A rare example of art worth canceling

Boston Globe

March 11, 2024

By Mattia Ferraresi

Great works created by bad people can still be venerated. The church mosaics made by Marko Rupnik may be an exception to this principle.

Picasso was a serial rapist, Caravaggio a murderer, Bach an antisemite, Ezra Pound a fascist. Michael Jackson had his own issues. The list of terrible people making beautiful art is disturbingly long.

The question that comes up every time is, what do we do with their works of art? Shall we remove them? Maybe set trigger warnings to preserve the valuable crafts while condemning their despicable authors?

In this contentious debate, I’ve always stood against any form of cancellation and emphatically argued for separating the artist from the art. In a way, the marvels created by morally repugnant individuals may even prove something profound about the elusive nature of artistic genius — a force so mysteriously powerful that it can manifest itself through the most unworthy of performers. Hands off the works of art!

I am willing to make an exception to my rule in the case of the Rev. Marko Rupnik.

Rupnik is a Catholic priest and world-renowned artist. His highly recognizable mosaics adorn hundreds of prominent churches and places of worship around the world, including the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Shrine of Fátima in Portugal, the Vatican’s Redemptoris Mater Chapel, the Saint John Paul II Shrine in Washington, D.C., and the Sanctuary of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina in Italy.

He’s also been accused of sexually, psychologically, and spiritually abusing at least 20 women in the span of 30 years. The women were mostly nuns or novices, and several of them left religious life as a result of Rupnik’s alleged predations. At least one would have been a minor when the grooming began.

In December 2022, when allegations against him surfaced in Italian and international media, the Jesuit order admitted that Rupnik once had been declared excommunicated after a complaint arose that he absolved a woman in confession of having engaged in sexual activity with him. Although that is an extremely serious crime under canonical law, Rupnik’s excommunication lasted only a few weeks, until he was quietly reinstated by the Vatican. When the allegations erupted publicly, the Jesuit order imposed new restrictions on him while investigating him further. He would not comply, and finally he was kicked out of the Jesuits “due to his stubborn refusal to observe the vow of obedience.”

Rupnik is, of course, innocent until proven guilty, but even the Jesuit order conceded that the allegations against him are “highly credible.” Pressed by a growing body of damning testimonies over the priest’s misconduct, Pope Francis, who had initially appeared to be downplaying the allegations, decided to waive the statute of limitations and directed the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith to investigate the case.

The victims’ complaints only grew louder in time. In February, two of them, Mirjiam Kovac and Gloria Branciani, spoke publicly for the first time and called on the Vatican to initiate an independent investigation. They described how Rupnik forced them to have threesomes, a practice that in his twisted theology mirrored “the image of the Trinity,” and to watch pornography in order to “grow spiritually.” Rupnik never responded to the accusations, and he’s thought to be in his native Slovenia under the protection of a local bishop.

Next to the controversy over Rupnik’s conduct, there’s the debate over his art. Rupnik’s art is the inescapable face of modern Catholicism. Most Catholics have probably never heard his name, but they may well recognize his ubiquitous works.

Some bishops and prelates wonder if Rupnik’s mosaics should be removed. The bishop of Lourdes, Jean-Marc Micas, formed a special commission to evaluate what to do about the mosaic murals in the sanctuary and announced that he’ll reach a final decision in the spring. The fate of the colossal project of the Basilica of Aparecida, in Brazil, also hangs in the balance. Mosaics have already been laid on the facade, but the work on the sides has been suspended, pending a decision by the church hierarchy.

There’s a strong case for his work to be removed.

First, Rupnik is foremost a priest, with moral and educational responsibilities toward the flock. He’s bound to priesthood by a sacrament, one of the most sacred rites in Catholicism, and that confers on him huge spiritual authority in the eyes of practitioners.

Second, Rupnik’s perverted mysticism permeated his entire artistic process. “His sexual obsession was not extemporaneous but deeply connected to his conception of art and his theological thought,” one of the former nuns said. According to testimonies, Rupnik lured young novices to his studio asking them to pose as models, inviting them to undress. He allegedly solicited erotic games while he was painting and forced his victims to have sex after he celebrated mass, claiming it was an integral part of the artistic undertaking. And he allegedly insisted that sex was a stepping stone in some sort of spiritual-artistic journey and humiliated those who dared to refuse his advances, making them feel they were resisting God’s will.

Finally, we must also consider the very nature of the Byzantine art that he claims to be inspired by. In the Eastern Christian tradition, sacred images aren’t simply artworks but are objects of devotion designed for liturgical purposes. The ultimate goal of the icon is not to represent a scene in a beautiful way, but to elicit contemplation of the divine presence. Would it be possible to elevate Rupnik’s artistic expression to these celestial heights if the “highly credible” allegations against him are confirmed?

The Vatican has already decided in other instances that art produced under such circumstances is unacceptable. The Second Vatican Council openly called on bishops to “remove from the house of God and from other sacred places those works of artists which are repugnant to faith, morals, and Christian piety.” Last year, the Diocese of Lyon in France ordered the removal of stained glass windows made by Louis Ribes, a French priest and artist who died in 1994 and was posthumously found to be a serial child rapist.

I hope the Vatican will conduct a thorough investigation into the allegations against Rupnik, but some decisions over the fate of his artwork will have to be made beforehand. In this case, separating the art from the artist is extremely hard, perhaps impossible.

Mattia Ferraresi is managing editor of the Italian newspaper Domani. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 2018-19.