Message from the heavens
- Message from the heavens
By Martin Kemp
Discerning the meaning behind Maurizio Cattelan's violent,
provocative and now highly valuable sculpture of Pope John Paul II
felled by a meteorite raises many questions for viewers, explains
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
We can read the narrative readily, but its meaning is harder to
discern. There is a great tradition of death narratives in Italian
art. We may see a parallel with the martyrdom of St Stephen, who was
stoned to death. Cattelan has been careful with the iconographical
details. He has replicated the crozier that was originally made by
Lello Scorzelli for Pope Paul VI, based on a traditional type from
the Val Gardena region in northern Italy. In 1990, John Paul II was
presented with a modified, lighter version.
However, we look in vain for a known story into which Cattelan's
narrative fragment can be inserted. The artist himself does little to
help. He is renowned for extreme and provocative imagery that he
generally refuses to explain. He once encased the owner of the
gallery that represents him in a huge, pink penis suit. The gallerist
was even persuaded to wear the absurd costume for six weeks. This is
the kind of stunt that gives the art world a bad name.
Cattelan stands in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp, the supreme maker
of anti-art that the art world has canonized as art. In displaying
everyday items in galleries, Duchamp challenged the definition of art
and also exposed the art world to ridicule. Similarly, in Cattelan's
piece, enigma and paradox prevail. We have to make of it what we
will, aware that the joke might be at our expense.
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.
When the sculpture was shown in John Paul II's native Poland in 2000
at Warsaw's Zacheta gallery, shock prevailed. Two members of the
Polish parliament tried to remove the meteorite and demanded the
dismissal of the gallery's curator, Anda Rottenberg, whom they
described as a "civil servant of Jewish origin". Rottenberg was
eventually coerced into resigning.
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
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.
Catellan's response might be that, although it is not
actually 'wrong', this meaning is unintended. There is more to it.
Nature, Vol 453, Issue 7199, pp1185, 2008
Martin Kemp is a research professor in the history of art at the
University of Oxford, OX1 1PT, UK.