In her essay, “Faith Behind Glass”, Maureen Mullarkey reflects on the way a museum exhibit, even a carefully crafted one, reduces sacred images and objects to mere cultural artifacts and denies the existence of the sacred.
I spent the spring semester of my Sophomore year in Europe. I lived in a small town outside of Rome and traveled to a dozen countries. I visited churches and museums. I recall being made slightly uneasy about the experience of viewing sacred art in museums; but never clearly thought through why that was so. I’m sure I did notice that sacred art seemed somehow diminished, in its impact and in its ability to inspire me to prayer when in a museum as opposed to in its proper place in a church. But the experience did not lead me to further musing about the role of the museum nor to question whether sacred art should be in a museum in the first place. I liked this piece because it gave voice to a feeling and coherence to my half-formed thoughts.
Here are a few highlights:
Art museums remain didactic extensions of the Enlightenment�and 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 worship�prayer or ritual performance�it was made to complement. The leveling process of aesthetic appreciation is inevitable by default.
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, 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 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?�
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.
Read the full essay at First Things, here.
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