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.