Eike Schmidt, the director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, is recommending that devotional art in museum collections be returned to churches. This art was meant to be encountered in prayer, and so the church is the more appropriate context for presenting it, he says. We can understand it better in its original context. Church officials, on the other hand, aren’t necessarily responding with the joy of those receiving back their heritage, but suggest that works would need to be considered on a case by case basis.
I have prayed with religious images in museums. The medieval icon of the Theotokos Eleousa (Mother of God of Tenderness) at the Snite Museum at the University of Notre Dame once stopped me in my tracks, and I simply had to stand and pray for twenty minutes. I now visit her every chance I get, and the museum docents on the lower level generally leave me in peace. (The staff also has kindly provided me additional information on the piece, and a few years ago I painted my own sorry copy of the icon as a study. Snite board member Angie Chamblee introduces the icon here. A lovely close-up is here.) Other museums can be a beehive of activity. While possible, such personal reflection and prayer is less likely to happen. In these spaces, for most people, the art is seen more simply as being “art,” and less a window to the holy.
So at a certain level I support returning art to churches, where it can be appreciated in a public space and yet prayed with in a more personal, spiritual way. Appropriate liturgical and devotional art helps us to be more aware of the spiritual dimensions happening at liturgy, and helps prepare us to receive the sacraments in a more disposed fashion. Such visuals shape our spiritual imagination and help us to be more aware of the whole communion of saints also present with us.
On a practical level, however, is the question of patrimony and responsibility. Museums can offer security and conservation to art pieces that might suffer some neglect in an inadequately funded parish church. Is this art to be preserved solely for those who worship in the space of the church, or is it rightly now the treasure of a wider human culture? Who bears responsibility for making sure it is available to the public? How is the art evangelizing for the faith? Different countries have different ways of dealing with this. The churches of Rome hold uncounted treasures available to anyone who walks in the door, whether one be homeless, a daily mass-goer, an art history student, or a wealthy tourist. These works proclaim to all the dignity of the human person, the majesty of the Christian spiritual journey, and the hope of heaven in the midst of the complications of now. Visitors pay a few coins to turn on special lighting in order to see the works better; sometimes gift shops help support the upkeep as well. Elsewhere, churches themselves have been turned into museums, and one pays a fee to enter unless one can prove one is coming to attend religious services. This seems an unhealthy distortion. And yet, upkeep costs money.
Beyond these concerns is the issue of how sacred art functions at different points in time, as a community changes. What may have been helpful and appropriate at one moment in history may shift as community demographics shift, as understanding of the Christian tradition develops. Sacred art can tell us who we are and can help lead us to God, but some art transcends history and place better than other work. If a piece of sacred art continues to be great art, but no longer speaks truth to a worshiping community, perhaps a museum is the better place for it.
It will be interesting to see how these conversations play out.