The Church has been a patron of art and architecture from the time of Constantine. It has meditated on the importance of beauty and its role in worship from St Thomas Aquinas to Benedict XVI; Pope Francis has other priorities in his teachings. The Holy See now appears for the first time as an exhibitor at the 16th architecture Venice Biennale.

The Vatican’s contribution, dubbed Ten chapels, is of actual buildings and installations rather than drawings or models. The overall theme of the exhibition is “Freespace”, that is, the dialogue which architects hope their buildings will have with their surroundings. The chapels are built on the same island as Palladio’s serene basilica and cloister of San Giorgio Maggiore.

The appointed curator is an Italian, Professor Francesco Dal Co. Twelve figures, including several “starchitects”, were invited, and the result is the predictable fare of international architecture exhibitions. They have designed formal, abstract compositions profiting from the bosky setting. The architects are from Australia (Sean Godsell’s Relocatable chapel); Brazil; Britain; Chile (Smiljan Radic’s Roadside shrine); Japan (Ternubo Fujimori’s Cross chapel); Italy; Paraguay (Javier Corbalan’s Nomadic chapel); and the United States.

Foster+Partners’ Crosses morphed in Tensegrity (Britain), with the Italian furniture maker Tecno and Maeg, is a wooden strut and tensioned cloister. Three crosses appear in the structure. Carla Juacaba’s A bench and a cross (Brazil) is a minimalist steel structure. With one cross upright and one flat on the ground, a sort of rack supporting a single bench, it is an installation rather than a building.

Andrea Souto de Moura’s No, it is not a chapel (Portugal) is built of Vicenza sandstone, and there is a cube-like altar. The Vicenza reference is to Palladio, but rather than his elegant masonry courses, we have interlocking monolith slabs. Francesco Cellini’s Not a project, a reflection (Italy) is built in steel and ceramic with Panariagroup. It has the two interlocking rectangles enclosing an altar and an ambo, as the brief asked, but the latter’s scale and position are that of an Old Mass lectern. It would serve for a Catholic summer camp.

The most traditional is Prats and Flores’s Morning chapel (Spain), constructed by Saint-Gobian Italia, a wayside arched shrine with a flanking wall. It could house one priest and a server. Andrew D Berman’s modest chapel (New York), made of wood and polycarbonate, is the simplest and perhaps most recyclable.

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