Q&A: Spirit Quest II

Still working on Badger's question.

It occurs to me that there are a number of ways in which we (might) expect spiritual (sacred, devotional, religious) artifacts to act upon us as objects that are independent of their context, whether we encounter them in an explicitly "spiritual" space (e.g. a church) or in a museum:

1) As themselves objects of intrinsic power. Think Indiana Jones and the Ark of the Covenant: no matter where the Ark was, whether in a temple or a tent, it was filled with the power of God. Put it in a museum and study it, it's still dangerous. Likewise, the many statues of the Virgin Mary believed to have been the source of miracles: these objects declare themselves to the world; they do not require interpretation (at least, not to be recognized as powerful). Theoretically, one should be affected simply by being in their presence, whatever one's religious beliefs.

2) As sensory stimuli provoking reactions of pleasure or disgust. Religious objects may be beautiful or ugly, finely-crafted or relatively crude. In this respect, they are no different from any other human artifact in their capacity to evoke an aesthetic response. They are simply made things which we might find ourselves drawn to touch or to look at--or to ignore. Indeed, many of the purportedly most powerful objects (see #1) are some of the least visually or aesthetically appealing to look at. They are, in other words, "bad art."

3) As intellectual or semiotic stimuli provoking us to search for meaning. Whether beautiful or ugly, religious artifacts (unless they are actually objects of intrinsic power) more or less by definition exist within some system of symbols. They do not, in fact, interpret themselves. Who is that man standing in the sepulcher with those other guys asleep at his feet? Why is that woman holding a baby? Who is that blue guy driving the chariot? Why does that statue have an elephant head? What are that plate and cup for? Much of the pleasure of looking at or handling such artifacts comes from the satisfaction at unlocking their meaning and/or recognizing how they are meant to be used.

4) As foci for contemplation enabling us to concentrate our attention on that which we otherwise could not see, that is, the divine. Some objects (e.g. crucifixes or images of the grieving Virgin) may do this by stimulating an emotional response (here compassion at Christ's suffering or remorse for one's sins); others may do it by giving us a way to help still the mind (e.g. mandalas or some of the more abstract images of the Trinity). Such contemplation may but does not necessarily depend on effects #2 and #3: beautiful objects are pleasant to contemplate; meaningful objects give something for the mind to do, but neither beauty nor interpretation is arguably necessary for contemplation or prayer.

5) As props for the performance of rituals. Some objects are intended not so much to be looked at as used. Again, these artifacts may be beautiful or symbolically resonant; they may even work as foci for contemplation or prayer. But their purpose is to help us interact with the physical world in such a way as to make us more aware of the presence of the divine. Here, it is not the objects as such that command attention, but the way they are manipulated by human beings. Books tend to belong in this latter category, if we take reading as a type of ritual (i.e. a performance or activity intended to bring about a certain relationship with the divine), although their contents obviously also belong to the first four categories as well: i.e. there can be words of intrinsic power; texts that are aesthetically pleasing or disgusting; systems of symbols expressed verbally; and words used as foci for contemplation.

Okay, so this taxonomy is obviously a work in progress.* The question is, does it help us understand what we mean we we say that we wish museums were better at displaying religious artifacts? What exactly do we expect the artifacts to do?

To be continued...

*It is arguable, for example, whether any objects belong to category #1. If they did, wouldn't it be obvious to the world? But, then, aren't we just a bit disappointed when it seems that they don't?


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