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ROME (ChurchMilitant.com) - An award-winning Russian artist is accusing Jesuit serial abuser Fr. Marko Ivan Rupnik of vandalizing his seminal work and stealing credit for the mosaics in the pope's Redemptoris Mater Chapel.
The Russian Orthodox mosaicist Alexander Kornoukhov has written to Pope Francis explaining how Fr. Rupnik conspired to cancel the artist's contract with the Vatican so the Jesuit could claim sole authorship of the artwork on the papal chapel.
Pope Francis did not respond to Kornoukhov's letter of Jan. 20, 2022, in which the artist asked the pontiff for "official confirmation of the mosaics' authorship" and for permission to create new works based on archival sketches and photographs of the artist's original work.
Kornoukhov's representatives, Artyom Kirakosov and Anna Weinberg, have now drafted a new letter to the pope reporting how Rupnik ousted the Russian and stole credit for the chapel dubbed the "new Sistine Chapel" after its restoration under Pope John Paul II, according to Italian daily Domani.
"Through slander, sedition and deceit, in violation of his treaty with the Holy See, (Rupnik) destroyed, unbeknownst to Pope John Paul II, the finished mosaics of the 'Mother of the Redeemer' chapel in the Vatican Palace, created in 1996–1998 by Kornoukhov," the duo wrote on Jan. 3, 2023.
It was Rupnik's claim to be the author of the Redemptoris Mater Chapel that propelled him into the limelight and led to major contracts from cathedrals, churches, chapels and Catholic institutions all over the world, the Jesuit concedes in his book The Color of Light.
The Society of Jesus expelled Fr. Rupnik, as a June 9 decree stated, after the Jesuit continued to violate safeguarding restrictions imposed on him. The celebrity artist, accused of sexually abusing at least 25 nuns, has until July 14 to appeal against the decision of his superiors.
The Slovenian artist's die-hard loyalists and colleagues from the Aletti Center, cofounded by Rupnik, have responded by accusing Jesuit leadership of favoring "a media campaign" against Rupnik "based on defamatory and unproven accusations (which exposed the person of Fr. Rupnik and the Aletti Center to forms of lynching)."
According to Domani's reconstruction of events leading to the appointment of the Russian artist to work on the Redemptoris Mater Chapel, it was eminent Russian poetess Olga Sedakova who introduced Kornoukhov to Rupnik as he was looking for "a Russian artist who worked in the traditional Byzantine style."
The Vatican began searching for artists after Pope John Paul II decided to restore what was previously named the "Matilde Chapel" using the money he had received from the College of Cardinals for the 50th anniversary of his ordination.
Wojtyła told cardinals on Nov. 10, 1996, that his project was intended to reconcile the millennial division between the East and West and "become a sign of the union" of the Eastern churches with the See of Peter. It would also "have a particular ecumenical value" and "constitute a significant presence of the Eastern tradition in the Vatican."
Kornoukhov was awarded the commission for the work on the papal chapel by Wojtyła's long-term secretary, Cdl. Stanisław Dziwisz, acting on behalf of Pope John Paul II, for a fee of 800 million lire, excluding the cost of the materials used in the project.
While Rupnik would collaborate with the Russian mosaicist, the Jesuit and his Aletti Center would be responsible solely for the organizational and theological supervision of the work, according to Domani.
Kornoukov became well-known in Italy after bagging the first prize in international mosaic competitions in Ravenna (1984) and Rome (1995–1996). The artist had also created mosaics for the parish of Sant'Ugo in Rome, a church that later commissioned artwork from Rupnik.
An Oct. 29, 1996, memorandum from the Aletti Center, however, appears to place Rupnik in charge of the work on the papal chapel, stating, "The Holy See entrusts the project to you and the restoration of the Redemptoris Mater Chapel."
But a contract between Kornoukhov and the Vatican City governorate, signed by Bp. Gianni Danzi on May 23, 1997, states that the Russian artist "will collaborate in carrying out the restoration work" but that it will be his "task to take care of the artistic style of the mosaic."
A private agreement struck between Kornoukov and the Aletti Center on March 11, 1997, stipulates that the artist and his wife, Vika Naveriani, would reside at the art studio in Via Paolina during the restoration work, paying the center 10 million lire a year for room and board.
This agreement specifies that Kornoukov is "the main artist" in the restoration work and that Rupnik will not receive any percentage of the compensation granted to Kornoukhov by the Holy See for the restoration, nor will he be paid for his contribution to the work.
Russian Orthodox patriarch Alexy II of Moscow also wrote to Kornoukov on Aug. 20, 1996, blessing his endeavor "to create the mosaic in the palace of the Most Holy Pope John Paul II" and hailing the effort as "a worthy witness to the doctrine and cultural tradition of the Orthodox Church."
Kornoukhov began his restoration on the eastern wall of the chapel with his mosaic of the "Heavenly Jerusalem," the only one that has been almost entirely preserved.
"The mosaic is inspired by a fragment of an icon of the 'Last Judgment' from the 16th century, which I had seen in a restorer's studio in Moscow and which depicted saints seated around an altar, themselves a representation of the Trinity," the Russian explains.
But relations with Rupnik began to deteriorate when he began work on the vault and the other walls.
"At first, he (Rupnik) proclaimed himself my pupil, but after a while, he started using every pretext to criticize my work, insinuating that it wasn't well done and that it was even falling apart," Kornoukhov told Domani.
The Russian also alleges that the contract with the Holy See was drawn up by Rupnik and completely deprived Kornoukhov of his creative freedom.
The artist claims he was "forced to sign it without an adequate translation, under duress, and following emotional and psychological pressure lasting several days."
Relations broke down when Russian president Boris Yeltsin visited Rome in February 1998. Yeltsin and his wife were invited to the Vatican to admire the papal chapel.
"It was a success. Everyone appreciated the mosaics already made on the walls and on the vault," recalls Kornoukhov. "The pope himself was very satisfied," Sedakova confirms.
According to Kornoukhov, Rupnik threw him out of the Aletti Center the morning after Yeltsin's visit and took away the keys to the chapel. "He locked himself in the construction site, preventing me from entering, and destroyed almost all the work I had done up to that moment," the Russian noted.
Rupnik then smashed the vault with the mosaic of "Christ Pantocrator" to pieces, dismantled the mosaics on the walls, retaining only a large part of the "Heavenly Jerusalem." Kornoukhov was dismissed without any explanation.
"From that moment, I was prevented from entering the Vatican without any written proof of the accusations against me," the artist observed.
Rino Pastorutti, the consultant overseeing the artwork in the chapel, claims that "the mosaics made by Kornoukhov didn't hold because the glue wasn't suitable, and the tiles from the vault came down."
Pastorutti, a mosaicist from Spilimbergo and a longtime collaborator of the Aletti Center, told Domani that the sealing problems were so evident that there were satirical drawings circulating in which the pope was seen saying Mass with a protective helmet.
Kornoukhov has rebutted the accusations, saying they are totally unfounded and the result of "a pure act of vandalism" by Rupnik.
"To demonstrate the serious 'defects' of my work, Rupnik removed some stones from the east wall with a screwdriver," the Russian maintained, also claiming that Rupnik dismissed him before he had glued the mosaic to the walls.
The Society of Jesus confirmed that Rupnik, a close friend of Pope Francis, had not only broken his vows of chastity and obedience but also his vow of poverty by owning 90% of an art installation company, Church Militant reported.
Rossoroblu, a limited liability company registered in Italy, recorded a turnover of 1,176,500 euros and a profit of 119,607 euros in 2022.
Ten percent of the company is owned by Rupnik's partner, Manuela Viezzoli, a former sister of the Loyola Community, which was cofounded by Rupnik in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where the abuser is said to have perpetrated much of his sexual abuse against the nuns.
The Aletti Center leadership did not respond to Church Militant's request for comment.