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Faith

When religious art is displayed, secular museums may become sacred spaces

Even on the opening day of the Baltimore-based Walters Art Museum’s 1988 exhibit of Greek icons and frescoes, museum staff quickly realized that they had a kissing problem on their hands.

When visitors reached the end of the show, which culminated in a masterpiece from the museum’s permanent collection, many viewers kissed the Plexiglas over the work — the 1585-1590 painting “Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata” by Domenikos Theotokopoulos (“El Greco”).

“Every day, after the exhibition closed, somebody would have to go through with Windex and get the kissing off this Plexiglas,” said Gary Vikan, who recently retired as the director of the Walters and helped curate the exhibit “Holy Image, Holy Space: Icons and Frescoes from Greece.”

“And not just lipstick; men did it too," he said.

Speaking on a panel titled “Sacred Objects in Secular Museums” on Nov. 24 at the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature 2013 Annual Conference in Baltimore, Vikan underscored how significant it was that Orthodox Christian viewers were kissing that particular painting. Not only had the El Greco painting been prominently displayed before without being orally venerated, but the subject matter ― even in its fresh context ― was an unusual choice for Orthodox reverence.

“Think about that,” he said. “Saint Francis, the preeminent, quintessential Catholic saint in an exhibition of Orthodox (icons). Saint Francis, who, since 1934, existed in the permanent galleries of the Walters and had never been kissed.”

That Walters staff members had to wipe off the Plexiglas on a near daily basis (Vikan clarified that it was a specialized, Windex-like product used for the cleaning) and eventually had to rope the painting off demonstrates how complicated it can be to exhibit sacred objects, particularly icons, in secular museums and galleries.

Although many religious viewers may feel more comfortable seeing the sacred objects of their own faith tradition presented in an apologetic rather than critical fashion at museums and galleries affiliated with that tradition, secular art museums also play an important role in educating viewers of other or no faiths about those objects. Particularly in a time when many Americans are drifting from religion, that educational and interfaith role is even more compelling and noteworthy as it creates sacred spaces for personal encounters with the divine.

Sacred status

Despite severing the religious artworks from the sacred environments for which they may have been commissioned and created, museums still forge sacred spaces in their exhibition halls when they display certain types of art.

In the 1988 Walters exhibit, for example, Vikan kept the scale intimate and the galleries dark to recreate the aura of a 12th- or 13th-century Byzantine church. In so doing, he may have answered one of the questions panel moderator S. Brent Plate, a visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., posed in his introduction: “Can curators take on priestly activities?”

An object’s sacred status is often lost when it comes to a museum, but that doesn’t mean the entire enterprise is necessarily bankrupt.

“I’m not saying museums shouldn’t display sacred objects, but museums and audiences should realize on some level that what they are experiencing in the museum is not the same as experiencing it in its native context,” Plate said in an interview. “And, for the most part, much of its sacrality has been stripped.”

Museum visitors can also “remake the sacred within a museum,” according to Plate, who has seen Christians and Muslims gaze at relics ― whether a splinter from the True Cross or a hair from the Prophet Muhammad's beard ― in a museum setting and pray before them. Some, like the Walters visitors Vikan mentioned, also kiss the cases within which the relics sit: “They are making it a sacred thing again,” Plate said.

This arrangement ought to suit museums fine, since they want visitors to be awed by great works of art: “The museum might call itself ‘secular,’ but they are engaged in highly sacred work,” Plate said.

Sacred spaces

Gretchen Buggeln, chair in Christianity and the arts at Valparaiso University in Indiana and another panelist at the AAR/SBL conference, began her talk with a quote from architecture critic Paul Goldberger: “We have in our culture conflated the aesthetic and the sacred, which is why the art museum seems to have replaced the cathedral in our culture.”

She agreed with Plate that irrespective of whether museums are regarded as sacred spaces, visitors often experience them as holy places and have “personal encounters with religious objects, glimpses of the sublime, aesthetic revelations, or even an elevated sense of self-importance.”

The architecture of museums often heightens that sense, according to Buggeln. She cited the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., whose Native American architects sought to suggest natural rock formations and a simulated wetland environment in the building that was connected to Native American spirituality.

A few blocks away, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Hall of Witness, and in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters chapel and its Temple of Dendur further underscore museums’ celebration of the spiritual, she said.

Even modern museum architecture, which has a reputation of being more detached from the spiritual, often uses religious language, according to Buggeln. Included in that category are Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and Renzo Piano’s Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. And museums’ modern propensity to display works that aren’t officially on view in “open storage” suggests abundance, which can have spiritual resonance.

“This is not a department store,” she said. “Although well-lit and organized, the viewer is still distanced from the objects, and the lighting certainly doesn’t suggest Bed Bath & Beyond. I find something sublime about this opulence and excess. In these spaces you see how a museum can treat any object as if it is sacred.”

The reverse is also true, according to Buggeln, who noted that many people have turned their cathedrals into art museums, in a sense.

“Many Westerners now experience religious sites only as tourists seeking authentic expressions of someone else’s belief,” she said. “Sacred tourism is big business. For these tourists, I wonder what the difference is between a museum and a mosque.”

For Vikan, museums ― whether their websites have .edu or .org addresses ― have educational missions that ultimately aren’t tied to the ways the objects are presented, so much as to the value of the objects themselves.

“We try to think that if we do it right ― and I’ve said this three trillion times ― if you’re locked in the museum and you can’t get out, and you don’t speak English or read English, and you can’t read the labels, if you just hung around in the space long enough, you’d figure something out (about the art),” he said.

Educating a public

Crispin Paine, a curator, consultant and honorary lecturer at University College London, has a different perspective. Participating on the same panel, he cited three changes that he said contextualize the conversation about sacred objects in secular museums: an increase in the number of museums worldwide; dramatic global change in religiosity (with some parts of the world seeing religious proliferation and others decline); and the sheer volume of religious objects.

“These three things mean that it’s in museums that many people encounter religion, and it’s almost exclusively in museums,” he said. Paine joked that TV detective series may be the exception to the rule because great and terrible things always tend to happen around churches with many columns.

“But leaving that aside, I think that it’s really only when they visit museums that a great many people have to think about what this religion business is actually all about,” he said.

Given the role that museums are playing in educating a public that largely does not know much about religion, they need to take religion more seriously, according to Paine.

“We need to stop just automatically and unthinkingly turning a religious object into a museum object and an art object into a historical object,” he said. “We need to ask how can we explain, how can we help the object to speak with its authentic voice, and ... with its former voice to people coming to the museum today who may come from a very different cultural background.”

The “bee in his bonnet,” he said, is the types of narratives that museums present about religion that has everything to do with what established Orthodox leaders say the religion is rather than what it is in practice.

If museum curators emulated anthropologists and conducted their field work in larger religious communities rather than trusting the word of rabbis, imams, priests or other leaders, they would encounter a different sort of religion: “the muddled mixture of activities and behaviors that (religious people) have put together that seek their particular needs.”

That grittier, more authentic portrait of religion as practiced may often mean that paintings, such as El Greco’s “Saint Francis” at the Walters Art Museum, get kissed.

“It’s interesting to see the extent to which increasingly museums, including fine art museums, are beginning to tolerate, or even perhaps to encourage, the veneration of these objects in their displays,” Paine said, although he noted that it is the “more tidy and undemanding” forms of veneration that are encouraged, such as Buddhist chants and adoration of Christian icons.

“I don’t see any blood sacrifices,” he said.

Menachem Wecker is a freelance reporter based in Chicago, a former education reporter at U.S. News & World Report and holds a master's in art history from George Washington University. Email: mwecker@gmail.com. Website: http://menachemwecker.com.