Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Piety behind glass

~from First Things by Maureen Mullarkey on the Museum of Biblical Art. Is faith behind glass a good thing?
Much has changed since the Reformation took hammers and whitewash to paintings and frescoes in Catholic churches, but some things remain the same. Secular modernity has found its own ways of stripping the altars. One of the most efficient is to turn objects of devotion into objets d’art. Art-gazing has become the devotional activity of our time, as the cult of genius supersedes the cult of the saints. Art history burlesques salvation history, while secular culturati find a proxy for theology in art theory. A torrent of papers, panels, journals, monographs, exhibition catalogs, university-press offerings, and docent sermons testifies to an art world at prayer. As a consequence, when heirs of the Reformation weigh the meager returns of art’s hollow eschatology against Christianity’s rich symbolic world, papist relics suddenly look good...

...Art museums remain didactic extensions of the Enlightenment—and the locus of a free-range aestheticism. Careful explanations are not enough to breathe life into the cultural expressions of a belief system. Christian art, a handmaiden to liturgical action, loses its transformative power when it is removed from the acts of worship—prayer or ritual performance—it was made to complement. The leveling process of aesthetic appreciation is inevitable by default.

Divided into four instructional sections, “Realms of Faith” opens with an introduction to “the basic elements” of Christian religious practices in Byzantine and Western Christendom. On display is a pedagogic sampler of artifacts that includes several Russian icons and Italian panel paintings, small wearable images, manuscript Bibles, plus leaves from an antiphonal and an illuminated book of hours. Catholic and Orthodox sacramentalism is condensed to some chalices, a paten, a pair of pyxes, a eucharistic spoon, and a brass dove-shaped container for storing consecrated hosts. The exhibition serves as an abridged primer to the celebration of the Mass and personal devotion to the saints....

...The desacralization of man, who no longer knows himself made in the image and likeness of God, advances in tandem with inflated reverence for culture. But we were warned. Half a century ago, Romano Guardini reflected on modernity’s faith in culture, which “took its stance opposite God and His Revelation” and recognized no measure beyond itself. Louis Bouyer, writing in 1982, looked on the dilation of culture and recognized it as a symptom of deep degeneration, the herald of a “monstrous civilization” emptied of meaning. He referred to museums as little more than “cultural refrigerators” where “apparent life is actually preserved in a state of death.” More recently, Louis Dupré expanded on Guardini’s theme: “Culture itself has become the real religion of our time, absorbing traditional religion as a subordinate part of itself.”

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