Hidden meanings: Christian art exhibited at the museum

Mixing museums with the sacred seems to be a paradox, since the museum is the place where objects are exhibited, while the sacred is something to hide. Nevertheless, the concept of sacred crosses museum studies, since there are many objects related to religious rituals and worship exhibited in museums.

Exhibition “As Ilhas do Ouro Branco”
Lisboa, MNAA
Photo: Rui Marote e DR, 2017

Musealization always implies a decontextualization process, by moving an object from its original context to an artificial and representational place. Regarding the religious object, this musealization also involves a process of desacralization and, eventually, a re-sacralization. So, to understand this phenomenon, it is necessary to consider the concept of the sacred itself and their implications, such as separation, untouchability, reverence or contemplation.

Durkeim described the deep dichotomy between the sacred and the profane as the central feature of any religion, by which the sacred is an extraordinary reality separated from the ordinary reality of everyday life. This separation is perceived as a threatening and attractive force, designated by Otto as a mysterium tremendum and fascinans leading to the interdiction of the sacred. So, if the sacred is separated and interdict, how can an object, created for a religious or sacred function, be musealized? What kind of precaution must be taken during the musealization of a consecrated object? How is the experience of the sacred at the museum?

Our reflection is restricted to the concept of sacredness in Christianity and in Catholicism. In the Old Testament, in line with the archaic religions, God asserts the essential separation between the sacred and the profane; however, in the New Testament, the relationship with his people takes a new perspective based on communion instituted by Christ. In Christianity, the quality of sacrum is consubstantial, which means that only God is holy in its absolute sense. Therefore, Catholic Church determines that only the chalice and paten, used to hold Eucharistic wine and bread, as well as the altar and the church building, are consecrated and their profanation takes the gravity of sacrilege. Other vessels and vestments used in the Catholic rituals are only blessed. In addition, the Catholic Church determines that the consecrated objects must lose their consecration in some specific conditions and all the others are execrated when damaged or retired from the liturgical use. As a result, their use becomes unrestricted and they are allowed to join a museum collection.

La Mostra Vaticana: álbum illustrato dei doni offerti a Sua Santità Leone XIII (p. 57). (1888)
Roma: Gustavo Bianchi e Comp. Editori.

In the first museums, which appeared in Europe in the 18th century, there were many objects sourced from churches and ecclesiastical collections, selected by their cultural, historical or aesthetic values. Upon joining the museum collection, the religious object becomes a work of art, losing its sacred connotations. Using a semiological language, the functional meaning, or the sign-function, is replaced by new meanings related to the museum discourse.

Whatever the museum typology – treasures and ecclesiastical museums, religious museums, or art museums with religious art collections – the exhibition commonly hides the intrinsic meaning of the object and erases most of its connotative data.

In their original religious context, these objects were integrated within a rich system of connections with space and all the other objects with liturgical factions. The transfer to the museum is a process of decontextualization: the iconographic representations are scattered among the collections of paintings and sculptures: vessels and vestments are integrated into the collections of goldsmiths, textiles, furniture or decorative arts. In addition, the museum modifies the conventional perception of the object, which is brought closer to the observer and placed at eye level.

So, the museum presents the formal and material features and emphasizes the denotative data of the objects exhibited, but, on the other hand, its discourse tends to ignore their symbolic connotations, or the semantic density of their theological, liturgical and devotional dimensions.

All of these transformations have been described since André Malraux, by authors like Svetlana Alpers and François Mairesse, as a “museum effect”. Related to this one, there is a phenomenon of re-sacralization, when the museum appropriates religious concepts and rituals, recreating the separation between sacred and profane, and when it imposes restraints and a disciplined behavior, which may be confused with the religious rituals. In this context, it results very difficult to apprehend the original sense of the religious object.

The decline of the Jewish-Christian churches in the western world and the decline of the traditional religious worships, replaced by the so-called modern secular religions, along with a renewed sacralization and ritualization of everyday life, contributes to the obliteration of the common knowledge on Christian issues. This phenomenon is reinforced by the impact of tourism which brings to the museum new audiences, with very heterogeneous cultural references. Most visitors do not recognize liturgical objects and religious figures and scenes, while the museum provides little information about the functional or symbolic aspects that would contribute to the understanding of the exhibition.

Exhibition “500 Anos da dedicação da Sé do Funchal “: altar set
Funchal, MASF
Photo: Martinho Mendes/MASF, 2017

In order to prevent and fight this increasing illiteracy, museums under ecclesiastical authority tend to conceive analogical exhibitions, where the objects are integrated in scenographies which recreate their original context and seek to include textual and graphic data to inform about the theological, liturgical or devotional meaning of objects. Following the guidelines proposed by the Catholic Church, these museums assume aims of catechesis, which cannot be undertaken by secular institutions.

Usually, museums of art and archaeology maintain moderate mediation strategies, very limited in a conventional museography. Labels provide essential information to identify the object, focused on its formal aspects, although some interpretative data of its use, function or meaning is beginning to be used. More in-depth information is very scarce. Whereas the message remains largely conditioned by the skills, knowledge, and memories of the receiver and given the lack of knowledge in these issues, it becomes very difficult to apprehend the sense of the religious objects at the exhibition.

Processional cross
Exhibition “500 anos da dedicação da Sé do Funchal”
Funchal, MASF
Photo: Joana Sousa / Arquivo MASF, 2017

In this context, it is expected that studies of museums will exploit new methods to express the intangibility inherent to the religious heritage. Complementary data should be provided, without either causing a disruptive noise around the objects, or creating surpluses that should cluster the exhibition space. Digital humanities, by applying computational tools and methods to conventional research in museum studies, bring benefits to cultural mediation, such as the creation of segmented data and personalized profiles, along with interactive and immersive programs based on storytelling and augmented reality.

Paper presented at ICOFOM 41th symposium: Museology and the sacred, 15-19 Oct., ICOFOM, National Museum of Islamic Art, Tehran, IR.
Text revision: Cristina Galhano.
Complete article published in: Roque, M. I. (2018). Le sens caché : Exposition de l’art chrétienne au musée. In F. Mairesse (Ed. lit.), Museology and the sacred: Materials for a discussion = La muséologie et le sacré: Matériaux pour une discussion = La museologia y lo sagrado: Materiales para una discusión: Papers from the ICOFOM 41th symposium (pp. 170-174). Paris: International Commitee for Museology – ICOFOM.

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