trying to save the Pope, like an upside-down miracle, coming not from the heavens but from earth". But he adds dismissively, "in the end it is only a piece of wax".

We may add gloss to his statement by saying that the death of a martyr involves human agency, followed by divine redemption, whereas Cattelan's Pope has been struck down by heavenly intervention and awaits earthly assistance. Our responses can range from seeing the image as moving and pious, evoking our sympathy with him as a modern martyr, to regarding it as shockingly blasphemous.

This is an interesting take on the sculpture and I like the idea of an upside-down miracle. Kemp goes on to provide two more possible interpretations, but they seem to be a bit too far-fetched (yeah...says me - with absolutely no knowledge of art or art history :) ):

My mind turns to the stone of the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the focus of supreme devotion for Muslims, which is said to have been presented to Abraham by the Archangel Gabriel. It has been interpreted as a meteorite. Could Cattelan be alluding to the potential collapse of Christianity in the face of Islamic militancy? This would be inflammatory to both religions. However, it is the nature of art that the beholder completes the meaning of the artist's creation. Cattelan invites us to do so in extreme and contradictory terms.

Aware of the recent assaults on religion by scientific atheists, some people may even be tempted to see the felled Pope as an allegory of the conflict between extreme Darwinists and spiritual belief.
Hmm...or how about the conflict between an earlier Pope and Galileo - as meteorite would be a perfect sign for astronomy and the felled Pope would stand for the subsequent decline of influence of religion over explanations of the natural world. I think I still like the idea of an upside-down miracle.

Read the full article here (you may need access to the Journal).