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Conserving objects, preserving the gaze

· Sacred art in museums ·

André Malraux’s observation, introducing the second edition of his celebrated Le Musée imaginaire, is fairly well noted, “a Romanesque crucifix was not first of all a sculpture, the Madonna of Cimabue was not first of all a painting, the Atena of Fidia was not first of all a statue.” The intent of his essay was to reflect on the consequences of museum mediation and the techniques of reproduction on the original anthropological significance of objects which had become “works of art.” His reasoning touched on questions of theory of art (first) and museum studies (by consequence) which are particularly relevant for the cultural patrimony of the liturgical tradition of the Church. In fact, the liturgy is one of those vital contexts which more than anything has been the generator of a patrimony of products subsequently catalogued according to criteria of the “history of art.” Considering the quantity, one understands how the question assumes very significant dimensions. A very large part of the known artistic patrimony is in fact connected to ritual forms (not simply cultural) of Christian history. Only now, and only partially, does this fact generate an understanding which is inseparable from the existential background which produced it. The analytic specializations of the disciplines of artistic and archeological history, have incorporated that “positivism” of research which has naturally placed extreme precision in the evolutionary collocation of forms, but has excluded almost all relevance of the vital context of the total comprehension of the objects in question. In the glare of this indistinct light, a paleo-Christian pulpit and a polpytch (panel painting) from the 1400s are only distinguishable by reason of the history of forms, transforming them, in their function and their nature, into indiscernible objects.

For some time now, given the new interest of a specifically theological study which focuses on esthetic questions, legitimacy is being given to research and museum study criteria that attempt to complete the partiality of radically formal historical views. The guiding concept of this vision of completion is that objects of historical and artistic relevance that are connected to Christian history are completely incomprehensible if abstracted from the liturgical context which required them, generated them and justified them. An understanding of these objects requires a strict connection to the symbolic universe which produced them; that is, to the sum of their meaning, actions, and sentiments without which even their specific formal nature would remain in the dark. Even the “form” of a thurible would be profoundly mutilated in its reason for being without understanding the gesture – that of using incense on the Christological places in the liturgy – for which it exists.

The symbolic background which gives certain objects their expressive vitality returns, albeit timidly, to become a part of the considerations of “scientific” study and of criteria for museum custody. Such a horizon also possesses, by its nature, a two-fold character. On the one hand, it is synchronic: having to do with the structural relationship which in every time certain objects take on due to their liturgical pre-condition. On the other hand, it is diachronic: having to do with the different historical forms of this relationship; the liturgy has not always remained the same and its evolutions are in turn a source of continual esthetic inventions.

Many ecclesial museums in the last half century have attempted to take on this structural intertwining, which is more profound than the simple didactic vocation of religious art. In the last few years in Italy, they have grown exponentially and here, I would mention in particular diocesan museums. Their vocation to “conserve” the object is inseparable from their concern to “preserve” the gaze which is called to contemplate it anew. The meaning of an object remains tenaciously connected to the concreteness of a patrimony that is inseparable from its inspiration. The aim is to allow objects of art to be permanent vehicles of a spirit which is still at work in them.

There are naturally many tools for this cultural undertaking, difficult as it is. They are didactic, formational, scientific promotion, exhibition knowledge. Not rarely, there is also the return of many of these objects into use in liturgical practice. An undertaking, therefore, which is silently powerful, capable of mitigating the nature of a museum, which according to Umberto Eco, cannot help but become a “tomb for dead objects.”

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