Sometimes it takes the juxtaposition of artistic genres to reveal the truths and mysteries hidden within them. The interaction between Renaissance architecture, Christianity and the art of abstraction produces an eye-opening narrative in Sean Scully’s exhibition ‘Human’. Housed in Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore, an icon of Venetian architecture located on the island opposite the Piazza San Marco, it is surprising to see modern art crossing the threshold of sanctity. Exhibited alongside the 2019 Venice Biennale, I was intrigued by the seemingly odd decision from the Benedictine monks to display such abstract work in their 16th century basilica. To find an answer to this I shall delve deeper into Scully’s study of spirituality.

Admittedly skeptical of Scully’s ability to stand in the shadows of Veneto’s golden-boy architect Palladio, the exhibition’s introduction didn’t help: “HUMAN is devoted to the fundamental tension between our heart’s striving in a world of beauty and struggle, and our soul’s yearning for eternal transcendence” (Fig.1). The spiritually poetic language seems to be a lackluster attempt at binding the art to a deeper sense of divine purpose, possibly an effort to make each piece appear worthy of its grand context. As Palladio and Christianity loom over Scully’s work, it was hard not to sense a hint of desperation to thematically fit in.

However, I investigated further into the exhibition to hopefully be persuaded by Scully’s ‘yearning soul’. The first piece, ‘Opulent Ascension’ (Fig. 1), was hard to miss. A towering stack of felt which proclaims to represents Jacob’s ladder, yet finds itself looking more like a set of children’s building blocks. Perhaps an analogy which fittingly possesses much humbler ambitions. Moving past the glorified felt, I found myself guided into a smaller side room featuring the personal notes and sketches of the artist himself. It is here that the exhibition takes its shape. One can read the artist’s thoughts to discover an intimate, personal exploration of what ‘eternal transcendence’ can mean to the individual.


Fig. 1 – Sean Scully, Opulent Ascension, 2019, Felt on Wood, 10.4 x 3.6 x 3.6 m.

Stating in an interview that he was inspired by the religious manuscripts held in San Giorgio Maggiore, Scully provides the opportunity to observe the genesis of the exhibition (Fig.2). It is through this intimate lens that one can begin to see the links between the work of Scully and Palladio, found within the similarities and differences of their interpretations of spirituality. Once the veil of presumed ubiquitousness inferred from the exhibition’s title and the suffocating introduction have been shed, one can observe that it is in the areas of humility that Scully’s works really shine. Instead of attempting to spiritually touch the viewer like Palladio, and after ceasing to be about humanity’s general inclination towards ‘eternal transcendence’, the work becomes less austere. This allowed for the exhibition to be viewed as a vehicle for the artist to express his own relationship with Catholicism, rather than an effort to promote the spirituality of others.

Fig. 2 – Sean Scully, Artist’s Notes.

By taking this concept of intimacy and individuality, as suggested by the artist’s notes, the work began to take on an aura of creative spirituality, almost as a personal gateway into the divine. This is most clearly represented in Scully’s take on minimalist geometric paintings. Instead of emphasising the hard edges of the shapes, Scully messed them up, spreading paint in surges of intense feeling that linger in each rough stain of brushwork. In doing so, Scully takes us to a realm of abstraction; there are no clear borders here, as the unbounded nature expresses a freedom of emotion and spirituality. In the words of Jonathan Jones: “Abstraction is not cold – not when Scully does it” (Fig.3).

Fig.3 – Sean Scully – A Selection of Abstract Works.

The results produced by this extremely personal piece can be traced to its source; in 1983 Scully lost one of his sons to a car accident. As a result, this leaves the depiction of the Madonna and child as a melancholic ode to the story of Christ on a human level; not only did a religious community lose their prophet, but a family lost their son. Therefore, Scully can be seen to transcribe this religious narrative to his own spiritual journey and shares his experience with us, the viewer.

Sean Scully’s exhibition from its principle perspective appears to be abruptly out of place. From the stylistic discourse between space and art, to the assuming message initially fed to the viewer, one can feel the unsettling juxtaposition of modern art, Catholicism, and iconic Renaissance architecture. However, through a shift in perspective, provoked by the personal notes of the artist himself, an injection of humility invigorates the exhibition.

Once it ceases to preach, and an intimacy is purged out by contrasting the universality of Palladio’s architecture with the individuality of spiritual abstraction, Scully’s work begins to assume a narrative role. After working through the basilica to reach the acme of the exhibition, the answers to my initial curiosities become very clear. Contemporary art has crossed the threshold into the House of God to guide us through the avenues of one man’s journey towards spiritual fulfillment and provide a testament to the perseverance of Catholicism. Running alongside the Biennale, Human is there to remind the flocking tourists that religion still firmly has it’s place in the worlds of modern life and art.