The Bible, decked with jewels and precious metals, was placed just above waist level — the perfect height for us to bow and kiss it. And that’s what would have happened in the Orthodox church for which the holy book was created. But if we’d tried that here, our lips would have bumped into a glass barrier, and a kindly young lady would probably have told us we should leave.
My friends and I were at an exhibit of Ukrainian art, primarily religious art. The exhibit (at the Meridian International Center in Washington, D.C., through January 16) features stunning icons, altar crosses, and similar church art. But it brought home to me the strangeness of what is now a common experience: a Christian believer encountering Christian art not in a church or home or plaza, but in a museum.
The encounter with sublimity in art can leave us overwhelmed, speechless. But speech returns soon — and with it, self-consciousness, an awkward sense of watching ourselves watching the art. Even in church, my response to art is rarely entirely and uninterruptedly contemplative and religious. There’s usually some tinge of the spectator or the critic. (Maybe this is the price I pay for reviewing art for money!)
But in the museum, the spectator takes center stage. Looking at an icon of Mary and the infant Christ we’re encouraged to think first, “Influenced by Raphael.” Looking at a surreal icon of “Christ the Vigilant Eye,” in which the infant Jesus naps on a cross that hovers in space over an array of skulls, dice, and other symbols of the crucifixion, my first thought was, “Chagall.” An Adoration of the Magi becomes a study in blues, from the troubled, stormy blue of the sky to the pure blue of Mary’s robes.
There are ways in which this more analytical approach can have spiritual meaning. Looking at icons of Christ the Almighty and of the Mother of God Hodigitria (a traditional Orthodox portrayal of Mary) — in which the clothes and surrounding area were entirely gilded, but the painted flesh was left unadorned — I was struck by how the flesh became startling. The insistent human side of the Gospels was just as noticeable and important as the dazzling golden divinity. Even noting the surreal quality of an icon’s imagery, or the shift from stormy to serene blue, can be a way of encountering the spiritual meaning of the images.
And even in museums, we can act as Christian worshipers rather than art connoisseurs. At the Meridian exhibit, I learned about St. Paraskeva, patroness of the home, motherhood, and children, and I said a prayer to her for two mothers I met who are facing homelessness.
But I’ll be honest: Most of what went through my head was more like, “Ooh, here’s another Christ the Vigilant Eye, but this one’s a lot less Chagall-esque,” or, “I think this icon is my favorite.” Our conversation reflected this imbalance between spectator and believer: “There’s a fine line between lifting your eyes to heaven and rolling your eyes in sarcasm, and I’m not sure this icon writer has found that line.” “This one is very Westernized.”
It’s perhaps especially strange to experience Orthodox icons in this way, since of course in churches and homes they’re kissed and touched. They perform miracles and are crowned. People adorn them with jewelry in gratitude. (The taboo on touching art in museums is so strong that at a recent exhibit I saw, which included a contemporary artwork where spectators were intended to take bits of it away, nobody did.)
Western Catholic art, too, becomes strange when it’s removed from its context in religious use and moved to a museum. Earlier this year, I saw an exhibit of Spanish painting and sculpture at the National Gallery of Art. The rooms were dark, almost monastic, and the overall atmosphere was hushed, very unusual for a museum. And yet these artworks, some of which came from working churches and monasteries in Spain (some are even paraded through the streets each year), were still off limits in a way they wouldn’t be if they were “at home.” I felt strange kneeling to see the face of Mary in one Pietà, even though of course in a church I’d have no such qualms — since I’d be kneeling to pray, not (or at least not solely) to get a better view.
We put these artworks out to pasture in museums, after their long years of service, in order to preserve them. But were they meant to be preserved? Or were they perhaps meant to be poured out, to serve until they were used up?
I want there to be Caravaggios 500 years from now (if the Messiah tarries, as the old Jewish saying goes). And I realize that if believers kissed his paintings, or stroked the feet the way a worshiper at my church often strokes the feet of the St. Francis statue, very soon we would have no paintings. But our art is always somewhat alien in a museum, a square peg in a round hole.
After we saw the Ukrainian art exhibit, some of us went out to a Greek Orthodox church. There, we attended vespers and waited in line for just over three hours — the crowd filled the church and the lobby, and stretched out into the chilly night — to kiss and pray before an Iveron icon of the Theotokos. This particular icon, from Hawaii, weeps myrrh and is associated with miracles of healing. It wasn’t weeping when I kissed it, but we were anointed with oil which had been mixed with its tears.
Waiting in line for three hours to kiss a painting is an experience with its own forms of irony and self-consciousness. We tried to entertain the small children who were up past their bedtimes; we commiserated with their parents; we made jokes and small talk. One friend made fun of the somewhat hyper-Russian Orthodox language used in the account of the icon’s miracles. I said that my favorite part of the story was that the myrrh had been discovered by the icon owner’s cat.
But despite what may seem like irreverence, our attitude toward the icon was strikingly different from our attitude toward the icons at the Meridian exhibit. I didn’t care whether the myrrh-weeping icon was beautifully painted (although it is) or what its artistic influences might be. I cared about getting to kiss it, to show honor to Mary, and to beg for something I very much need.
We need to care about the beauty of our art, not merely its utility. To do otherwise is the path to saccharine holy cards, banal hymns, and ugly churches. And it’s fine to care about influences and similar art-criticism flotsam. Those things are interesting, and often important to the artists themselves. There’s no way to entirely avoid the museum problem, and encounters with Christian art even in museums can be sources of deep spiritual insight and awe.
But the contrast between the icons trapped in their museum and the icon being kissed by shuffling old ladies and little boys who had to be held up to reach it made me think of the lines from Robert Browning:
What of soul was left, I wonder,
When the kissing had to stop?