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Vatican, China Swap art in bid to Mend Strained Ties

Tourists visit the Forbidden City in central Beijing, China, on China's 68th National Day October 1, 2017.

The Vatican and China will exchange paintings, vases and sculptures in a bid to mend often strained ties through “the diplomacy of art”, officials said on Tuesday.

Forty works from the Vatican will go on show in Beijing’s Forbidden City and 40 from China in the Vatican Museums in unprecedented simultaneous exhibitions in March, art chiefs from both countries told a news conference.

“It will be an event that overcomes borders and time and that unites different cultures and civilizations,” Zhu Jiancheng, the head of the government-backed China Culture Investment Fund, said.

“It will strengthen the friendship between China and the Vatican and it will favor the normalization of diplomatic relations,” he said of the project, in which each side will loan art works to the other.

Relations between the Vatican and Beijing have been strained for decades.

Chinese Catholics are divided between those loyal to the pope - the so-called “underground Church” - and those who belong to state-backed Church known as The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

The main dispute blocking diplomatic ties is the Vatican’s insistence that the pope - and not the government - be responsible for appointing bishops.

Pope Francis and his predecessors Benedict and John Paul have tried to improve relations with Beijing, whose communist party severed relations in 1951. But efforts at agreement have often stalled.

“With no fear and no barriers, beauty and art are truly a vehicle of dialogue,” said Barbara Jatta, the director of the Vatican Museums.

“This is the key of the success that we, at the Vatican Museums, love to call the ‘diplomacy of art’,” said Jatta, the first woman to head the museums, which receive about six million visitors a year.

The simultaneous shows reminiscent of the “ping-pong diplomacy” of the early 1970s, when China and the United States each hosted national teams of the sport as a prelude to President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to Beijing in 1972.

Jatta told Reuters that for the Beijing exhibition, experts would select 39 works of art that originated in China and are now in the Vatican’s Anima Mundi (Soul of the World) ethnological collection, which numbers 80,000 pieces, 20,000 of them Chinese.

“In a sense, 39 of them will be going back home,” she said.

The 40th piece would be an object of Western European Christian art, a painting which has not yet been selected.

The Chinese art works displayed in the Vatican will be 10 paintings by contemporary Chinese artist Zhang Yan and 30 works of art from China’s state collections representing various periods of Chinese history.