Sparks fly over choice of image for Vatican document for assembly on women

by Soli Salgado

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The Vatican Pontifical Council of Culture recently sparked controversy when the cover image for an online working document intended to advertise this week's annual plenary assembly in Rome on "Women's Culture: Equality and Difference" was Man Ray's 1936 sculpture, "Venus Restored," a plaster cast of a headless Venus bound in ropes. The work of art, according to an article at Crux, is meant to depict women as a subjugated sex object, but also as a creature who rises above men's depictions.

Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan wrote on her blog that it "reflects the Vatican's patriarchal, dysfunctional view that holds women in spiritual bondage. This image denigrates women's bodies and souls and reflects a deep misogyny in need of healing and transformation."

"If we had women priests at the Vatican, do you think an image like this would see the light of day?" she asked.

Micol Forti, director of the contemporary art collection at the Vatican Museums, defended the use of the image, telling Crux that the sculpture was chosen because it represents the past as an "anchor to generate new ideas." She added that while it is imperfect in fully articulating the purpose of the assembly, "it's not a headless or armless body, but a reflection on classic tradition and the possibility of rediscovering a role in contemporary life."

We Are Church of Ireland also took offense to the choice of images, saying that Man Ray was a misogynist who objectified women and viewed them as subordinates, targets of male desire and subjects to erotic fantasies.

"What is behind this choice of female bondage image by the (all male) Pontifical Council for Culture?" the group asked in a press release. "What message does it seek to convey?"

The image of "Venus Restored" was not alone in causing outrage over sexism at the Vatican leading up to the outreach initiative, scheduled for Feb. 4-7: A promotional video featured Italian actress Nancy Brilli asking women to contribute 60-second clips of their lives to be broadcast at the assembly.

"I am sure you have asked yourself many times, who are you are, what you do, what you think about your being a woman, your strengths, your difficulties, your body, and your spiritual life," the actress said, inviting submissions either through #LifeofWomen or through email by Jan. 4.

The video drew so much backlash, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican's culture minister, removed the English version of the video from his department's website.

"Aside from the obvious -- sexy sell has long gone by the boards in developed nations and is totally unacceptable in predominantly Muslim countries -- the fact of the matter is that highlighting a stereotypical spokeswomen is not the way to ask for women's input," Phyllis Zagano wrote in a column for NCR. "Or is the Vatican convinced women's intellectual abilities rise only to the level of televised soap operas and cosmetics commercials?"

Cardinals and other Catholic prelates from around the world will cover a variety of women's issues at Wednesday's assembly, including domestic violence, plastic surgery and women's contributions to the church. Only men will be behind the closed doors.

[Soli Salgado is an NCR Bertelsen editorial intern. Her email address is]

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