There was nothing particularly remarkable about the old village church in Montegiordano, until a contemporary artist decided to buy it and move it to New York.
Located in the Calabria region of Italy, the Church of the Madonna del Carmine (Our Lady of Mount Carmel) is a Neo-Baroque structure in the architectural tradition of the Roman Jesuit churches, which had such a tremendous influence on the development of ecclesiastical architecture not just in Italy but in Spain and, by extension, in the Americas. This particular parish church was built in the 19th century, but it was later desecrated, deconsecrated, and left to ruin. The local community subsequently built a new church to replace it, an exact copy of the old one.
Now there is something of an uproar going on, for Italian contemporary artist Francesco Vezzoli has purchased the ruined property, and is in the process of shipping it, stone by stone, to MoMa’s PS1 exhibition hall in New York. Although Vezzoli purchased the ruins legally, local residents have filed a complaint with the Italian Ministry of Culture arguing that the ruined church should be categorized as local cultural heritage, which would therefore be protected from export. For the time being therefore, the stones of the old church are sitting in an airport hangar, awaiting resolution of the issue.
Italy has among the strictest export laws in the world when it comes to its national heritage. Almost any work of art more than 50 years old may be classified as a cultural object, and the process to obtain an export license for an object to leave the country involves significant government hurdles. And this restriction on export extends to buildings, so that given the ruins in question are over a century old, there is no question that they would fall under Italian export restrictions.
Vezzoli is part of a breed of contemporary artists more interested in becoming celebrities or fashion magazine layout editors than they are in producing substantive works of art. He likes to do the expected thing of insulting conservatives in his films and making pornographic and blasphemous photograph collages, which of course is nothing new and frankly rather boring. He is perhaps most famous for getting Lady Gaga to play and sing on a giant pink Steinway covered in butterflies while surrounded by dancers from the Bolshoi, so safe to say the less said about his rather feeble art the better.
Yet the issue here, when it comes down to it, is not the virtue of what Vezzoli intends to do with this building, but how he was able to obtain it in the first place. This is no longer a consecrated church, after all, so anyone could buy it. Instead of being cared for the building was simply neglected, and allowed to fall further and further into ruin.
No doubt there are at least some in the community who do not like to imagine what the artist intends to do with the structure, since apparently he intends to project his films onto its walls. Given what his films usually deal with, this is an understandable concern, for there can be little doubt that the artist relishes the idea of showing his work on the walls of a former Catholic church. However in this controversy we can see a bit of what is plaguing the Church today, not just in this little town in Italy but indeed here in the United States as well.
When we read about the outcry over old churches in places like Boston, Buffalo, and Chicago having to be closed down, there is an understandable sadness over how these beautiful structures and their furnishings are disappearing. People will typically blame their bishop or others in the diocese when these things happen. Yet rarely do they point the finger of blame at themselves.
There are many reasons why old churches get closed down, but in a significant number of cases the issue is one of attendance. You cannot afford to keep the roof on a large, non-residential building which only a couple of dozen people of average income use on a regular basis. And God bless those people who are hanging on, and showing up every week or indeed every day, to keep some life in these old churches. Those of us who care about our parish communities have a duty to support them as best we can, regardless of how large or small those communities are.
Yet for all that, without drawing in more people, we are only doing half our job. The churches are empty because we are not going out and bringing in people to fill them. When we think about being One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, we must remember that the Apostles had to be out and about quite a bit, because that was what Christ told them to do. The Great Commission was not, “Go, and straighten all the hymnals in the pews before mass.”
This little town in Calabria may not have thought about it, but in failing to tear down or renovate their old church, and leaving it to grow covered with weeds and further deteriorate, they gave the impression that they did not care about it. Now they have realized what they have done, and perhaps they can rectify the situation. Safe to say, though, another ruined and neglected church property will almost certainly be available for Vezzoli to purchase somewhere else.
It is indeed highly regrettable that an anti-Catholic artist was able to purchase this old church to display art which will undoubtedly be in eye-rollingly bad taste. However if we are not making our faith a vibrant one, and actually evangelizing to others rather than simply talking about how terrible it is when these sorts of things happen, then we will undoubtedly see even more incidents such as this. In the end that is the real lesson to take away from the story of this church that, until recently, nobody wanted.
Ruins of Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel