The Young Pope: Paintings from the intro sequence.

How does Paolo Sorrentino use art in his award winning drama-series.

Vashik Armenikus
Nov 16, 2020 · 6 min read
The Young Pope (2016), HBO and The Sky Atlantic, written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, starring Jude Law. | Fair use.

hen The Young Pope’s production team asked permission from the Vatican to film in Sistine Chapel they received a strong refusal.

The Vatican did not tell the reason for their decision. How could the Catholic Church agree to film a show that aims to reveal the corruption in its ranks?

A young cardinal, Lenny Belardo, gets elected as a Pope Pius XIII when the machinations of the leading contenders fail. In other words, Lenny becomes the Pope because of the Vatican’s own corrupt election procedure. To protect himself from his enemies, Lenny decides to purge the church from the corrupt and to take control of the Catholic Church by making its doctrine more conservative. This causes disruption both inside and outside of the church.

What makes this drama-series exceptional is its use of art masterpieces throughout the story.

In the intro to the show, for example, Jude Law, who plays the role of Lenny Belardo, passes 9 paintings. Each painting was carefully chosen by the show’s creator — Paolo Sorrentino. Each painting is tightly connected with the character of Lenny, with his past traumas and fears for the future.

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From left to right: Gerard van Honthorst, The Adoration of Shepherds (Wiki Comms); Perugino, Delivery of Keys (Wiki Comms); Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus (Wiki Commons)

Gerard van Honthorst, The Adoration of Shepherds

The first painting that Lenny Belardo passes by is a painting by Gerard van Honthorst called The Adoration of Shepherds. It depicts the Biblical scene of the birth of Christ.

This painting has a tragic history. It was almost completely destroyed after a car exploded in the carpark of Uffizi Gallery in Florence in 1993. The gallery wall had collapsed and the painting was buried under the rubble. It could not be recovered fully by the specialists.

Sorrentino connects Lenny Belardo’s tragic childhood with that of Honthort’s painting. Lenny’s parents left him in an orphanage, thus inflicting irreparable damage to his soul.

Perugino, Delivery of the Keys

Perugino’s The Delivery of the Keys shows the moment when Christ gives St.Peter the keys from Heaven, thus letting him to decide who gets into Heaven and who does not.

In the second episode of The Young Pope, Lenny speaks to the believers who have gathered in St.Peter’s square in the Vatican. He tells them that they don’t deserve to go to heaven, because they have forgotten that they have to work hard for it. He, as a new Pope, is here to remind them of that. He, Lenny Belardo, has the keys to Heaven.

Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus

Can the Pope be an atheist? That sounds like an oxymoron, but Jude Law’s character questions the existence of God and wants to rediscover what (or who) God really is.

Carvaggio’s Conversion on the Way to Damascus depicts the moment when Saul, the prosecutor of the Christians fell from his horse when he heard the voice of God.

God’s voice spoke to him and asked him why he is hunting and punishing Christians. According to this story, Saul was blinded by the light that descended from heaven and stunned when God talked to him. That’s how Saul converted from the Christian prosecutor and became one of the first disciples of Christ, who we know as Apostle Paul.

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From left to right: Tsotsonis, The Nicaean Council (Wiki Comms); Francesco Hayez, Peter the Hermit and the First Crusade (Wiki Comms); Fabriano, St. Francis Receiving Stigmata (Wiki Comms);

Tsotsonis, The Nicaean Council

The icon on the left depicts one of the key events in the history of Christianity — the first council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. That was when the main canons of the Christian faith were established, thus defining what constitutes ‘truth’ or ‘heresy’ in the eyes of Christians.

By making reference to this icon, the show’s creator, Sorrentino, addresses the crisis the Christian faith is currently undergoing. Lenny’s goal is to hold his own ‘Nicaean’ council to define what is sinful and what is not in the modern age.

Francesco Hayez, Peter the Hermit and the First Crusade

If Peter the Hermit lived today, we would call him a radical. He was a fierce advocate of Christianity and is considered one of the leaders who inspired the first Crusade against non-believers.

Sorrentino’s protagonist, Lenny, resembles Peter with his ardent desire to reform the church and to fight its enemies. He launches his own crusade against those who make the Church weak and corrupt.

Gentile da Fabriano, St.Francis Receiving Stigmata.

After purging the corruption from the Church, Lenny demands that his followers refuse all earthly pleasures. As with St.Francis, who is depicted in Fabriano’s painting, Lenny thinks that by the rejection of material possessions, the church will be able to get rid of hypocrisy that surrounds it.

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From left to right: Cerezo, St.Thomas Giving Alms (Wiki Comms); Cresti, Michelangelo showing Pius St. Peter Cathedral (Wiki Comms); François Dubois, The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (Wiki Comms);

Matteo Cerezo, St. Thomas Giving Alms

The last painting depicting a saint in Sorrentino’s intro is that of Saint Thomas giving alms. St. Thomas symbolised the generosity and compassion to the poor. Lenny encourages cardinals and believers to be more dangerous to counter modern greed and consumerism.

Domenico Cresti, Michelangelo showing Pius St. Peter Cathedral

From all nine paintings, this is the one that was hardest to interpret. There was no direct connection between what this painting depicts and the character played by Jude Law.

In the 16th century one of the domes of St. Peter’s Cathedral required re-construction. Pope Pius asked famous sculptor and architect Michelangelo Buonarroti to sketch the plan for the dome.

Michelangelo made the sketch and even when we visit Vatican today we can admire his design, but the construction cost was enormous even for the church. Some modern historians think that this reconstruction triggered the reformation movement and was politically devastating to the Catholic church.

In Sorrentino’s series, everyone fears that the young Pope’s policies of renouncing earthly pleasures, of radical generosity might cause irreparable damage to the church.

François Dubois, The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

One of the darkest pages of the Christian history is the massacre that occurred on Saint Bartholomew’s day in 1572 where a Catholic mob attacked protestants and killed their aristocratic leaders.

By placing this painting, Sorrentino hints on the radicalism of his protagonist. Lenny Belardo is convinced that our world is drowned in hypocrisy and cynicism. It was this sort of corruption that led to violence on St. Bartholomew’s day, as it is depicted on Dubois painting.

Is Lenny going to prevent it, or fuel it?

Meteorite.

The intro to The Young Pope lasts 1 minute and 22 seconds. From the start of the sequence, as Lenny Belardo starts to walk past the paintings, he is also followed by a meteorite. The meteorite flies over each painting and at the end hits the wax figure of Pope John Paul II, who led the Vatican from 1978 till 2005. This artwork was made by the Italian artist/prankster Maurizio Cattelan.

The one we see in the intro is, of course, a copy — the original one was sold at auction in 2001 for $886,000.

It symbolises the crisis that the Catholic Church undergoes in our time.

Can Lenny save the Church from the downfall?

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