Pancaked Popes & bananas: What is the Vatican’s surprising choice for the Venice Biennale?

Squashed Popes and bananas: The Vatican’s choice for the Venice Biennale
Squashed Popes and bananas: The Vatican’s choice for the Venice Biennale Copyright - Getty - AP Photo/Andrew Medichini
Copyright - Getty - AP Photo/Andrew Medichini
By David Mouriquand
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An infamous Italian artist will create an outdoor installation for the Vatican’s exhibition, held in a women’s prison on the island of Giudecca. Pope Francis will visit the pavilion in April, marking the first papal attendance at the Venice Biennale.


Have you heard of the Italian conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan?

He’s the one behind the infamous “Comedian” - the ripe banana duct-taped to a wall - which was eaten by a South Korean student with an urgent hankering for protein during an exhibition.


Ring a bell? 

He’s also the artistic mind who came up with “Him” (2001), a sculpture of a genuflecting Adolf Hitler. 


What about now? 

Surely you've heard of “America” (2016), the brilliantly satirical piece consisting of a fully functioning 18-carat gold toilet which would have shrunken Marcel Duchamp’s underwear - and which was stolen by naughty scamps looking to nab some of its $6 million (approx. €5.4m) price tag.

"America"AP Photo

There you go.

Well, the Vatican has taken notice and has tapped the provocative artist to create an outdoor installation for its exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

Not what you were expecting?

Us niether. 

He’s an unlikely choice, especially considering the work Cattelan showed at the 2001 Biennale: “La Nona Ota (The Ninth Hour)”, a hyper-realistic life-size resin model of Pope John Paul II pancaked by a meteorite.

“La Nona Ota (The Ninth Hour)”
“La Nona Ota (The Ninth Hour)”Getty Images

It shocked Catholics at the time, as you can well imagine.

But now, the artist is indeed a part of the Vatican’s line-up, and will create a “large outdoor artwork” on the façade of a prison chapel.

Considering his satirical chops and disdain for authority and power, don’t expect Cattelan to play nice.

The artwork will feature on the Vatican’s exhibition space, which has been unveiled as a multimedia installation inside Venice’s Giudecca women’s prison, created with the active participation of inmates and artists. Half a dozen artists will work alongside them, reflecting Pope Francis’ belief in the value of dialogue, solidarity and fraternity.

The multimedia exhibition is titled "With My Own Eyes".

“Sometimes questions that we can at first judge as radical are ways of reconstructing the vision of the sacred, and this is part of the Church’s encounter with the artistic world,” said Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, who heads the Vatican’s Dicastery for Culture and Education, in a statement about Cattelan’s inclusion.

It also proves that the Vatican may have a sense of humour. Maybe even a penchant for derision? Here's hoping. 


Mendonça also explained the exhibition’s title by saying that “seeing with one’s own eyes” affords “a unique status, as it directly involves us in reality and makes us not spectators but witnesses.”

Other elements of the installation include the projection of a 12-minute film being produced with inmates as actors by director Marco Perego and actor Zoe Saldana, about freedom, said curator Chiara Parisi, the director of the Center Pompidou-Metz.

There will also be the works of the late Corita Kent, a onetime Catholic nun, pop artist and American social activist.

The installation will be open to the public under strict security conditions – with visitors having to provide the same identification details that would be necessary to enter any prison. 

And no phones allowed. Obviously.


The Vatican staged its first Venice Biennale pavilion in 2013, and this year is special for another reason: on 28 April, Pope Francis will become the first pontiff to visit the international exhibition.

Here's hoping that the weather holds up. And no meteorites. 

The Biennale opens to the public on 20 April and closes 24 November.

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