Anima Mundi – The Soul of the World is the name of the newly designed Ethnological Museum in the Vatican Museums in Rome that Pope Francis recently inaugurated with its first exhibition on the Amazonas region.

In his opening address he called this museum a “ “living “house”, with doors open to the peoples of the whole world, where everyone feels represented and where the gaze of the Church leaves no one out.”

An attempt to come to terms with history

That the Catholic Church – notorious for centuries for the way it excludes people – should send such a signal is surprising. That it should do so under the present Pope Francis who ever since taking office has caused quite a few surprises is less of a cause for wonder. Coming from South America, as the first pope of non-European origin, he’s very familiar with the early and later art of non-European cultures.  

The early high cultures of the Mayas, Incas and Aztecs were centuries in advance of the European culture of that time. Until their countries were first discovered by Europeans, that is, and then brutally occupied, opening the way to a wave of smug and autocratic missionaries with the sole purpose of turning the unbelieving heathens into what they termed “better people”.  

For many centuries this sordid chapter of Church history which is also part of our own western European history, was portrayed in our history books as an unabashed triumph.  

With this in mind, I can see a certain sensitivity in Pope Francis’s words and perhaps even something you could call humility as they attempt to correct an arrogant outdate view held not just by the Catholic Church but by the whole of the western world. They’re a sign of respect to all the peoples of the world which our western world in its drive to colonisation has ruthlessly exploited and viciously treated, aided and abetted by the Church whose self-serving dogma proclaimed them subhuman. An attempt to come together in the living house of reconciliation. 

The soul is universal

Nobody knows where the soul lives in people. It’s not a physical organ but of spiritual nature. From Aristotle  to Leibniz, philosophers have believed in the existence of the soul and that it isn’t just peculiar to humans but is found in every living thing. That’s what OUBEY also believed, particularly after studying the two philosophers.  

This soul of the world – which was a part of his innermost being – finds its immediate expression in his art. And since this art is free of all the barriers of language which so often divide people from one another, it can be felt by people of a huge range of cultural backgrounds. It was an uplifting experience that I had time and again on my travels with OUBEYs paintings around the globe. 

Take, for instance, a Maori woman I met in New Zealand, who at her first viewing of OUBEYs pictures spontaneously exclaimed “These paintings immediately start to speak to you when you just glance at them!” 

At moments like this it became clear that OUBEYs vision of the universal language spoken by his pictures could be proven true if his pictures were allowed to travel. This is why I’m glad today that in 2010 I first packed my yellow packing case, to travel with OUBEYs paintings around the world because in that way I could make the astonishing experience that his art did indeed have universal significance. It moves people deeply whether they’re live in Uganda or New Zealand, whether they’ve never been to school or are research scientists.  

When art touches the soul 

As strange as art might appear to us sometimes in the first moment, it does reach us – and not only our minds. This is true of all kinds of art, and particularly the arts that do without words – music and painting. And especially for all those paintings and symphonies which the public at that time ignored or rejected and which have now become indispensable treasures in our lives.  

At one and the same time art is an expression of the Anima Mundi and its incarnation. It takes us further – back into the old and forward to the new worlds of knowledge and self-knowledge. It was so in the early days of human history and it remains so today. Art can enrich and illuminate our inner being as nothing else but love can. It expands our souls, opens our hearts and can overcome barriers.  

And at a time when we might be celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall yet are also pondering putting up new frontier zones and wall, such a thought is more than just a Christmas wish. I hear the message in Pope Francis’s opening address and I hope that it bears fruit. Art overcomes all barriers. And perhaps this has to first and foremost with those barriers which we have errected in ourselves. 

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