Faith Under Glass
Medieval art from the Walters Art Museum at the Museum of Biblical Art

MUCH HAS CHANGED SINCE REFORMATION ICONOCLASTS took hammers and white wash to paintings and frescoes in Roman Catholic churches. Modernity offers subtler ways of stripping the altars. One of the most efficient is to turn objects of devotion into objets d’art.

Madonna painting

Art-gazing is the devotional activity of our time. The cult of genius and the pursuit of masterpieces supersede the cult of the saints and holy purpose. Issues of apostolic succession survive in the begats of art historical genealogies. Art history itself burlesques salvation history while post-Christian culture finds a proxy for theology in art theory. A torrent of papers, panels, journals, monographs, exhibition catalogs, university press offerings and docent sermons testifies to an art world at prayer. But when heirs of Calvin weigh the meager returns of Art’s hollow eschatology against Christianity’s rich symbolic world, papist relics suddenly look good.

There is a certain piquancy, then, in watching the Museum of Biblical Art (MoBIA), an initiative of the American Bible Association, struggle to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Realms of Faith: Medieval Art from the Walters Art Museum seeks to escort visitors through the liturgical and devotional practices of Byzantine and Western medieval Christians. It promises an alternative to the formalist approach which values medieval art for strictly aesthetic reasons, divorced from service to prayer and rite. At first glance, MoBIA’s stated anthropological route to “this distant, fascinating epoch” seems a blameless programme. At second glance, it is also a quixotic one that mimics the secularizing impulse it presumes to counter.

Art history, crystallized in museum expositions, declares everything as art, as Hans Belting admits, “in order to bring everything into its domain.” It invites us to appreciate a Congolese fetish, a Mayan slaying stone or a Sienese altarpiece with equal cheer. So, then, any institutional effort to restore older Christian art to its natal milieu should be welcome, yes?

Not necessarily. Whatever else they have become, art museums remain what they were at the outset: didactic extensions of the Enlightenment project and the locus of a free-range aestheticism indivisible from it. Careful explanations are not enough to breathe life into the cultural expressions of a belief system. Christian art, a handmaiden to liturgical action, loses its transformative power when it is removed from the acts of worship — prayer or ritual performance — it was made to complement. The leveling process of aesthetic appreciation is inevitable by default.

But first, the details.

Divided into four instructional sections, Realms of Faith opens with an introduction to ”the basic elements” of Christian religious practices in Byzantium and Western Christendom. On display is a pedagogic sampler of artifacts that includes several Russian icons and Italian panel paintings, small wearable images, manuscript Bibles, plus leaves from an antiphonal and an illuminated book of hours. Catholic and Orthodox sacramentalism is condensed to a pair of pyxes, chalices, a paten, Eucharistic spoon and a brass, dove-shaped container for storing unconsecrated hosts. The exhibition serves as an abridged primer to the celebration of the Mass and personal devotion to the saints.

Both the selection and its setting are puritanically spare. The gallery is a high-ceilinged, anti-iconic kunsthalle bereft of the eloquent atmospherics and abundant material variety of the Cloisters or the Metropolitan’s Medieval Sculpture Hall. A brace of Bibles at the entrance directs attention to the primacy of the written word. Wall text dominates a thin ensemble of images and implements. The rich theology of icons, which leads the eye to the invisible, is not touched on. Nevertheless, the presentation is thoughtfully, even tenderly, arranged. One Bible shares pride of place with an altar crucifix, “the definitive sacred text of the Christian religion” in company with the definitive sacred symbol.

If Joseph Jungmann’s two volume Mass of the Roman Rite is reducible to a few bullet-points, then MoBIA’s tutorial on the Mass is as accurate as schematic brevity allows. Elsewhere, on panel and in statuette, Mary is represented with sweet attention to her role as Mother of God and intercessor for all mankind. Every item, down to the smallest cameo, is a beautiful specimen of what the museum astutely terms “crafted confessions” of communal belief. The exhibition concludes with that staple of contemporary museum practice, a family-friendly installation centered on medieval bestiaries. Crayons included.

Yet, in the end, the project results in what T.S. Eliot would recognize as “a refined provincial crudity.” Nothing proclaims the illusoriness of the sacral dimension better than a series of sacred objects — the entrails of Christendom — laid out under glass for forensic inspection. And the liberating, trans-historical nature of the liturgy is stuck in time, pinned to the long ago by the assumption that the Middle Ages were the Christian era par excellence. The complex, lapidary character of the Roman and Byzantine rites loses its communicative power to a static installation that leads, ultimately, to an act of art appreciation.

Framed pages from a medieval antiphonal, however lovely, are inert compared to the sharp, plangent treble of a sanctuary bell. It is from that sound, not graphic notation, that Catholics and Orthodox gain heart for the silent road beyond all hosannas. Wall labels, docent tours, PowerPoint lectures, interactive software (a high tech disguise for stasis) and family fun — the arsenal of museum pedagogy — might satisfy the choir on a field trip. But none of it quickens the soul to realities a secular world disdains. A museum setting is not the place to grasp Yeats’ disarming question: “How but in custom and in ceremony are innocence and beauty born?”

At MoBIA, art is a lubricant to squeeze evangelism through the needle’s eye of mainstream acceptability. But the maneuver requires obedience to museum culture with its Olympian presumption of detachment from cultural bias. MoBIA can describe but not affirm the Christian meaning and latreutic heart of its own display. Any faithful assertion would risk its pose as “an educational institution that takes no position on religion”. Uncertain of its audience and anxious to be agreeable to all comers, it cannot help but put Christianity on show as one more vanishing cultural identity, like that of Papuans or Dayak canoemen.

ChaliceAdherence to the American Association of Museum’s 1992 injunction to welcome “diverse audiences” and “reflect our society’s pluralism in every aspect of their operations and programs” puts MoBIA at odds with itself. The museum is caught, like Buridan’s ass, between two opposite bales of hay: popular outreach to ordinary people, religiously inclined, and aesthetic appeal to liberal secular cognoscenti. MoBIA identifies itself as a “neutral meeting ground where visitors of all faiths and none” can find “affordable art experiences,” and engage in inter-faith — or faithless — dialogue. Having foresworn any reason to prefer one bale over another, its mission statement has starvation scripted in.

Let pass the humor of affected neutrality in the face of MoBIA’s subsidized location above the American Bible Society’s showroom. (Museum-goers have to pass ground floor racks of Bibles and bibliana to reach the nonaligned zone upstairs.) What counts is the curatorial dilemma that shows up in vacillation between the upper and lower case in references to the Mass. Lower case, the preferred spelling in academic journals, is used for press material, upper case for individual chat labels; a mix of both appears in the wall texts.

Variations on the phrase “Medieval Christians believed .…” occur throughout the tutorial. The wording is applicable to the magical thinking of hunter-gatherers no less than the tenets of Christianity; it denies ground to any truth claims whatever. Today, “the bread that Catholics believe becomes the body of Christ;” tomorrow, perhaps, a Blackfoot medicine bundle. The core purpose of “Realms of Faith” — to emphasize the once-upon-a-time unity of art and spirituality — could be fulfilled by any pre-modern or animist society.

Museum manners, by their nature, quarantine the content of Christian piety behind the hedges of mankind’s trail of culturally conditioned superstitions. Good breeding inhibits an aspiring institution — and MoBIA is ambitious — from distinguishing Christianity from amy enchanted tribal mythology. It is just this dispassionate, blanket distance from any singular stake in the numinous that permits radical secularists to cherish Raphael’s Sistine Madonna or make pilgrimage to Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors. Art museums insure that Christianity can be greeted without being believed.

We take museums so for granted that we never hesitate in our assumption that they are an unqualified good and that the proliferation of them signals cultural vitality. We do not stop to consider the possibility that MoBIA’s very existence testifies to a Church (no confessional qualifiers needed) submissive to secular pretensions. Without intending to, it collaborates in late modernity’s view of Christianity as a spent tradition, one that requires injections of museum prestige to sustain an apostolic ministry begun by Galilean fishermen. Museumization allows Christianity to linger as an historical phenomenon, no longer a creative cultural force but compliant with the conceits of a post-Christian culture.

The conceit that concerns us here is the exaggerated emphasis on art and expanding authority of art museums. Attendance at American art museums rose from 22 million in 1962 to over 100 million in 2000 and still going. More than half of our art museums were founded after 1970 (many of them to garage and enhance the acquisitions of speculative collectors). Existing museums are constantly expanding and new ones opening at a hectic pace. Their mission and projected image have swollen with the numbers.

The 1998 National Endowment for the Arts, resuscitating the old, discredited notion of transfer of training, announced that “the arts enhance the study of other areas of the basic curriculum” and “contribute to family unity and growth.” James Cuneo, director of the Courtauld, wrote in 2004 that “museums foster a greater sense of caring in the world.” John Walsh, director emeritus of the Getty Museum, considers the ways that the museum experience makes us “happier, wiser, more complete people.” An art program exists for every human ill; art museums are front-runners in the parade of self-anointed connoisseurs of human flourishing.

The desacralizaton of man, who no longer knows himself made in the image and likeness of God, advances in tandem with Inflated reverence for culture. But we had warning. Half a century ago, Romano Guardini reflected on modernity’s faith in Culture which “took its stance opposite God and His Revelation” and recognized no measure beyond itself. Louis Boyer, writing in 1982, looked on the dilation of culture and recognized it as it a symptom of deep degeneration, herald of a “monstrous civilization” emptied of meaning. He referred to museums as little more than “cultural refrigerators where “apparent life is actually preserved in a state of death.” More recently, Louis Dupré seconded Guardini’s theme: “Culture itself has become the real religion of our time, [EMPHASIS HIS] absorbing traditional religion as a subordinate part of itself.”

When UNESCO declared Vatican City a World Heritage Site in 1984, it blessed St. Peter’s Basilica as “the fruit of the combined genius of Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, Bernini and Maderna.” The witness of Peter did not apply. If it is true, as historian David Lowenthal asserts, that society restores and preserves what it has ceased to resent, then the Williamsburging of Christianity is no compliment. Worse, it flatters Christians into believing that the fault for a de-Christianized West lies outside themselves. MoBIA is premised on the assumption that our predicament results from a failure of education; continuing ed, buttressed by museum stature, is the cure.

Père Bouyer was not so readily seduced. He understood the West’s descent into post-Christian culture in terms of the adage corruptio optima pessima: “It is not ignorance of Christianity among those who were never evangelized, nor its negation by those who were never able to accept it., but rather by the betrayal of Christianity by those who received the Gospel and were brought up as Christians.” It is not necessary to document the corruption of the best in our own decade and close to home. It is enough to stay mindful that every genuflection by the Church to secular idols — under the pretext of promoting the Gospel — ends as Vigo Demant foresaw: a proclamation of secularism “in a Christian idiom.”

The Paraclete does not need our museums.


“Realms of Faith: Medieval art at the Museum of Biblical Art (1865 Broadway at 61st Street, 212-408-1500).

A version of this essay appeared first on First Things blog on June 2, 2008.

Copyright 2008, Maureen Mullarkey

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