AS ONE door closes, another opens, as the old saw has it. No sooner had the Holy Father closed the Porta Santa of St Peter’s than the Dominicans threw open the doors of their basilica on the Aventine hill with an exhibition of contemporary art, inaugurated on the feast day of St Clement, one of the city’s patrons.
Frère Bruno Cadoré, Master of the Order of Preachers, has called upon another Dominican, Fr Alain Arnould OP from the house in Brussels, to curate a jubilee show to mark the 800th anniversary of the founding of their order.
The celebrations have been worldwide; the Dominican community now has 556 houses and at the end of 2014 numbered 309 lay brethren, 135 deacons, 4347 priests, and no fewer than 38 bishops.
Dominicans are no strangers to art. Of their own number, we might think of Fra Giovanni da’ Fiesole, whom we call il Beato Angelico (Fra Angelico) (c.1395-1455), or of the artists who have worked for them; Leonardo’s Last Supper in Milan, Le Corbusier (the chapel at Plateau d’Assy), and Matisse’s oratory at Vence, the associated sketches and vestments for which are among the highlights of the contemporary-art collection in the Vatican.
Père Alain has brought together a younger Brother, the photographer Adam Rokosz OP, the artist Kris Martin, who took part in the 2010 Liverpool Biennial, and has invited 15 members of the wider Dominican “family” to represent what St Dominic means to each of them on banners that hang in the otherwise austere church aisles, a visual aide-memoire, if one is needed, of the range of the Order.
Every Italian child learns to sing to wish good “auguries” to family and friends (to the tune of “Happy Birthday”). The exhibition’s title offers us all greetings, but also harks back to the pagan practice of seeking by natural signs to understand the will of the gods. It was on the Aventine that Remus saw six vultures circle overhead, whereas Romulus saw 12 on the Palatine, determining where to build Rome.
This witty and varied show threads its way through church and cloister, and invites us into one of the great basilicas of Rome, which has, in the wood carvings of its original fifth-century doors, one of the earliest surviving representations of the crucifixion.
It then spills out into the world outside, where Kris Martin (b.1972), a conceptual artist from Belgium, has set his sculpture Altar in the orange grove of the Savelli park next to the church, while the external walls hold five photographs.
In these, entitled Incarnation, Rokosz explores hope in children and young people. A young woman stands over a grave in Regensburg Cathedral. It is that of a priest who attempted to persuade the Nazis to spare the Jews in the city and was hanged for his pains. In the community house in Vienna, a novice moves in front of a bare wall from which a life-size crucifix has been removed, leaving its unpainted cross-shaped imprint in the white plaster. We can never take the cross out of our lives.
As we enter the narthex porch, an installation called simply Water is a motley collection of vessels on the ground. Each is filled with water. In any crisis, we rush to collect water in whatever comes to hand. Without water there is no life; without baptism there is no life in Christ.
This is one of several site-specific works in addition to his previous work that he has chosen to exhibit here. Altar is usually shown at König Galerie, Berlin, but here is neatly aligned with the Dome of St Peter’s across the Tiber. In it the bronze “frame” is that of the Van Eycks’ Mystic Lamb altarpiece in Ghent.
In a little back garden, also facing the Vatican, lies a discarded old weathervane. Called Petrus, the gilded cockerel, once used for target practice, recalls the Denial of Peter. Anciently, Christians adopted the cockerel for church vanes as it was the first to salute the break of day at Christ’s rising. The spectacularly decorated ninth-century vane from the roof of Old St Peter’s still stands proudly, now in the Treasury at St Peter’s. Martin’s lies face down in the long grass. Which better proclaims the message of truth?
The smallest sculpture, in a large vitrine intended to stand next to the paschal candlestick, is that of a bee, cast in gold. Elsewhere across Rome, bees dominated the 17th-century Baroque city on the crest of the Barberini family. Here, this precious little thing recalls a verse from the Exultet, the great Easter hymn sung by the deacon, in which the humble bee is celebrated for providing the self-immolating candle wax, a token of Christ’s saving death. We now know how the survival of bees directly affects our own ability to be.
Mandi VIII (2006) is a cast of the statue of Laocoön, but without the serpents. It stands at the west end of the church, traditionally the place where representations of the Last Judgement would hang. At Santa Sabina, there is no great Doom painting, but, rather, a fifth-century mosaic inscription recording the foundation of the church. Martin’s sculpture shows that while we may look anxious (the Trojan priest and his sons are, frankly, terrified), we have already been offered salvation.
Upstairs, in the 20th-century cloister (1936), there is a sound installation. What’s the time recalls the question put to St Augustine, who had to reply in silence, “Sssh.” Before we preach, or speak, the name of God, we must listen in silence. Here also, in a niche that would once have held an image for one of the stations of the rosary, is a skull, metal cast from the artist’s own head: Still Alive.
Here Martin has also scattered little bronze roundels, like off-cuts from a hole-punch. Trodden into the cloister floor or picked up on our shoes, Festum II is like confetti thrown at celebrations. When the city became too noisy during the carnival, the popes often retreated to their apartments here.
It was in 1220 that Pope Honorius III gave the palaeo-Christian basilica and his home to St Dominic for his order. From this quiet place, the “dogs of the Lord” continue to go out to proclaim the Good News.
“Auguri” is at the Basilica di Santa Sabina, Piazza Pietro d’Illiria, Rome, until 24 January, open Wednesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.