It sounds like an urban legend—or more simply a tall tale back from the days of the ancient Saint Peter’s Basilica—but in fact, it’s true. And much more recent: The renowned Italian artist Manzù (who happened to be a Communist and an avowed atheist) was commissioned to do a set of doors for the most famous church in Christendom by Pope St. John XXIII.
The complete story is told in book form, replete with color plates as well as black-and-white photographs, in the extraordinarily overly-long titled text by Curtis Bill Pepper: An Artist and The Pope: A Moving Story of Two Remarkable People—The Communist Artist Who Had Lost His Faith and His Good Friend, Pope John XXIII, based on the personal recollections of Giacomo Manzù.
However, Manzù didn’t just hammer out a couple of doors for St. Peter’s and then disappear back into his studio. In a move almost reminiscent of the great Renaissance popes, John XXIII, kept Manzù on for a series of studies of the bishops at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and, ironically, despite many of these very same bishops protestations, Manzù also did several portraits of John XXIII—and, finally, his death mask.
Now that atheism has been in vogue for at least the better part of a couple of decades thanks mainly to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal that an artist would be an atheist—most artists are, in fact, anti-establishment types. However, in the history of the Church, as Sir Kenneth Clark rightly points out in his book and television series Civilisation, with a single exception, every one of the great Renaissance artists were ardent, practicing Catholics: even a worldling like Peter Paul Reubens went to daily Mass, while Bernini regularly made the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, and Michelangelo’s faith actually grew deeper and more explicit during his extremely long life.
Giacomo Manzù, born Manzoni, in Bergamo, Italy (the home of Pope St. John XIII) was of a different sort altogether — an autodidact in the arts, he quickly ran afoul of both the Fascist government in Italy and the ecclesial authorities in Rome—in this one case he was nothing if not consistent in alienating people.
“Good Pope John” came from an abjectly poverty-stricken backwater family, served honorably as a lieutenant/chaplain and ambulance driver on the battlefields during World War I, and methodically worked his way up the ecclesiastical ladder, albeit in rather tortuous fashion. He was first secretary to the nobleman-bishop Radini-Tedeschi of Bergamo, before being called to Rome to work for the Propagation of the Faith. Pope Pius XI sent him to Bulgaria as an ambassador (and archbishop) in 1925. After a decade in Bulgaria—where a very “traditional” portrait of him in full regalia was painted by Kyril Vassilv—Archbishop Roncalli was promoted (due in no small part to his gift for languages and wielding power softly and wisely) first as representative to Turkey, and right before the opening of World War II, Greece. It wasn’t until late in 1944 that Roncalli was given one of the Church’s more obvious plum posts (though it was rife with all the issues of any post-war Western European nation): the Nuncio of France, which carried with it the cardinal’s hat. And less than a decade after that, he became the Patriarch of Venice.
Cardinal Roncalli—who was soon to be elected John XXIII—had met many, many people (including and especially artists) from Rome to Budapest to Istanbul to Mount Athos (where he admired the ikons) to Paris and Venice. And one of these artists was a fellow Bergamese native: an outspoken atheist and Communist who had rechristened himself “Manzù”.
One of the nice things about being pope is that it is one of the few jobs where one can order something on a whim and fully expect it to be done without (too much) complaint, even in this day and age. So when John XXIII decided—pretty much on his own—that Manzù should do a papal bust, there was some murmuring, but no way of stopping it.
That bronze bust of Pope John XXIII set in motion several things. First, it proved to John that he had a talent on his hands in Manzù—and one who was not beholden to any of the ancient Roman families—but a fellow Bergamo native like himself. Second, John liked the first bronze bust so much he commissioned Manzù to a full-blown “portrait bust” (in bronze, completed the year John died), a set of doors for St. Peter’s Basilica, and a series of portraits of the bishops at the Second Vatican Council.
In short, Pope John had found his court artist. Except the court was papal and the artist was an atheist.
Manzù, who knew that his meal ticket (and by this time, his friend), had not long to live, worked with all the speed of Michelangelo (though it must be said, without anywhere near the same amount of talent, imagination, or ability) simply to get the new doors of St. Peter’s Basilica—John’s pet project for Manzù—done.
They are haunting works—cautionary tales after two World Wars had nearly obliterated Europe. So naturally these “Doors of Death” concentrate on that subject: there is the “Death of St. Stephen” in the upper-left quadrant, the “Death of Pope Gregory VII” to its right; below that, the rather strange “Death on Earth” (where on onlooker appears to be holding his nose and/or covering his mouth), and finally the piece de resistance/nightmarish “Death in Space” where a body, mouth agape in terror, seems to go spinning into the void.
One (of the many) complaints about Manzù was that he had had no formal artistic training. They were right. Then there was his lack of refinement: some of his works appear to be unfinished or half-realized—there was a “roughness” about his medals for the Council, and especially his many studies of the cardinals themselves where they wind up looking like poorly-hewn chess-pieces.
However, the fact that this “ruggedness” appealed to Pope St. John shouldn’t surprise us: John grew up, as mentioned above, poor—so poor that he walked to school barefoot to save the soles of his shoes. It would be difficult, then, to imagine John having a classically-trained, urbane, to-the-manner-born artiste on hand creating fey and effete works of polished grandeur.
And this was, after all, the early 1960s: the art world had effectively fled (or been killed in) Europe for New York City where post-modern abstract-expressionism and pop art was then all the rage. In fact, almost all of the “important” or “name” artists were in New York: Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Clyford Still. The fact that Pope John chose any artist at all during this period of both Church and cultural upheaval is somewhat remarkable—but not surprising.
Because for all his humble beginnings, John had been groomed early on by his first mentor, the aforementioned Bishop Giacomo Radini-Tadeschi who was from a wealthy, patrician, and noble family—all of this refinement rubbed off on the young priest, and Pope John XXIII never forgot this unique churchman who, among other things, showed the young Fr. Roncalli how important a sense of style is—but also, the import of art.
The choice of Manzù may be a tough swallow: he never came back to the faith, and his artwork is not to every taste. Still, due to his perseverance, his unique artistic sensibilities—and the fact that he’d almost against all odds befriended a Pope from the same hometown in Italy—Manzù’s work is now part of the artistic creation of Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo and Bernini—St. Peter’s Basilica.