The second half of the British Art Network seminar on Ecclesiastical Art was based at Tate Britain with a series of short case study presentations exploring how the museum, the church, and the academy, treat the subject and interpretation of ecclesiastical art and sacred objects. The first speaker was Dr. Anouk Janssen whose paper was entitled ‘Inside and Outside the Museum’. Janssen is Head of Research, Library and Education at Catharijne Convent Museum, a State run museum of Religious Life in Utrecht. The museum is in an old convent and has been in existence since 1979. It has an extensive collection of religious objects (copes, vestments, manuscripts, altarpieces, ecclesiastical objects etc.) from the Middle Ages up until the present day. The collection presents the cultural and religious history and life of Dutch society over the years, and has over 70,000 objects.
The museum has a unique profile as it is not an episcopal museum but a State one. It presents a plural history of the Netherlands through its Catholic and Protestant collection, although there is a slight Catholic bias, purely because many of the Catholic artefacts went underground during the Reformation and are in such good condition because of this protection. The Netherlands is a secular country and two churches a week close their doors because of the decline in religious faith. There is a move from the religious value of objects to their cultural and historical value and Catharijne Convent is sensitive to this change. They are aware that over the next twenty plus years, there will be a greater need to explain more about the items, their context, their veneration, their purpose and their importance in the modern world. Janssen was of course, referring to religious literacy, or rather the diminishing religious literacy of her visitors, and as White said in the first part of the seminar “one can take nothing for granted”. Janssen’s objective is not only for people to understand what the objects are / were for, but to provide context and create a personal history which, granted, comes from a Christian past. Connecting people personally with this national past can help provide new dialogues with the items themselves, and to safeguard them for the future. The museum is aware of this transitional time period and tries to be adaptive in order to ride the waves between the religious and the secular. Paintings in their collection, by Rembrandt, Hals and Saenredam presumably help connect modern day visitors with historical past, as they can help retell stories of the religious climate of not only Utrecht, but the Netherlands and Western Europe itself.
The museum has worked with all ages in order to encourage the physical design of the interior, and to foster intergenerational learning. They have worked with children and even allowed them to choose the backdrop colours for one of the rooms. For Janssen and her team the project is a national one. They hope that all children will go to their museum, particularly as Utrecht is central, but realising that this will or may not be able to happen, the museum has sought to go to the children to ensure communication and knowledge transfer continues.
In order to do this they have partnered other museums who they are working closely with to expand their influence and educational outreach. Acknowledging the indifference to religious life that Janssen seemingly described, the museum has to think on its feet to provide new and exciting ways of displaying their objects and keeping them alive for all ages now and for future generations.
‘The Secret of the Middle Ages in Gold Thread and Silk’ exhibition of 2015 is one example of the museum’s success. In just four months they had 24,000 visitors which although not a record for the museum, was an extremely successful foot fall for an exhibition presenting ecclesiastical copes. The display included copes which would have cost more than a townhouse at their time of creation. The items are in immaculate condition due to their aforementioned disappearance during the Reformation. In order to reinvigorate the items for today, the focus their religious and liturgical practice was complimented by a presentation of the items’ merit, their delicacy of fabric and embroidery.
The items were displayed in a catwalk like procession, one which not have looked out of place in the V&A, and were kept open and allowed to be unbound as it were; by this I mean they were not cased in glass boxes, but freely displayed. Conservatorially this was fine, due to the light and temperature conditions as well as the fine preservation of the items. A natural barrier created by a deliberately designed altar like step, meant that no-one touched the items at all and this must be considered a curatorial success. This display reminded me of one in Pisa, showing the luxurious velvet Romeo and Juliet costumes from Zefferelli’s 1968 production.
Another interesting decision employed by the museum was to get the current Archbishop of the Catholic Church to be filmed wearing a fifteenth century Archbishop of Burgundy’s cope: the past and the present being joined together to create new conversations. Christian communities are liaised with, but due to the museum being state run and not episcopal, this informs rather than overtly leads the tombstone information or displays.
Redesigning the permanent galleries is an important conversation that the museum is currently undertaking, but this is dependent on their view of what the museum will be in ten or twenty years time. What do these exhibitions suggest is important to their visitors, and how will the future veneration of these religious objects develop? Will the museum become an ethnographical one, or is it a risk of being a distant museum, as if it were recording long since past Roman life, or perhaps it will just become a record of distant Christian rituals which have little place in the present day Netherlands? The museum is determined to reinvent and to expand, they desire to bring heritage to where the people are, and to introduce the people to a heritage they regularly walk past without realising.
Dr. Glyn Davies from the V&A was the next speaker and he presented on Christian Art and Artefacts in the Renaissance and Medieval Galleries. These came to completion in 2009 after seven years of development, and they house eleven separate spaces / rooms. The items within the display range from 300AD to 1600. The medieval and the Renaissance has not been divided nor set in opposition or conflict, because a decision was taken which intended to broaden a visitor’s view about this time period, rather than confine it to the common segregated view of literature.
MUMA designed the architectural space within which they provided room for the objects which ranged from the Christian (Catholic, Protestant and Lutheran) but also included Islamic and Jewish items. Davies reported similar issues as Janssen did, e.g. that the visiting demographic was more secular and more diverse in terms of age and religion. Only 6.6% of people attend church on a Sunday and a staggering 1 in 4 adults don’t know the authors of the synoptic gospels. Davies reported some visitor analysis which showed that the medieval period was completely unknown. He relayed one visitor response, indicative of the many they received, which ran: ‘It is raining, and everyone has the Black Death. I am surrounded by dirt and rats and everyone is drunk on mead’. Asking visitors with a broad, populist, Horrible Histories level approach to the Middle Ages means there is much work to be done if the objects are to be received and displayed with sensitivity and with context.
As an example of this type of curatorial sensitivity even the title of gallery rooms was considered through visitor analysis and focus groups. One space was going to be called ‘Sacred Spaces’ but upon such analysis it proved Jewish and Muslim communities felt this to be exclusive and somewhat ostracising, so the V&A chose to use the title ‘Inside the Church’ which, as Davies said, does what it says on the tin. The team tried to make the space a contextual one, by using objects such as the choir screen. They also referred to ‘hangs’ such as that of Giotto’s Crucifixion in Santa Maria Novella when they displayed their own crucifixion scene. The upper walkway of the V&A allows you to adopt the nun’s eye view and yet the overall design encompasses a sense of both public, intimate, and private devotional worship.
Procession is one element of the gallery space, but it is merged and blended to create a sense of procession. It incorporates items that are funereal in ritual, or related to Easter or Christmas etc. The theme of the ‘procession’ is established and then the layering of types of profession or ritual is placed upon the theme, making it nuanced and more sophisticated. In essence one encounters type before one encounters semiotics. For example one encounters a step before one encounters the concept of an altar. Like the Catharijne Convent, the V&A employs the use of the altar step, but in this instance the design is so high and block like that it encourages people to get close to the objects, or at least attempt to.
People are interested in learning about objects, but predominantly they are driven by what it is, then who, then where, then an interesting fact about the item. The Learning Team at the V&A were decisive about the need to explain all terms, even Christ. The curatorial team responded to this by explaining at least once all terms, in the most appropriate place and with common language.
Regardless of this sensitivity and attentiveness to bias and interpretation, the V&A receive letters, both Christian and non-Christian. Such responses encourage and promote sensitivity to a changing climate of religious knowledge and secular belief, if indeed such a thing can exist. Understanding religion is essential in order to understand religious items, they have had a life and continue to have one. Just as Janssen and White mentioned, the complications of communicating with an increasingly secular audience are difficult and require consideration. For example, in order to fully appreciate a fourteenth cope which was cut up but later reassembled during the Catholic Emancipation of 1855 one must understand both history and context. Such stories are intrinsic to the individual items, and effect how we interpret and display them. They also affect how the items are labelled, and one means of verifying religious subtleties and nuances is undertaken by the V&A as they ensure a clergyman checks their work. What was interesting about this talk was the obvious similarity between the different museums, and that is that curatorial practice is increasingly under the yoke of secularism.
The next speaker was Dr. Thomas Ardill who presented ‘Sacred and Secular Spectacles: Benjamin West’s Scriptural Paintings’. Between the 1780 and 1820s, religious paintings by West appeared in a range of sacred and secular settings. Often these were not the locations for which the works were originally conceived, and sometimes his designs and finished pictures were relocated and repurposed. As a result, it is difficult to draw distinctions between ecclesiastical art and exhibition pictures in West’s oeuvre, especially as his church and chapel pictures were often conceived as offering a spectacle of aesthetic delight to connoisseurs, and as serving a fundraising purpose, while his gallery pictures were observed to hold a strong appeal to those of a highly pious persuasion. This ambiguity has provided some of West’s scriptural paintings with a flexibility that has ensured their survival. By being open to the aesthetic and religious potential of West’s spectacular imagery, curators today might give his forgotten works a new lease of life, while remaining true to their historical function.
Ardill used West’s Design for a Wall of the Chapel of Revealed Religion (1780, Paul Mellon Centre) as an example of this type of ambiguity. The Paul Mellon Centre writes about the work thus:
‘After a decade of steady patronage, in 1780 the king commissioned that West called “the great work of my life,” The Chapel of Revealed Religion for Windsor Castle. Numerous questions still remain about the program and the intended location of this important and sadly incomplete project which the king stopped funding for in 1801 for reasons that remain unclear. West continued working at his own expense until 1804. The chapel’s decorative scheme, approved by Anglican theologians, was to depict revelatory moments from the Old and the New Testaments: Patriarchal, Mosaical, and Gospel’.
The work then was never installed in its intended religious space, likewise West’s Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple (1811, Tate) never ended up in its intended location, a hospital in Philadelphia (West was an American abroad). When the work was completed it met such applause that the British Institute pressured West into selling them the work for 3,000 guineas whereupon West wrote to the hospital saying he would produce a second version that had ‘a more improved plan of composition.’ He decided to include ‘a demoniac with his attendant relations’ to make reference to the hospital’s treatment of the mentally ill. The second painting arrived in Philadelphia on board the ‘Electra’ ship in 1817, free of export and import duties by acts of both the English and American governments. Accompanying the picture was a letter from West:
‘Benjamin West, Historical Painter to His Majesty George III, and the President of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, feels the highest satisfaction in informing the Managers of the Pennsylvania Hospital by having finished the picture of our Saviour receiving the Lame and Blind in the Temple to heal them. And Mr. West bequeaths the said picture to the Hospital in the joint names of himself and his wife, the late Elizabeth West, as their gratuitous offering and as a humble record of their patriotic affection for the State of Pennsylvania, in which they first inhaled the vital air — thus to perpetuate in her native city of Philadelphia the sacred memory of that amiable lady who was his companion in life for fifty years and three months.’
Histories of such scriptural paintings change because of their location, context, time and reception. We should consider which period of a work’s life is to be represented when we curate works. How does a work’s fragmentation from its intended location affect it, and does it benefit us with fresh responses? (One could examine the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel, Oxford University, whose current reception is causing such furore at the moment).
Another work by West, Devout Men Taking the Body of Saint Stephen (1776, MFA, Boston) is currently disenfranchised from its intended location as it is being conserved. The MFA has the work displayed behind glass in its ‘Conservation in Action’ programme, so people can view the process of restoration / conservation; however, what will happen to the work upon completion? Will it enter the gallery and become an altarpiece without a religious building, like so many Florentine altarpieces in the National Gallery?
Many of West’s paintings are extremely large, which presents curatorial issues. Handling large works always poses problems, a Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum is so large they undertook a decision to display the work although they had to roll over the top part of the canvas in order to fit it onto the wall. It was considered better to have the work seen even if a (negligible) portion of the work was not visible. The Hogarth Triptych Sealing the Tomb (1755, St. Nicholas’ Church, Bristol) is currently housed within an old church surrounded by council employees desks and filing cabinets – a strange mix of the secular and the sacred.
West’s Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple (1811, Tate) was seriously damaged by flood in the basement at the Tate in 1928. It lays hidden in stores now and poses several curatorial issues: restoration (thought impossible) and size. However, Ardill reported that recent analysis suggests that the varnish has bloomed and if this could be removed, then painting underneath may still be in tact (although to what degree I suspect cannot be certain until further investigation is done). With a work like this, how do we present it? Should it be presented in its current state? Should it be displayed like Devout Men Taking during conservation? Should it be displayed as a gallery piece or with a view to the hospital it was intended for? Each of these decisions may or may not result in justice being done to the work, they may miss the scriptural drama of the work or West’s Academic achievement. Perhaps a theatrical or cinematic display would be appropriate, similar to the display of West’s works in his picture gallery 1821 exhibition at his home. Ardill promoted this sensitivity and awareness to a work’s life and history, as a means of opening and widening up current reception and creating a new freshness to works.
The penultimate speaker was Professor Ben Quash who asked ‘What Might ‘Theological Curation’ Look Like?’ Quash is interested in the presentation and challenges of displaying ecclesiastical objects in a way that makes us of theological criteria. Asking where works once hung, what the original experience of a work was, and how it interacted with its environment were all key points raised (an extension of Ardill’s questioning but into a theological realm). It is impossible to recreate an exact experience, time has changed, material space has changed and we are, inevitably, different people. Pure recreation is impossible, so we are left with an ersatz experience. We can create something ‘like’ the original which has been attempted (successfully in my view) in the exhibition ‘Sacred Made Real’(2009, National Gallery). This curation used light and space to encourage and induct people into a sense of veneration for the objects. This sympathetic curatorial practice allows viewers to feel their way into a sense of devotion, regardless of personal faith.
Quash suggested another method of display could be to use analogy, create certain sight lines between items so there is a suggested relationship, e.g. penitence and sin, regeneration and renewal. One exceptional innovation that has been driven by Theology is Timothy Verdon’s new Museo dell’Opera del Duomo installation.
Quash has been involved with a new app ‘Alight: Art and the Sacred’ which engages with devotional and spiritual objects already in public spaces, e.g. Epstein’s sculptures.
There are fourteen stations which you can make your way to using the map, and imagine your way into these devotional spaces. You can therefore approach objects as living religious pieces but not necessarily presenting them as pious or removed / distant. You can be religious or non-religious, but you can still follow the stations and you can still feel your way around the meaning of the works. It also means that the items remain where they are, but you can retrieve some of their original meaning (e.g. by attending and viewing an altarpiece now housed in a gallery).
Understanding and reading works as cultic or exhibition pieces changes their reception; works of art in cathedrals and churches walk a tenuous line between these two positions. Within a liturgical religious setting works play a subservient role, but in a larger, potentially secular, culture, the conditions of reception alter and play a more significant role in outcome. To use Walter Benjamin’s terms art can be auratic (contextually closed, timeless, unique, hermeneutically fixed) or agoric (open, contingent, fluid, open to exchange etc.) Installations work by interacting with their environments, and even items that are not sacred can become some, such as Bill Viola’s Martyrs (2014, gifted to Tate but on permanent display at St. Paul’s Cathedral) which had a mass performed in front of it and has since become embedded within the fabric of the building and the liturgical environment as a religious item. Viola describes himself as working not with video or new media but as working with light, something Westminster Abbey, MUMA, the V&A, and the Sacred Made Real curator Xavier Bray would all recognise as being invaluable to the display of ecclesiastical objects. In relation to Martyrs this use of light creates an agoric exchange appropriate for all people, for the multi-cultural, multi-faith world we live in.
Quash suggested we can be importing ideas onto objects and we can be encouraged to do so. There are different modes of approach: the Church is imperative, whereas a museum is typically indicative. Quash proposed three modes:
Subjunctive – conjective, open with possibilities
Optitive – mood based
Interogative – Asking questions of a work.
In which of these ways will a viewer function when standing in front of a piece like Bellini’s The Blood of the Redeemer (1460, National Gallery)? How do we make sense of the angel, or the size of Christ, how do we understand the narrative? Why is there a Pagan frieze acting as a barrier between this divine space and that of the Italianate landscape in the background? Can we be imperative in our approach then the work is in the National Gallery, or do we instantly conform to an indicative museum lead reading? Can we combine both, or can we remain subjunctive and agoric?
In Maderno’s powerful Martyrdom of St. Cecilia (1599, Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome) we become optitive and emotion led.
There are limited options through recreation of original settings alone but analogous responses can and do offer wider curatorial opportunities for modes of approach. If you are predisposed does this limit you? Likewise with our tendency to be reductive about devotional images we are equally limited. Not all medieval Christians were trying to avoid hell, many attended church to find answers, to experience spirituality, because of love, faith, or fear. But motivation and experience is individual, so responses were inevitably more nuanced than we appreciate. Our curatorial practice needs to nurture these subtleties of expression and reception.
Kings College is currently working on a long project to digitalise images in order to look at theological links and to see how works dialogue with theology and how they inform scripture. This is one way in which ecclesiastical curation can be widened, and if we embrace such approaches we will bring alive many devotional works.
The final paper was by Dr. Matthew Craske who reviewed his study of the fabric of Westminster Abbey and its tombs. He proceeded to outline his work which is still in progress concerning the dispute that led to publication of a very important book upon the visual arts, The Ornaments of Churches Considered by William Hole (alias, probably Dr Thomas Wilson). His emphasis was not the analysis of the arguments of Ornaments but the practical reconstruction of the interior that was built in 1756-63. This was the architecture the text was attempting to defend against the Deanery of Zachary Pierce who were insistent upon its destruction. Craske’s interest was in the role of antiquarian understanding of various kinds of Gothic architecture in the design of this interior. He suggested the style evoked was that of the reign of Henry VII which was regarded as an apogee shortly before the destructive iconoclasm of the first phase of the Reformation.
I will end with my favourite line of the day: “Shove it up the kilt”.