Q&A: Spirit Quest III

I'm beginning to suspect that we worry far too much about the way in which devotional artifacts are displayed. Or, rather, that we are mistaking our concern for the way in which they are displayed for our own anxieties about our ability to respond to them. "Oh," we say to ourselves,"if only I had encountered that statue in a properly religious setting, then I would have felt something." As if to say, "It's not my fault I was left cold."

The other day, my son and I were visiting the Lady Chapel here at the Cathedral in Santa Fe where the oldest statute of the Virgin Mary in the United States to whom a continuous devotion has been offered resides. The statue, carved of willow-wood most probably in Spain, is believed to have been brought from Mexico City to Santa Fe in 1625 by the Franciscan Alonso de Benavides. It--or, rather, she--is best-known as "La Conquistadora" ("Our Lady of the Conquest"), but over the centuries she has also borne other names: "Our Lady of the Assumption," "The Immaculate Conception," and "Our Lady of the Rosary." Appropriately for such a great lady (or so Fray Angelico Chavez imagines her in his La Conquistadora: The Autobiography of an Ancient Staute [1975, 1983]), her beloved servants have taken care to build her a beautiful home and to supply her with a large wardrobe. When my son and I saw her, she was dressed in a relatively simple black-and-white tunic with a red woven shawl in honor of the Indian Market last weekend, but for other occasions her clothes are made of silk brocade bordered with brilliant gold braid or bright silver lace. Sometimes she wears a Sevillian lace mantilla over her hair and under her crown.

The whole setting is designed to encourage a devotional response. The statue itself is positioned high above her potential devotees in an elaborate, multi-niched altarpiece. Down the steps from the altar, there is an ornamental grating before which ranks of candle-holders have been set up. There are pews facing the altar where one might sit and pray as well as kneelers directly in front of the candle racks. The transept chapel is quiet and relatively removed from the busyness of the nave. There is nothing to do here but sit and contemplate the beauty of the Virgin. So did I have a devotional experience here? Certainly, I was willing to have one. I lit a candle and said an "Ave Maria," thinking about family members for whom I would like to pray. I sat down in the pews with my son and looked around at the other artifacts in the chapel and talked with him about the different kinds of responses each would seem to be designed to encourage: the narrative painting of Christ's temptation in the desert clearly designed more as a didactic piece than as a devotional artifact; the rather grisly crucifix complete with real hair clearly designed to provoke an emotional response to the horrors of Christ's suffering; and the Virgin herself, perhaps originally intended simply as an altar ornament, but now clearly an object imbued with personality.

And I thought about the question that "Bill," the man in the wheelchair who happened to be in the chapel at the same time, had asked me: "What would you do with her if you had her?" "I don't know," I replied. "I'm not sure I'd want to own her, but if I did, I would want her to be in a church where everyone could come visit her." His answer: "I'd put her on a hill." Interesting, I thought, not really willing to argue. Why would it be better for her to be outdoors rather than here, inside, protected from the elements? Surely even if she were up on a hill, somebody would feel the need to build a shelter for her. Here in Santa Fe, she's already in effect atop of a mountain. Would it feel more spiritually uplifting to encounter her raised up even higher? Or was the idea to express her connection with creation more fully? But why then have an artifact (a statue) in the first place? Why not just worship a rock or a tree? Not, I suspect, where Bill was leading, but I do wonder about the tendency to assume that a natural setting would be more conducive to spiritual awakening than one (like a church) specifically designed to recall God's work in the world.

While we were there, Bill took the trouble to try to educate the other visitors to the chapel in the mysteries of its decoration. "Our Lord Jesus Christ," he said, pointing to the crucifix, "who suffered for our sins." And pointing to the painting: "Our Lord being tempted by the devil in the desert for forty days and then being ministered to by angels." (At least, that's approximately what he said; he was actually fairly difficult to understand.) He crossed himself and offered prayers and was clearly devout, but he did not seem overly troubled by our presence. Quite the reverse. Did he think of the statues of Christ and Our Lady as themselves actual persons? It seems unlikely, although he might. Certainly, he was clear that the images were worthy of reverent attention. But neither did he seem to feel it necessary that they were in a church, otherwise why prefer to set the Virgin on a hill? Because without such a setting, he would feel less inclined to pray? Or because the statue itself seems to call for an appropriate setting?

This seems to me to be the real question confronting us when we think about the display of devotional artifacts: is it because we feel that we need certain settings in order to feel what we believe (or hope) we might (or should) feel; or is it because we already feel something ("devotion") and want to honor the artifacts accordingly? Cause and effect are significant here. Certainly, seeing an artifact such as "La Conquistadora" displayed with such reverence might induce feelings of devotion or spiritual understanding but arguably only if one were already so inclined. Conversely, however such an artifact were displayed, even in so secular a setting as a bar or a market, might occasion a devotional response, if more likely than not one of concern that the object be removed to some more suitable setting, for example, a chapel or a church (or a hill). Put another way: the reason that such artifacts as "La Conquistadora" are given such elaborate settings--not to mention names and clothing--is because they have already provoked a devotional response of which the setting itself is the consequence, not the cause. It is not that the setting is designed to encourage devotion (although it might); it is rather that devotion has encouraged the setting.

Perhaps, therefore, we are right to be disturbed when religious artifacts are displayed in secular settings like museums. Like toys who have lost the love of their children, such artifacts have (it would seem) ceased to be alive, which is why they have been permitted to be removed to a museum. If (by this argument) somebody still loved them, there is no way they would be allowed to be neglected in this way, pinned to the wall like so many corpses, valued only for their age or the role that they once played in life. From this perspective, it is likewise arguable whether museums would actually want to encourage anything other than the most disinterested intellectual response. Just think, after all, what devotees would want to do with such objects: dress them up, light candles in front of them, even (heaven forbid!) touch them! Not exactly what museums--devoted as they are to the preservation of the artifacts in their collections--are about.

To be continued....


  1. Hmm. I don't know about the museum thing. I think I get what you're saying, but I for one am glad that there are certain religious artifacts and art in museums. Often more information about the artist, the intent behind the piece, and the times in which the object was made is offered than one would find in a church setting. Obviously, this kind of information could be shared (and sometimes is) in a cathedral or church. Still, I think it is good that "secular" people can be exposed to religious art and artifacts. Art has played a large part in my own attraction to Christianity, right or wrong.

    Personally I wonder about our tendency to separate the spiritual and the profane. There is Christian fiction, Christian music, Christian television. The ideal to me would be a world so imbued with God that we couldn't tell the difference, if that makes any sense. Not a theocracy, or constant explicit references to religion; just that it be obvious to everyone that God is present everywhere, even in what we call the "secular" world. But then perhaps we wouldn't have that "spiritual feeling" we sometimes get when we walk into a candlelit church filled with reverent silence and the odor of incense.

    Mary on hill, Mary in a church, Mary in a grotto, or Mary in my garden; I like her anywhere I see her!

    Look forward to reading your next installment.

  2. Thanks, Amy! I'm not saying that religious artifacts should not be in museums, rather that the museums may not actually want them there if people respond to them devotionally. I agree absolutely with you, which was really my point: it doesn't matter where the objects are. If people are going to respond to them devotionally, the objects (and people) can be anywhere.

    The thing is, if people do respond to the objects devotionally, some of the things that they may then want to do (e.g. light candles in front of them) may not be things that museums are comfortable with them doing. Museums would like to think that they can recreate that "spiritual feeling" that you get when you (or somebody) walks into a church, but they are missing the point if they think that the atmosphere is what creates the spiritual feeling. People build churches out of devotion, not so as to create it.

    And, yes, there is no real reason to separate the sacred and the secular; I love seeing religious art in people's front yards, along the roadside, on the corners of buildings. But just think if people started responding powerfully to one of those "bathtub Virgins" out on the lawn: the impulse would be to set the space off and make it special, perhaps even take over the lawn to put up a shrine or a church. That was my point: the objects call forth this response.

  3. There's not much touching of religious artifacts (except under very carefully controlled conditions) in churches, either.

    I think you right that, as soon as you had a religious artifact on a hill, someone would want to build a shelter over it. This shelter would likely become elaborated over time and end up a church (or not -- think Terry Pratchett's Small Gods). This seems to be our response to precious artifacts in general. It's interesting to contrast this with religious artifacts which are designed to used and destroyed and where an arduous process of production is the main focus (New Ireland Malanggans). It's interesting, though, that people could come to venerate the statue itself because of its antiquity, To what extent is this veneration of the old related to ancestor worship?


Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my blog post. I look forward to hearing what you think!


Popular posts from this blog

Chivalry Our Lord's-Style, ca. A.D. 33

Talking Points: Three Cheers for White Men

Make the Middle Ages Dark Again

Free Speech Fundamentals: Building a Platform

God's Fools