Most visitors to Italian churches seek solitude or a free ogle at centuries-old religious art and paraphernalia. Visitors to Milan’s cathedral, however, also get an eyeful of a controversial video installation.
British artist Mark Wallinger’s “Via Dolorosa,” a reflection on the last hours of Christ, is the first work of contemporary art permanently installed in an Italian church.
You have to know where to look, though. Milan’s Duomo is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral, seating 40,000 worshipers. That’s 12,000 shadowy square meters crammed with confessionals, chapels and tombs. The 21st-century addition to the church is definitely off the beaten path. In fact, a gray-uniformed guard near the altar seems perplexed when asked where to find it.
“New? No, there hasn’t been anything new put in here for many years, I think.” Well, OK, it’s not a piece of art exactly but a video installation, by an Englishman? “Oh, you mean Wallinger,” he says, pronouncing it to rhyme with ‘étagère,’ “Around the altar and down into the Borromeo crypt.”
It would seem that contemporary art must start out humbly before warranting prime floor space in an Italian church. Wallinger’s installation, tucked into a side wall in 2005, is blinged-out by the crypt dedicated to Saint Charles Borromeo. This 16th-century archbishop, poster saint for Milanese virtues of energy, efficiency and discipline, lies in a wealth of ivory, gold and silver.
The “Via Dolorosa,” on the other hand, with a simple black panel over the entrance, looks more like the gateway to a forgotten broom closet. Once inside the tiny black room and seated on plain wooden benches, the (tenacious) visitor can screen 18 minutes of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 film “Jesus of Nazareth,” played without sound and visible through a frame that cuts out nearly 90% of the image. (Bonus points if you manage to catch Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalene or Ernest Borgnine playing a Centurion.)
And that’s where the controversy starts. The work, done in collaboration with the aptly-named Artache with the blessing of Duomo prelate Monsignor Luigi Manganini, somehow cost €180,000 (circa $240,000).
Curator Stefania Morellato calls it an “act of faith” about the potential of video art in a traditional setting, a way of ensuring that religion doesn’t live only in the memory of the past. Amen.