Paolo Baratella's ''Story of Salvation''

Written by  Carlo Bassi
A contemporary work in the heart of Ferrara's Cathedral
The times were very different when Pope Paul VI welcomed artists to the Vatican and asked them sorrowfully, ''Can we make peace? Here and now? We ought to remain allies.'' It was 7 May 1964: Paul VI wanted to rebuild the links with the world of culture and the arts after the divorce declared by the Enlightenment put an end to the Church's thousand years as a patron of the arts. He wanted to ensure the continuity and continuation of this vast heritage: art and culture lent the essential ornamentation to the eternal Church.
Few listened to him. But that sorrowful voice did not go without some response.
It fostered a profound meditation on the situation of mankind in the world, often dramatic and inescapable in every corner of the earth. This worsening condition had found an iconic representation in the cross and the crucified man.
Among these artists, Bill Congdon, Giovanni Testori and Pier Paolo Pasolini being the best known, we can also include Paolo Baratella, who was in no way a painter of sacred art. His path, as he described it himself, lay among the prime movers in Paris in '68, in Berlin, in Milan, during the years of youth rebellion.
The dramatic icon of the crucifix which he identified without hesitation in Mathis Grünewald's Isenheim triptych (a 'blasphemy', according to the art critic Testori, in comparison with the modest images of sacred art) is one of the recurrent symbols which appear in his installations and his narrative pictures on metres and metres of painted canvas. A violent image, in which 'painting succeeds in pushing its own means and expressive tools to the heights', but which translates into a dramatic synthesis all the evil in the world to which mankind is prey.

Paolo Baratella grew up in Ferrara: the bare, deserted spaces of the Church of the Holy Spirit, the discovery of the city seen from via Bellaria and via Montebello, the art school, Milan, and his vivid imagination led him to secret dreams of painting as the very stuff of life. And all the time he was under a watchful and affectionate gaze of one who intuitively understood the burden which the boy carried within him, and who bought his first picture. This was a young priest, Don Giulio, blessed with a refined eye and infallible intuition. Over the years, while he followed Paolo's doings in the world, he would be appointed to the bishopric of the Diocese of Ferrara-Comacchio and take up other heavy institutional burdens, including that of the rebuilding of the Cathedral Sacristy after the allied bombing. The Sacristy was rebuilt, and to bring colour to the plain white ceiling Monsignor Giulio Zerbini was determined to commission none other than his former pupil and hopeful young painter Paolo Baratella, now internationally recognised and a major figure in Italian art movements and research. The theme which Paolo Baratella tackled on the Sacristy's arching ceiling was the story of salvation: from the Annunciation to the Nativity, from the Crucifixion to the Resurrection. He set to work in the manner of a great storyteller. His sky is tossed by gusting winds of an intense blue that generate the scenes and give them substance as though it were the wind of the Holy Spirit that blows where it will and lends force to the cross which dominates everything. This is the same cross as that of the Isenheim altar piece, the crucified Christ as an eternal icon of pain, suffering and the death of man, reaching out beyond any ideology. But it is the same wind of the Holy Spirit that creates the transparency of the Resurrection, where the Christ who ascends into heaven is almost immaterial, made solely of light that blazes against the blue that pierces it. Cosmé Tura and the works by the Officina masters are the great protectors of figure drawing because ''to be modern is above all to have a vast baggage of values and identities on which to draw [...] to conjure this heritage into contemporaneity.'' (Germano Celant).