Busted Halo
feature: entertainment & lifestyle
May 31st, 2011

Lost in Museums

The tragedy of trapping religious art



First there’s lights out, then there’s lock up.

Masterpieces serving maximum sentences;

It’s their own fault for being timeless.

There’s a price you pay and a consequence.

All the galleries, the museums;

They will stay there forever and a day.

All the rowboats in the oil paintings

They keep trying to row away, row away…

Regina Spektor

Have you ever been lost in a work of art? I count among my biggest hobbies imagining life inside of a painting. Fortunate enough to live in Manhattan, I often wander over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to observe the works of the masters and stroll through the halls taking in the human accomplishments that line the galleries. However, there is something I can’t stand to see when I’m there: religious art imprisoned. It’s so depressing when I come upon a work (obviously forged in a fit of pious ecstasy) now confined by the secular chains of an art museum — even one so grand as the Met. Surely the only place for a work inspired by faith is where it can be properly venerated. Perhaps my view is a product of liberal guilt or youthful naivety, but shouldn’t we empty our museums of these religious treasures and return them to their rightful places?

Great works of art are so often stuffed into museums not easily accessible and therefore lose a part of the humanity that was their inspiration. The saddest version of this is surely when devotional images of any religion are pilfered from houses of worship and placed in sterile mediocrity. I get this awful feeling whenever I walk by a work of art with a religious focus. From bountiful Buddhas to carved Crucifixes and small Shinto tokens, it is a sad fact that so many religious items are housed in our museums.

Religious art is not intended to be viewed by the casual tourist or blasé weekender; it’s meant to be experienced by a believer — a tool for them on their spiritual journey, to assist them in reaching out to the divine.

The website for the Orthodox Church in America explains what religious art and iconography were created for in the first place: “The traditional Orthodox icon is not a holy picture. It is not a pictorial portrayal of some Christian saint or event in a ‘photocopy’ way. It is, on the contrary, the expression of the eternal and divine reality, significance and purpose of the given person or event depicted.”

There! Religious art is not intended to be viewed by the casual tourist or blasé weekender; it’s meant to be experienced by a believer — a tool for them on their spiritual journey, to assist them in reaching out to the divine.

Stolen or protected?

There’s another reason why I am disgusted by museums — especially Western museums — taking great religious works of art, often from other cultures: racism. Many of the great Western institutions of art were founded and funded by the ultra-rich white elite in the late 18th century. Students of history may recognize this time also as the golden age of imperialism. During this time, greedy Western European countries (and the U.S.) extended their tentacles around the world, gobbling up formerly independent countries into a kind of worldwide hegemony. Naturally, the colonies were westernized and their native cultures destroyed. Many had their greatest treasures stolen and carried off like trophies to the great museums of Europe and America. The most notable is the British theft of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon. Many Victorians believed it was up to them to protect the great artwork of the world from the “inferior cultures.” They saw it to be a sort of white man’s burden.

Others may say that we must protect religious artifacts from outside forces, preserving them for our progeny. They may point to the tragic loss of the Buddhas of Bamyan at the hands of the Taliban. It may sound callous, but maybe it’s a risk we have to take. Isn’t hiding religious art away in museums the same as caging a bird or imprisoning a wild animal meant to be free? We must let our works of art breath in the natural world.

Leaving the Met, a short stroll down Fifth Avenue takes me to a spot that gets it right — Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, the towering granite monolith and unofficial Vatican of American Catholicism. Inside its gilded doors are amassed a great number of religious works. My personal favorite is a statue of the Virgin Mary found in the very back of the Church. Located in a quiet space where the Blessed Sacrament is stored, it holds all who view it in awe. You can literally feel the decades of prayer radiating from the statue and into the hearts of those prayerfully revering it. With candles illuminating its face and the smell of incense, one can understand that this statue is an active participant in the spiritual life of the cathedral. Contrast this with the countless statues that line the Metropolitan or your local museum.

In the next century we must make a concerted effort to move religious art out of museums and back into places of worship, where they were intended to be experienced in the first place. Religious artifacts in a museum are like a violin without strings. I don’t think many Catholics would be happy if Michelangelo’s Pietà was shoved into the corner of some dusty museum in Beijing. Respect of religions is a tightrope walk and our museums, and by extension culture, have their work cut out for them.

The Author : Kevin Kirby
Kevin writes about running, religion and history from his home in New York City. He is a graduate of St. Bonaventure and former intern at Busted Halo.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • B

    However, a thought-experiment: substitute the term, “Hindu” for “Catholic”, and consider the non-hypothetical scenario of a sacred sculpture that has been stolen from its original setting– actually ripped out of a temple wall with a crowbar–in the past thirty years. I remember this icon being mentioned in an article in the New Yorker, discussing India’s top

    At some point in his research, the journalist visits the sculpture’s original setting, a temple in a small village. He shows a picture of the sculpture to an old man from the village, and the fellow actually bursts into tears.

    Now, the question would be: Could we repeat the arguments which we have made in this forum, to the weeping man of the village?

    Could we advise him to acquire a more sophisticated appreciation of art, and to understand that the sacred icon of his village will be better preserved and presented in our museum?

    Could we lecture him on his general lack of maturity, in crying at the transportation of this spiritual object into a secular (and first world) setting?

  • Julie Hagan Bloch

    Kevin, most of the religious artworks that are now in museums are there because there was some kind of problem with keeping them in the original religious environment. Granted, in wartime and suchlike, art is stolen. But art is also stolen from private homes. There have been many works of non-religious art in private homes that had a lot of emotion attached to them, but that somehow made their way to public venues such as museums. Using your logic, those should also be returned to the private owners. Artworks, whether secular or religious, often make their way to museums because the original owners need money, would rather have the space for something else, or siimply would like to share the beauty with a greater audience than would be found in such a limited setting as a private home or house of worship of one specific sort. It happens, and it’s okay.
    It might be helpful for you to consider that the object of art, while it may well generate feelings of spirituality or whatever, is still independent of the viewer’s experience. The feeling of spirituality, however generated, is within the individual, and accessible at any time, with or without a limited sort of stimulus. God is everywhere, right? So it seems to me that the goal should be to reach a point at which one is able to find Him/Her anywhere, whether or not one’s favorite external stimulus is available. And Kevin, it is nothing at all like punching a hole in the painting. Nothing at all like. The work is being respected. Art is just as important as anyone’s individual religion. For some, religion is more important, and by the same token, for many others, art is far more important. Different strokes for different folks. A mature individual is able to accept this.

  • Tanya

    I often go to the Met to see the medieval religious artwork. It is a religious, mystical experience. For many, many people, this is the only mystical experience they will allow themselves. It was in fact what sustained me before my own conversion. The love that these objects emanate is not cancelled when they are housed in a modern version of a house of worship. I also have seen an art historian cry because of the destruction of a museum in Baghdad. People who work with art in museums venerate these objects in their own way, and have been known to risk their own lives to save them. I agree that religious objects should be respected and as much as possible remain in their original setting, but once they are removed, we can only hope that they end up in a museum rather than the black market or a private home, never to be seen again.

  • Kevin K

    The core of my article is the idea of place. Objects with alot of emotion attached to them should stay in the places they were intended. Great houses of worship are works of in their own right. Taking away a statue or painting from its intended place in its Church, Temple, etc is like punching a hole in painting.

  • Julie Hagan Bloch

    Yay, William Grogan!

  • William Grogan

    Art is art, be it religious or otherwise. I disagree completely with the author. As an artist I sometimes paint a mother and child along the same lines as medieval artists. I paint them because I love the serenity and peace such works evoke. Do they belong in a church? No. They belong where anyone can view them and get what they will from them. Also, if such religious works were only confined to respective places of worship, many of us would miss out on the experience of being able to view works representative of various religions. I enjoy looking at all kinds of art. It is art first, and belongs where it can be properly cared for and where everyone, believers and nonbelievers, can enjoy it for what it is.

  • Julie Hagan Bloch

    I see the problem here as a big misunderstanding. God is everywhere, not only in churches. If you can only see the spiritual as belonging in a church or other place designed specifically for worship of the divine, then you’re missing the point.
    The more spiritual an individual is, the less division she/he will see between what is considered spiritual and what is considered mundane. It’s all divine.
    And as for paintings of ostensibly spiritual subjects, they belong where they will be respected. I don’t see the harmony of color and balance any less spiritual than any depiction of a saint or object considered holy. In fact, I think it’s more spiritual, because far fewer deaths and less prejudice have occurred as a result of aesthetic preferences than have as a result of religious preferences.

  • Theresa Henderson

    Given the way church buildings are “heated” and or “cooled” I understand why great art is in museums. Many art pieces would be lost to us by now. Yet I do understand what the author feels too. The LACK of beautiful art in churches makes the church buildings jsut one more big drab hall for many people. I remeber ASKINF to go to chu8rch when my Mom said she was going to st. Alphonsus parish in Grand rapids. the ceilings were painted with angels. The walls had huge paintings for the Stations of the Cross. And the little alcoves confessionals looked like you were entering a fancy carriage and there were six of them. Now there is just one, but it is nice looking inside… It was all beauty that none of us experience in our daily lives. Made me think of Heaven a lot.

  • Liz

    Nice job, Kirbs, as always.

  • James

    Most of those religious works you’re referring to were not “forged in a fit of pious ecstasy”. First, be careful with that word “forged”. Secondly, those works couldn’t have been done in a fit of anything, because of the technique involved. The artist had to paint one layer, wait a couple days for that to dry, apply the next layer, and so on for weeks or months. Fits don’t last that long. Learn something about art.

    By putting those works into houses of worship, you’re not only risking their destruction by those who oppose the faith, but you’re also virtually ensuring their destruction by the faithful. People will wear down the paint by passing their fingers or hands across them, kissing them and performing other “pious” personal rituals that apply acids to the paint and destroy it. (Regardless of the Church’s teachings against it, many Catholics really do worship statues.) And add to that the wildly fluctuating temperatures in the church buildings themselves, and you’ll see these works ruined within a couple of generations.

    The parishes that would own these paintings would not have the budget to restore them, and if they did, many would lack knowledge about proper restoration and hasten their destruction in that manner.

    Then there’s the issue of closing churches. If a parish is closed, other parishes are generally invited to pick over whatever art they want from it, and if nobody claims anything, it is often intentionally destroyed. In my diocese bulldozers have crushed many a masterful stained-glass window on orders from headquarters. Others were destroyed by Protestants who acquired the church buildings.

    When the art is claimed for a new church, it’s often wrecked in the process. Once I attended a large church in Florida where the old stained-glass windows they’d acquired didn’t match the planned size and shape of the new church’s windows, so they just cut the tops off, greatly degrading their artistic and instructional value.

    Catholics are the worst enemies of religious art, and those works are far, far safer in the museums than they would be in the parishes. Let them stay in the museums, so that they will be intact for future generations. If you’re bothered by a lack of good religious art in the parishes, do something about the degraded state of religious art produced today; don’t “reclaim” the work that’s in the museums.

  • KS

    Kevin –
    So artists make art right? so if artist make art then whom makes these pieces that are for prayer & devotional preposes? aren’t they artists? if not then whom would you call them? for they do have a talent …. and wouldn’t that talent be art?

    And for you not considering these works art…. well you just insulted many artists. And i will say going in to a debate of what is art? or define art? is a very complex and debatable. I had to do this in a class and its a debate @ school we just don’t really talk about after that since well its very debatable and is one of those places I wish not to go into.

    Something else:
    Also God gives us all talents and gifts and with them we are to help proclaim Gods Word right? or something God points them toward/have a purpose.
    So those with a talent in art and are christian, many do just that, and/or many strive/search for it.
    And with these many different gifts & Talents we as the Body of Christ help spread The Word of God to those who have either lost faith or help those who are unbelievers believe, right? Couldn’t you say this could be done through using the Arts?
    I think its possible.

  • B

    Kevin, in regards to your last question– would i want to see a depiction of Ronald Reagan in a church– a significant trend in catholic art was the inclusion of the donor /patrons in the religious scene.
    Substitute “Medici” for “Reagan”, and we have at-hand an instance of a “personage of worldly power” being originally placed at the altar of a chapel (Santa Maria Novella in Florence) –Botticelli’s “Adoration of the Magi”, in which Cosimo Medici and his sons were depicted as Magi.
    Now the painting hangs in the Uffizi, which was also built by the Medici.


    To address your central question: which i understand as being, “Should we attempt to divide the sacred from the secular in art, and should we make a special effort to heighten sacred aspects of a work of art by re-situating it in a religious context?”

    In my experience, art leads us into a heightened awareness of the world, in which we must “discover” form and meaning– art grants us a sense of mystery about the world and ourselves, in the original sense of the word “Mysterium”… a ritual of mental and emotional rebirth, an occasion for Grace (our knowledge of an essential and eternal Goodness, and our connectedness to an enduring sense of love and moral purpose in and beyond our own lifetime).

    I believe that art is inherently spiritual; and I believe that the quality of conferring “Mystery in and on the world, and on ourselves” is the essence of its spiritual process.

    I believe that any attempt to arbitrate where the art should or should not go, and how it should or should not be appreciated, is largely besides the point. One might as well try to lecture the Holy Spirit, as to whom it may or may not touch.

    (John 3:8
    The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth– so is every one that is born of the Spirit.)

    ((And this is the other great scandal of art–the other great mystery–that many of the most profoundly moving religious artworks were created by deeply flawed human beings: Caravaggio, who was a drunkard, a sodomite, and a sometimes killer; or else Van Gogh, who attempted to mimic Christ’s example by evangelizing to prostitutes, but who instead ended-up living and sleeping with one of them, and who painted every landscape as if he were trying to discover all consuming presence of God in every moment, every brushstroke– and who then chopped off his own ear and tried to make a gift of this to another prositute– and ultimately shot himself.))
    (((And I call this, even this, Grace)))

  • Kevin K

    Yet for many religious art- isn’t art at all. It is a devotional tool for prayer. It is out of place in a place like the met.

  • joe

    kevin – that’s a ridiculous argument because a museum’s purpose is to house works of art (including religious art,) whereas a church’s purpose is to offer a place of prayer, contemplation and community. so, be it reagan, obama or washington, you would never find cause to place any of these statues there. religious art in museums is able to be viewed and admired and (as attested to in the above comments) even offer museum goers a brief spiritual respite. so, to paraphrase Indiana Jones, “these works belong in a museum!”

  • Kevin K

    everyone has interesting points to my article. Consider this: would you want a statue of Ronald Reagan(over-zealous Republicans aside) in a church? I think not. there has to be a seperation line.

  • Jack

    Kev, never thought of the angle you took in your article. Your writing is ppwerful, clear and to the point. I really liked your article. But maybe just maybe a person who would never go to a church might in seeing religous art in a museum get a sense of the Other. Jack

  • KS

    I found the article interesting to read.
    I am majoring in Art and in Art HIstory classes when we are covering the religious paintings and art pieces it allows me to want to know more about what’s going into the painting/art work. Just like looking at any other style/movement/genre of art i want to know the story behind the art, the artist life, why they painted it, was it a commission or was it painted for there own enjoyment or another purpose and most of all what is the story that they are drawing on? I know many people who study/enjoy looking at art think/wonder about these questions and with these questions they could be drawn closer, or even have that seed of faith planted. someone who might be interested in why was there so many mary & christ child paints, might go home a research it. OR if someone wanted to know if the story was accurately portrayed they might go pick up a bible, but without seeing these paintings in the Museum they wouldn’t have done else wise. I see art in secular museums as a way to share our faith with others, Especially many people enjoy art and so it allows that bridge to talk about our faith. Example I was doing a research paper for Art HIstory I decided I was going to do it on a artist that painted mostly religious art and there for I was reading books i got from the library and one day at lunch I was sitting with my friends only one other person there was a Christian and they asked to look at the book I said yes and that started the conversation that wouldn’t have happened with out that Art HIstory book with religious paintings in it. I do think that churches today should commission contemporary artists to come in and make art for the church environment. I think we need to support the talent that is currently available verses going and “taking back” the art in museums.

  • Pat

    Although a well-written article, I also disagree with the author. I agree that seeing religious art in its true home is breathtaking. However, seeing art in a museum is not only a stunning moment of prayer amongst secular art, it exposes those who are not saved a glimpse of the glory of God and perhaps may convince a convert teetering on the edge of decision.

  • Brian A.

    I read your other articles and this one as well. Your pieces are insightful and an enjoyable read. Keep it up! It is up to the person on how they interpret the piece the exposure they get at museums may provide an inspiration to people who have lost their faith. As long as they are being appreciated in any light I am happy.

  • joe

    this is a great article, but i completely disagree. my favorite moments in a museum are when i come upon religious art, especially Christian and early Christian art. images of Christ and the resurrection, the Virgin and her baby, multitude of saints, etc. for me, it allows a moment of prayerful piece in a very secular setting. it seems to be one of the best experiences of faith and culture intersecting. cheers to the author for a well-written piece; jeers for not thinking of more of the benefits of these awesome art pieces in the secular world

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