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Sacred and contemporary art meet in Fernando Botero’s Rome exhibition

by Andrea Carli

Sacred art meets contemporary art. The face-to-face meeting takes place in the capital of Christianity, Rome, in the Jubilee year.

After New York, Medellín, Lisbon, and Panama, Fernando Botero's works on the Way of the Cross, the Passion of Christ, have arrived in Italy. The Palazzo delle Esposizioni, near Piazza Venezia, in the very center of the city, displays 27 paintings and 36 drawings by the Colombian painter and sculptor.

The artworks, made between 2010 and 2011, were donated by Botero to the Medellin Museum in 2012 on the occasion of his eightieth birthday.

The relationship between the artist, one of the wealthiest in the world, and Italy is very close. The artist arrived in the country for the first time in the 1950s, and was immediately captivated by Renaissance art, especially Giotto and Andrea Mantegna.

In the 1980s, he bought a house in Pietrasanta, near Lucca. From the marble quarries there comes the raw material for his sculptures.

Since the Renaissance, the Passion of Christ has been one of the most common themes in sacred art.

This raises the following issue: when does an artist today feel the need to recover and reinterpret a tradition that belongs to the past? The key word here is “reshuffling.”

The ritual of the Way of the Cross is “a beautiful iconographic tradition where artists mingled everyday reality and history,” said Botero. “Likewise, I have taken the freedom to mix certain Latin American realities with the Biblical theme. There is no satirical intention in this work, that is imbued instead with great respect.” 

In Botero's work, the Passion of Christ shows a different face, it changes and comes to symbolize mankind, always oppressed by a superior power, now as it was then.

After the Abu Ghraib series -- focused on the torture carried out on Iraqi detainees by U.S. soldiers following the capture of Saddam Hussein -- the series on the Passion of Christ is the second stage of the journey.

Over the centuries, artists have managed to stir the consciences and to convey their message even through a dramatic subject matter, because “the first thing viewers experience is the aesthetic pleasure of beauty, and just later, over time, they feel the pain,” said Botero.

In his reworking of the Way of the Cross, the Colombian artist follows in the footsteps of the old masters: Paolo Uccello, Rubens, Velázquez, Picasso, and Cézanne.

For the first time, drama is portrayed in its own right in the Colombian artist's work, said art critic Conrado Uribe.

Ancient characters are juxtaposed to modern figures or landscapes. In the painting “Crucifixion,” for instance, Christ on the Cross has a greenish color. Behind him we see New York's Central Park with the skyscrapers of Manhattan in the background.
Christ dragging the cross is surrounded by contemporary, astonished faces. These are unusual, surreal shapes.

The soldier who hits him is not a centurion, but a soldier in a uniform, evoking the military dictatorships that have marked Latin American history.

A black man in a colorful shirt is stripping Christ of his garments, while a compassionate figure wearing a wristwatch is taking him down from the cross.

(”Botero. Way of the Cross: the Passion of Christ”, Rome, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, until May 1)