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VATICAN CITY (Reuters Life!) - Pope Benedict plans to meet up to 500 artists from around the world in November, as part of efforts to turn the page on the Vatican's sometimes conflicted relationship with the contemporary art world. The Vatican said the gathering, to be held at the Sistine Chapel on November 21, is intended as the first step toward a "new and fertile alliance between art and faith", while the Vatican Museums Director Antonio Paolucci said it could mark a sort of "reconciliation after the great divorce".
The invitee list includes artists from across five continents ranging from painters, sculptors and architects to poets and directors.
The guests were picked regardless of religious, political or stylistic allegiances, said Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
Around 75 artists have already agreed to attend, including Oscar-winning composer Ennio Morricone and avant-garde American stage director Bob Wilson.
The event will mark both the 10th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's 'Letter to Artists' in 1999 in which he spoke of the Church's "need for art" in painting, architecture and music and the 45th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's original meeting with artists in 1964.
Pope Paul VI, whose papacy ran from 1963 to 1978, had a passionate interest in contemporary art and was responsible for inaugurating the Vatican Museum's department of Modern Religious and Contemporary Art in 1973.
The collection, often overlooked by tourists, includes works by Auguste Rodin, Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall.
But works like Martin Kippenberger's crucified frog Zuerst Die Fuesse and Paolo Schmidlin's Miss Kitty -- which portrays the Pope in drag -- have soured relations between the faithful and the contemporary art world in recent decades.
Schmidlin's sculpture was withdrawn from an exhibition in Milan two years ago after the Catholic Anti-Defamation League expressed outrage and threatened to seek charges against the show's organizers for defaming a head of state.
But the rupture between art and faith is "incomprehensible", given the extensive prior collaboration between artists and the Church -- not least during the Renaissance, Paolucci said.
In a sign of renewed efforts toward such a reconciliation, the Vatican earlier this year also announced it will participate in the 2011 Venice Biennale, one of the world's major art festivals held every two years.
At the time, Ravasi ruled out opening a Biennale pavilion alongside more provocative participants, but underlined the "necessity of dialogue" with artists in the "absence of a contemporary language of sacred art".