Much has changed since the Reformation took hammers and whitewash to paintings and frescoes in Catholic churches, but some things remain the same. Secular modernity has found its own ways of stripping the altars. One of the most efficient is to turn objects of devotion into objets d’art. Art-gazing has become the devotional activity of our time, as the cult of genius supersedes the cult of the saints. Art history burlesques salvation history, while secular culturati find 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. As a consequence, when heirs of the Reformation weigh the meager returns of art’s hollow eschatology against Christianity’s rich symbolic world, papist relics suddenly look good.
That lends a certain piquancy to the Museum of Biblical Art, an initiative of the American Bible Association, as it struggles to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The recent show “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 that values medieval art for strictly aesthetic reasons, divorced from service to prayer and rite.
At first glance, the museum’s stated anthropological route to “this distant, fascinating epoch” seems a blameless program. 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, Hans Belting once noted, “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. Art museums remain didactic extensions of the Enlightenmentand the locus of a free-range aestheticism. 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 worshipprayer or ritual performanceit was made to complement. The leveling process of aesthetic appreciation is inevitable by default.
Divided into four instructional sections, “Realms of Faith” opens with an introduction to “the basic elements” of Christian religious practices in Byzantine 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 some chalices, a paten, a pair of pyxes, a eucharistic spoon, and a brass dove-shaped container for storing consecrated 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 kunst-halle 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 A. Jungmann’s classic study The Mass of the Roman Rite (1949) is reducible to a few bullet points, then the Museum of Biblical Arts 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 have recognized as “a refined provincial crudity.” Nothing proclaims the illusoriness of the sacral dimension better than a series of sacred objectsthe entrails of Christendomlaid out under glass for forensic inspection. And the liberating, transhistorical 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 with 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 presentations, interactive software (a high-tech disguise for stasis), and family funthe arsenal of museum pedagogymight 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 the Museum of Biblical Art, 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. The museum can describe but not affirm the Christian meaning at the heart of its own display. Any faithful assertion would risk its pose as a self-declared “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 the Papuans or Dayak canoemen.
In 1992, the American Association of Museums ordered museums to welcome “diverse audiences” and “reflect our society’s pluralism in every aspect of their operations and programs,” which puts the Museum of Biblical Art at odds with itself. The museum is caught, like Buridan’s ass, between two bales of hay: popular outreach to ordinary religious people and aesthetic appeal to liberal secular cognoscenti. The museum identifies itself as a “neutral meeting ground where visitors of all faiths and none” can find “affordable art experiences” and engage in interfaithor faithlessdialogue. Having foresworn any reason to prefer one bale over another, its mission statement has starvation scripted in.
Museums, by their nature, quarantine the tropes and content of piety behind the hedges of mankind’s trail of culturally conditioned superstitions. Good breeding inhibits an ambitious institutionand the Museum of Biblical Art is very ambitiousfrom distinguishing Christianity. 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 ensure that Christianity can be greeted without being believed.
We so take museums for granted that we never hesitate in our assumption that they are an unqualified good and that their proliferation signals cultural vitality. We do not stop to consider the possibility that the Museum of Biblical Art collaborates with 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 a mere historical phenomenon: no longer a creative cultural force but compliant with the conceits of a post-Christian culture.
In 1998, the National Endowment for the Arts announced that “the arts enhance the study of other areas of the basic curriculum” and “contribute to family unity and growth.” As director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, James Cuneo wrote in 2004 that “museums foster a greater sense of caring in the world.” John Walsh, director emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum, sees a quasi-liturgical function for museums that offer, as a public experience, ways to create a “happier, wiser, more complete people.” An art program exists for every human ill; art museums are frontrunners in the parade of self-appointed connoisseurs of human flourishing.
The desacralization 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 were warned. 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 Bouyer, writing in 1982, looked on the dilation of culture and recognized it as a symptom of deep degeneration, the 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 expanded on Guardini’s theme: “Culture itself has become the real religion of our time, 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 the 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 blame for a de-Christianized West lies outside themselves. The Museum of Biblical Art 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 idolsunder the pretext of promoting the gospelends as Vigo Demant foresaw: a proclamation of secularism “in a Christian idiom.”
The Paraclete does not need our museums.
Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art for the New York Sun.
Museum of Biblical Art