The last ten years – or at least the last generation – has seen a revolution in the way religious objects in museums are treated. True, they still usually become ‘museum objects’, largely losing their religious meaning and gaining new meanings as art or heritage. But more and more religious objects are being allowed to express their religious meaning – and museums are allowing religious people to interact with ‘their’ objects in a religious way.
The latest example is at the Courtauld Gallery. Maria Cristina, a specialist in Christian iconography and herself a well-known stained glass artist, recently sent out an email:
In the month of May we are inviting you to join us at the Courtauld for a very special hour of prayer, something that has never happened before at this Gallery. Dr Ernst Veghelin, the Director of the Courtauld Gallery, has very generously not only given us free access to the ground floor gallery before it is open to the public, but has allowed us to use the collection there for what is was initially created: prayer and devotion. The selection of paintings include exquisite private devotional panels, diptychs and triptychs as well as fragments of altar pieces from the late medieval and early renaissance period. We often forget that some of the greatest works of art were the product of Faith, both of the donor / patron as well as that of the painter who would often start his working day with prayers to the Virgin and saints asking them to guide him in his vocation as an artist. It is no surprise that the end result are images of enduring beauty. To this day they compel the viewer to marvel at their radiance and ultimately at their ability to help him/her contemplate something beyond the image before them. It would be wonderful to return to these holy objects the very purpose for which they were created by using them as aids for our prayer.
I know some of you are committed to Rosary groups on Monday mornings, it would be wonderful if many of you could join us and help us with praying the Rosary at the Courtauld. It will also be a wonderful way to witness our faith in the centre of busy London.
NB: This is an experiment! If there is sufficient turnout, I am very happy to look into repeating this exercise in different London Museums and Galleries and beyond (with prior permission from the Directors, bien sur). It will be a wonderful way to rediscover the richness of our Christian heritage in our museums! Please note that the type of prayer and meditation will vary according to the subject of the painting/object, for example in early October we could use the St Francis Cycle by Sassetta at the National Gallery and develop prayers and readings around Francis and Franciscan spirituality.
Maria says ‘I have been giving a series of gallery lectures on Christian iconography and it occurred to me that gallery 1 at the Courtauld would be perfect for such an event. For this new initiative I’m focussing on Christian prayer and museum object- for all to connect with the richness of our Christian heritage in places where object are usually detached from their original context. I hope that this and other events will be truly Catholic in the real sense of the word and that Christians of all traditions and denominations will be able to contribute.’
There have been plenty of examples of Buddhist, Hindu and other groups being invited into museums to reverence particular objects, but this is the first initiative I’ve heard of from the Roman Catholic tradition.