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Theory and practices of a museum of sacred art

· The recently appointed Director describes the project for the future 'Museo dell'Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore' ·

If it is true, as Benedict XVI says in his introduction to the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church , that “images are also a preaching of the Gospel”, then preaching the Gospel will be one of the tasks of a museum of Christian art. And if  “artists in every age” have truly “offered the principal facts of the mystery of salvation to the contemplation and wonder of believers” (as the Pope continues), then among the objectives of those who present the artworks will be that of encouraging  a contemplative and moving understanding of the events themselves. Nor is it a matter of a rule to be applied solely in church museums, but rather of an historical-artistic method that is applicable in every museum situation, since for an understanding of the works  the content is just as meaningful as the form .  Indeed, the form given to a work often reflects the artist's wish to comment on its content so that this becomes crucial to the entire creative process which a museum display must render intelligible.

These general principles acquire special force for art collections that document a single site, as in the case of the Museo dell'Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, which is now in the process of a thorough renovation. Among the major collections of sacred art in the world with masterpieces by Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Luca della Robbia, Antonio Pollaiuolo and Michelangelo, the Museo dell'Opera houses statues and paintings made for the Baptistery, Campanile and Cathedral of Florence: works which – for reasons of conservation  in the course of modifications and modernizations – were removed from the original collection and from liturgical use. In almost every case, however, the original arrangement is still visible a few steps from the museum, in the cathedral or in the baptistery, and the liturgical and catechetical aims can still be perceived, since the rites and beliefs for whose service the works were created are essentially the same today. In fact, unlike other types of museum which contain objects from various physical and spiritual provenances, all the works in a “cathedral museum” come from one place – an episcopal church – and belong to a single conceptual system, that of the Christian faith: a provenance and belonging which thus require not only an appropriate display of the individual works but also and above all  their contextualization in the entirety of the theological messages and architectural scenes which the cathedral's history makes it possible to reconstruct.

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