From Blasphemed to Blessed: Pope's Visit to Venice to Shine Light on Corita Kent's Art

In the 1960s, the Catholic Cardinal of Los Angeles labeled Corita Kent's art as blasphemous. But in an exhibition organized at the Vatican on Sunday, April 28, Pope Francis is drawing attention to the work that describes the marginalized.

Francis will make a half-day trip from Rome to Venice this weekend, becoming the first pope to visit the city's famed art Biennale. When his helicopter touches down, it lands at Giudecca Women's Detention Center – a 13th-century site not too unusual for a pope who has prioritized prisons during his 11-year papacy.

But what's unusual is that the active prison houses the Holy See's biennale pavilion, and while the visitors are the head of the Catholic Church, inmates serve as tour guides for the exhibit.

Under the heading „With My Eyes,” the exhibit uses the prison's chapel, cafeteria, and other corridors to display the works of about ten renowned artists, whose works highlight the different themes and priorities of Pope Francis in different ways — forcing visitors to go beyond their comfort zones and see their realities. They are often overlooked or ignored.

Among those artists is the work of Corita, who is fondly remembered.

Born in 1918, Frances Elizabeth Kent entered the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at age 18, where, as Sr. Mary Corita Kent, she would eventually head the art department at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles.

A bold aesthetic that used bright colors and screenprinting to champion messages of social justice, Corrida became one of the most important pop art figures of the 20th century.

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According to Nellie Scott, Executive Director Corrida Art CenterCorrida's art helps demonstrate „the extraordinary in the ordinary and the ordinary in the extraordinary.”

When I first spoke to Scott on April 16, she had come outside the women's prison in Venice to call on me. She was inside preparing for the opening of the exhibition, but it was a functional facility so cell phones were not allowed inside – even for the organizers.

Scott said he contacted the Corita Art Center in late 2023 about the possibility of including Corita's work in the Holy See's Biennale Pavilion. He was immediately intrigued by the possibility of not only showing work in such a high-class environment, but also participating in a program that emphasizes encounter art.

In addition to displaying about 20 of Corrida's artworks in the pavilion, the Corrida Art Center has partnered with the prison on several educational initiatives for female inmates named after their artist-educator-social justice advocate.

„The call to meet people where they are is very corrida-like,” Scott said. „You see that in the work exhibited in the pavilion.”

However, during Corida's lifetime, it was not always appreciated.

The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary fully embraced the Second Vatican Council's call to be open and immersed in the world in which they lived, and were known for their support and advocacy of the poor, anti-war activism, and civil rights. Other important social causes of the day.

Messages of love, tolerance and peace are central themes in Gorida's artwork, which quickly became popular across the country. But in Los Angeles, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre viewed the activities of some of the sisters as sympathetic to the Communists, and had a particular dislike for Corrida.

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After years of entanglement with archbishops, she sought one Released from his vow in 1968. That didn't stop him from creating art and keeping faith in his own way until his death from cancer in 1986 at the age of 67.

„It's nice to see him acknowledged in this way,” said Scott, reflecting on the strange journey from someone who was at odds with the church hierarchy to now earning a place of honor in a Vatican-backed exhibit.

The Biennale, he said, „is not only an opportunity to share the message in his work, which is certainly relevant in this exhibition, but also in the current leadership of the church.”

Included in Corrida's thriving job category Colorful screen print Pope John XXIII—the pope who opened the Second Vatican Council and ushered in a new era of church reform—with his „Let the Sun Shine” speech.

Now, nearly 60 years later, as Francis opens the Biennale — a location and people largely closed off from the world — another reforming pope has chosen Corita's artwork to help do just that.

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