National Edition

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

By Menachem Wecker

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Jan. 3 2014 9:35 a.m. MST

Someone drawing religious sculptures at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Menachem Wecker

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.”

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