Thursday, November 27, 2008

Cardinal: put sacred art back in Church

According to the Times, The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor said that The Baptism of Christ, painted in the 1450s by Piero della Francesca, should be taken out of the National Gallery and placed in a religious setting such as Westminster Cathedral.
“I would like to see this painting taken down from the walls of the National Gallery and placed in a Catholic church in London because it is a mistake to treat it as a work of art: it is a work of faith and piety, an expression of the Church’s life and a way into prayer.”

I presume His Eminence was being deliberately provocative.

His point, I presume, was that taken out of the context of faith, works like "The Baptism" loose their meaning. An altarpiece only really comes to life when it is set over an altar and Mass is celebrated before it.

Jan van Eyck's, The Adoration of the Lamb only makes sense and comes to life when a priest is elevating the Sacred Host or Chalice before the lower panel. It is designed for that. When I last saw it in a glass box in the crypt of Ghent Cathedral, separated from its altar and the Mass, as beautiful as it was, it seemed like a suit of dead men's clothes.

Art created for worship becomes a mere relic of a half remembered past when it is removed from its context.

The Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, the Medieval Galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum, are really little different from an Albanian Museum of Atheism; out of context paintings, chalices, relics even, become mere artifacts, which as the Cardinal points out was never the intention behind their creation.

That being said, the Church itself can't be without criticism. Westminster Cathedral itself came back to life during the celebration of Mass by Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos earlier this year. For the fist time I saw the Benson altar "alive", rather than treated as something to be ignored or seen as an embarrassment.

In the last 40 years we have seen the Church turning its back on its artistic heritage. Ancient rites have been swept away, the orientation of prayer changed, that which which was held sacred has been dismissed as irrelevant and a great deal that was regarded as precious has either been consigned to the museum or the rubbish dump. Statues has become merely decorative, even chant is more likely to be heard at some New Age workshop or polyphony at a secular concert, albeit in a Church, with singers obscuring the altar rather than in the context of worship. The Church in recent years, by quite often literally turn its back on the sacred has been one of the greatest promoters of secularisation of Europe.


Anonymous said...

fine in principle but what, in practical terms, could one really do with a Renaissance painting or medieval artefacts? To place them back in a church or cathedral has massive implications for security and insurance.

When things remained in churches such as, for example, the fabled medieval choir stalls at Westminster Abbey later generations came along and destroyed them in their efforts to renovate. In the case of the Abbey the blame there lies with Georgian churchmen. Stories of medieval tiles and paintings being destroyed by enthusiastic Victorians is commonplace. In Rome the largely medieval St. Peters was destroyed in a fit of a Baroque makeover, the result being particularly ugly (but, I am a Pugin fan).

The fact these paintings and artefacts are in galleries and museums accounts for the preservation and probably their existence.

PeterHWright said...

I couldn't agree more with the theory of what Fr Ray says in his post. Sacred objects (including, I regret to say, high altars which are no longer used) quickly lose their significance when they are no longer in use. It shows how philistine some Church authorities can be.

In practice, however, what Old Believer says is very true. Former private collections often form the nucleus of an art gallery, as is the case with the National Gallery, and we are indebted to many private collectors for acquiring and saving works of art which othrerwise might have been lost. (It is always distressing to see an altarpiece broken up into its component parts in different galleries, with some parts missing altogether. One thinks for example, of Duccio's Maiesta.)

The thing is : many of these early Renaissance paintings (especially, I think, panel paintings) are now extremely fragile, and need to be preserved in a special environment. Such is the case with the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery where temperature and humidity are carefully controlled. Unfortunately, a church would't do !

Better to preserve them as relics, I think, than to lose them altogether.

Thank God the great cathedrals of Europe are still standing, the last reminder of medieval Christendom.

Anonymous said...

In a church only the faithful will see religious paintings, in an art gallery etc.they may incline viewers to think about what they depict. Are not pictorial images of the Lord, Our Lady and the Saints themselves bearers of the Gospel,agents of evangelism, icons of Christianity? Perhaps it is providential that an unbelieving age should be made aware of the cultural contribution of religion.

I put this as a possible contra argument while acknowledging with respect the Cardinal's viewpoint.

gemoftheocean said...

I agree with Old Believer.

Ideally these works should be in their right settings, but unfortunately impractical. (Ditto the temp/environmental controls that really need to be in place to preserve such works.)

On a plus note I was delighted you posted the Adoration of the Lamb. A few years back I took an Art History class for fun. The instructor (who was originally from the Netherlands herself) did a great job with giving the symbolism behind the piece (though she was not Catholic herself.) But she got it all right. About a week or so before one of our midterms (wherein that piece was bound to be covered) one of my classmates had had trouble getting all the symbolism - she had been raised in a marginally Christian home (not Catholic) - so I was able to recap it all for her, and it was a nice chance for me to explain the detail of the faith behind the symbolism.

I found it a curious experience that when I first took an art history class at University of California during my salad days (it covered Renaissance Italian Art) and later the two semester art history course, plus my freshman year history of music course, there was a great deal of "Catholic" related music/art discussed. I certainly got more formal training in these areas than in any high school subjects I studied. The officially "neutral on religion" California public institutions of higher learning had done much more along those lines than the years of Catholic schooling I'd had prior to that. [Let's hear it for the too often maligned "distribution classes."]

In grade school, as the spirit takes them, sometimes a sister or teacher would show us or talk about Catholic art/music - but very seldom and far between. Other than what I read on the topics (which were of interest to me!) my exposure to such things in a formal
class at the Catholic high school was "zip/zero/zilch/nada and BUPKIS."

It's all been pushed out by the scratching for AP classes (your equivalent would be A-levels) and the tread mill rat race. Cramming for exams and scratching for places as college - without taking time to stop and smell the roses.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Wright, your reference to panel paintings is so apposite. I read on the St. Lawrence Press blogspot about the paintings on the sedilia at Westminster Abbey ( and these are a classic example of the issue under discussion.

They are, literally, disintegrating due to the heating system. I would simply remove them and put them in a museum so they could be preserved under contolled conditions and put in a modern reproduction in their place. In terms of their original function, that would be maintained equally by a modern reproduction.

Joe of St. Thérèse said...

I agree, fine in principle as well...I've had the chance to go to some Churches and see depictions of the lives of the Saints behind the main altar, beautiful...The sooner we stop worrying about being PC the better it will be for the Church.

PeterHWright said...

Thanks, Old Believer.

I hadn't read about the sedilia at Westminster Abbey. Regrettably, there are many such examples.

I really should visit the ordorecitandi blogspot more often. Rubricarius is a mine of information.

Unfortunately, access to the internet is getting more difficult these days.

In my earlier comment, I forgot to add my usual plea that conservators pay more heed to conservation and less heed to restoration, although in many cases it is already too late.

Physiocrat said...

Excellent comments. I felt uneasy about the pictures in the Sainsbury. But if they were in a church the parishes would not be able to look after them properly and insure them. I know of a Catholic instution which is stuffed with valuable art works which are not being properly curated and are probably not insured.

It would help if they were better displayed and interpreted so that visitors to galleries understood the context in which they were intended to be used.

Anonymous said...

I too agree in principle but why put this painting in westminster cathedral (as much as i love our cathedral)? it wasn't made for there and didnt come from there, so why move it there now? i thought the cathedral was inspired by the byzantine style which means mosaics are in but pictures are not. i cant remember there bing any other paintings in the cathedral? although the railings around the baptistry at westminster cathedral would provide some security (which could be backed up by modern security systems) but unfortunately at the moment there is a danger the roof may cave in on it (or at least leak etc).
seems like pie in the sky to me!

Anonymous said...

Father Ray's comment about statues becoming merely decorative reminded me of a church in London which had recently been restored. On the web site it stated that candles were no longer to be lit in front of any of the statues as they had all been cleaned having had the smoke and wax removed. Yes they are now beautiful but as works of art in an art gallery. The church itself seemed so sterile. Surely renovation should not mean the disappearance of the ancient practice of offering a prayer in the form of a candle?

Similarly I was very surprised to see a new sign 'Do not touch' on the shrine containing the body of St Vincent de Paul in Paris. It seems so natural to want to touch the reliquary . The sign is only in French at present and I almost wished I did not understand it but I did obey with difficulty! Incidentally for those who suffer from vertigo visiting the shrine is a real penance as it is approached from stairs rising behind the main altar.

Anonymous said...

As gemoftheocean says returning items to churches would be impractical and not just because of the temperature control needed for preservation.

I have just been reading about a serious case of theft of several statues from various chapels in Brittany a couple of years ago. The polychrome statues dated from the XVth and XVI century and were regarded as priceless. The brains behind the thefts has just been sentenced to a mere 15 months in prison. What is so sad is that all the statues were deliberately destroyed by being burnt when the thieves realised that they could not sell them.

The chapels were chosen using guide books which said that they were in out of the way places. The thieves then forced their way in knowing that they would probably not be disturbed. What a sad sign of the times.

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