Q&A: Spirit Quest

My friend Badger (who is also a museum professional as well as a fencer) has asked me to write something about the experience of looking at devotional art in museums. In her words:

"One of my favorite museum provocateurs has made a list of things that museums, unfortunately, seem to feel they cannot do, to wit, be: sexy, funny, subjective, wrong. As we have talked about this list with others, one addition has been 'explicitly religious.' With rare exceptions, even 'religious' museums (e.g. museums of Judaica) tend to be about the history of objects, or facts about ritual. Rarely do they engage in any emotional content regarding faith, or worship.

"Museums contain some of the most compelling religious artistic and ritual objects ever created. Whether it is Russian icons, reliquaries, or illuminated devotional manuscripts, they often display works whose primary meaning was originally about faith. But they seem profoundly uncomfortable presenting the material in this light....

"Museums are good at being factual and dispassionate. They are uncomfortable being emotional, especially about the Things One Does Not Discuss At The Dinner Table (like religion)....

"Have you every had an epiphany looking at religious art in a museum? Did it feel comfortable to have that reaction, in that setting? Do you think museums appropriately acknowledge and interpret the deeply personal and spiritual meaning these works had in their original contexts?"

To which latter questions, sadly, my first answers would be, no, no and no. Museums are not typically very good places for having any experience other than the most intellectually aesthetic. Everything about their arrangement and display of the objects mitigates against most any other response. The objects are grouped according to exterior, academic categories of chronology or type, and they are labelled in such a way that their display is clearly about "conveying information," not about encouraging any sort of spiritual response. Indeed, given the history of many museum collections, it would be easily possible to argue that they were designed specifically so as to prevent such responses, e.g. in the presence of relics or devotional images or the gods of other religions.

How many times have you been in the presence of, say, a statue of an ancient Egyptian god and felt anything other than awe at how solid and cold the stone seems? Case in point: a month or so ago, when Fencing Bear (that is, me) was in deep spiritual crisis, she (that is, I) happened to be at the Field Museum with her cub (that is, my son) along with a couple of Fencing Bear's friends. Okay, so I brought Teddy Bear and Psyche Bear specifically so as to try to find something to write about. What if, my son and I started brainstorming, I wrote something about Teddy Bear coming to the museum in the hopes of finding something to help Fencing Bear out of her crisis? After all, wasn't the museum chock full of spiritual art? What if Teddy Bear met Psyche Bear at the museum and Psyche Bear offered to show him round some of the objects? Would Teddy Bear find the answer for which Fencing Bear was seeking? It was a thought.

So we (the bears, my son and I) went round the museum looking for religious artifacts. And, indeed, found them in plenty. The problem was, as you can tell from the fact that I never wrote that post, there wasn't anything to say. Here the bears found Bastet and a corn goddess and a Buddha and an ancestor spirit (at least, I think that's what it is, I need to ask my husband) and even a sacred house, but nowhere could they find anything faintly resembling a spiritual moment or epiphany. Perhaps it was because none of these objects came from Fencing Bear's own spiritual tradition, but surely one of the things that makes devotional or cultic art so powerful is the belief that it is in fact possible for art to capture something of spiritual truth, to contain it or channel it or at least remind viewers of the existence of a transcendent realm accessible through aesthetic or sensory means? But what if you don't believe, for example, that divinity can inhabit an image? Is there anything there to see other than a cleverly shaped stone?

The bears clearly weren't sure. In Christian history, of course, this question of devotional art has a long and at times explosive tradition, most famously articulated during the Iconoclastic Controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries and reiterated pro and con ever since. Thanks to the Incarnation (or so the iconodules, that is those in favor of images, would argue) it is now possible to represent God at least in the physical human form in which He chose to reveal Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. As St. John of Damascus famously put it, all honor rendered to the image (icon, painting) redounds unto the prototype (God incarnate as Jesus Christ). That is, while we pray before an image, we are reverencing not the physical object, but rather the divine reality represented therein. The physical image itself is not the object of our worship, but rather God whom we know through our reflection on the human image in which He showed Himself. Which means, of course, that it is never the artistic image as such that is the object of our devotional response; it is only a focus or catalyst for our contemplation of the divine.

But what if the image suggests a representation of God other than that in which He showed Himself as the Christ? Bluntly put, is it possible to have a spiritual response to an artifact in whose representation of divinity one does not believe? Fencing Bear does not believe in Bastet or the corn goddess or the ancestors of the Maori (at least, not as divinities). She might be expected to have some response to an image of the Buddha, but not necessarily one as strong as she might have to a representation of the Virgin Mary or her Son. Which leaves only an aesthetic response at best, much as the museum designers expect--or teach--her to have. What if museums tried to help her respond not just aesthetically, but spiritually? What would such a response entail? At a minimum, it would seem, a certain degree of religious education, but of course museums are committed to being secular institutions, not churches or temples. They are not in the business (if one may be permitted to use that term of institutions who often have no express intention of making a profit) of teaching people to worship or to pray.

Which, of course, leaves Fencing Bear and friends pretty much where they were when Teddy Bear and Psyche Bear went on their spirited museum quest: stuck. We do not in the Christian tradition (out of which our museums as institutions developed) believe that objects of themselves have spiritual power which means that, to the majority of us, things in museums are just that: things, not gods or ancestors or powerful spirits. But some of us do believe, at least the Orthodox among us, that it is possible to consecrate images for the use of prayer, which means that it should be possible for us to appreciate how others have used objects in their worship of the divine. But unless we already believe in the possibility of such response, we are in fact left with little more than our senses and intellect with which to respond. We might perceive the things which we see in museums as beautiful or well-crafted or historically- or culturally-significant, but it is arguable whether they can of themselves provoke in us anything resembling a transcendent experience.

I promised Badger that I would think about her question over the next two weeks while I am here in Santa Fe. Serendipitously enough, there is even an exhibit at the Palace of the Governors on "Tesoros de Devoción," which I hope to visit soon. But having already taken the bears round one museum, I am quite frankly skeptical of what Fencing Bear is going to find.

To be continued...


  1. I worry that you have discounted three powerful emotions at work in museums that can contribute to spiritual awareness. These emotions can be amplified by explicitly religious artifacts -- and I would not want to discount the possibility that some museum artifacts are, for some people, "charismatic" in the theological sense of having inherent spiritual power -- but the presence of religious artifacts is not essential.

    Emotion 1: the sublime -- an intense aesthetic reaction that may open museum-goers to deep spiritual contemplation. (For Burke, the sublime always had an element of fear, which does open the question of whether today's museums can ever be authentically scary -- but that's another argument!).

    Emotion 2: questioning. In the current issue of Harper's, Mark Slouka has a powerful essay about the humanities: http://www.harpers.org/archive/2009/09/0082640. In a rousing defense of the humanities (and I would say arts, too) as a tool for democratic citizenship, he writes that "[the humanities] grow uncertainty ... they expand the reach of our understanding (and therefore our compassion). ... [An] individual formed through questioning ... is unlikely to cede that right." The best museums encourage us to ask questions, and to form the habit of questioning, and this can be an aspect of religious exploration.

    3) Emotion 3: quietness. Many museums -- but perhaps fewer all the time -- are places of quietness, both as a physical environment and emotional state. And in most religious traditions, quietness is understood to be conducive to religious experience.

  2. Thanks, Phil! I have by no means discounted any of these, but as they do not, as you admit, depend on the presence of religious artifacts, they go beyond the question that Badger originally put to me, which was to consider the effect of museum display of religious artifacts. If you are interested, I will be continuing to post on this question over the next couple of weeks.

  3. Please continue to explore this topic, which is very important (among other things, it highlights the status of museums as places where alternative, non-commercial values can still thrive in our culture). I also have a vested interest: Badger is my boss.


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