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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - For most people, the relationship between contemporary art and the Vatican - home of some of the world's greatest old masterpieces - is like oil and water - they just don't mix.
The Vatican's "culture minister," Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, wants to change that perception and so for the first time the Holy See will have its own pavilion this year at the 55th edition of the Venice Biennale, a sacred cow of modern art.
But don't expect anything that looks remotely religious or liturgical at the world-class exhibition, which started in 1895 and takes place every two years in the gardens and in a converted industrial area on the Venice lagoon.
"We are not sending any altar pieces," joked Ravasi, whose formal title is president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
Instead, Ravasi's department and the Vatican Museums have awarded three contemporary art commissions, handing them out with a theme and permission to let the artists' imaginations run free - with no strings, moral or otherwise, attached.
"They were not given specific themes such as Mary or Jesus but asked to reflect on the first 11 chapters of Genesis because they are essentially a portrait of humanity," Ravasi said in his Vatican office.
Genesis recounts the creation of man and woman, the fall from grace and expulsion from Eden, the killing by Cain of his brother Abel, the Great Flood and the chance for humanity to start anew when the waters receded and the rainbow appeared.
The three commissions were given to Italy's Studio Azzurro cooperative, Australian-born American painter Lawrence Carroll and famed Czech photographer Josef Koudelka, each produced works on the themes of "creation", "uncreation" and "re-creation".
"These are sentiments that can be shared not only by believers, Roman Catholics, but by members of other faiths and non-believers," said Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums.
"There is no person who in his or her lifetime has not experienced high times, times of falling, depression, defeat, and times of having to get back up and start hoping again," he said. "These three elements are universal."
The works have no outwardly religious content. Indeed, they would look more at home in a white-walled gallery in New York's Soho than even the most modern of Catholic churches.
One of the works inspired by the theme of creation is a multi-media work that shows a tangle of outreached hands on video screens while the viewer hears the sounds of children and animals.
Koudelka's 18 photos, some of them as large as 2.6 meters (8.5 feet) by 1 meter (3.3 feet) shows the destruction brought about by war and environmental neglect.
Koudelka became famous in photography after taking pictures of the Soviet invasion of then-Czechoslovakia in 1968. The negatives were smuggled out to the West and became symbols of resistance. He later fled to the West and joined Magnum Photos.
One of Carroll's works in the re-creation section is a large panel with electrical wires and light bulb sockets, some of them empty and some with light bulbs in them.
"It's vital that we have a dialogue between people and cultures and religions. I think it's great that the Vatican is doing this," Carroll said.
Asked how he felt about being put alongside the some of the great artists the Church has commissioned over the centuries, he said "I'm delighted".
While there are some modern works of religious art in the Vatican Museum, the Vatican is mostly known for its Renaissance masterpieces such as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel and ancient Egyptian and Roman treasures.
Ravasi said he hoped the Vatican's new initiative would be a "seed" for the Church's future collaboration with contemporary artists, reminiscent of the times when it commissioned works from masters such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Giotto.
Ravasi's department in the Vatican has been holding gatherings called "The Courtyard of the Gentiles" to promote dialogue among believers, non-believers, atheists and secular humanists. He said he sees the Church's reaching out to contemporary artists as an extension of this dialogue.
"Art and faith, art and religion, can be very productive," he said.
The cost of the Vatican pavilion at the Biennale, which opens this year on June 1 and lasts six months, is about 750,000 euros ($973,700) and is entirely covered by Italian corporate sponsors. ($1 = 0.7703 euros)
(Reporting By Philip Pullella, editing by Paul Casciato)
This story is refiled to correct date in third paragraph