Sacred Art in Collections Symposium at the National Gallery report

By John Reeve

SACRED ART IN COLLECTIONS PRE-1900 SYMPOSIUM: ‘CROSSING BORDERS’ at the National Gallery, Wednesday 18 May 2022

I followed this online and found it informative, focussed and stimulating: amazingly the programme comprised an ambitious number of 10 minute talks that didn’t seem to overrun and managed to convey a great deal. There is a lesson there.

Sacred art in collections pre-1900’ is a subject specialist network based at the National Gallery, which itself has a strong research strand on art and religion. Currently, art historian and priest Ayla Lepine is a fellow at the NG, and is about to join St James’ Piccadilly the artists’ church. The National Gallery director Gabriele Finaldi reminded us of recent exhibitions and programmes around faith, starting with’ Salvation’. Recently they tackled Sin.

Community and consultation: 71% of Berliners are not religious so a museum of Christian art like the Bode has a massive challenge. Elsewhere, the Barber Institute Birmingham worked with local synagogues on an exhibition with Old Testament themes; Museum of London has worked with faith groups on its faith galleries in its new building, and presented detailed audience research as a result. So too the BM has consulted with pagan, Islamic and Hindu women, and a range of commentators. Both the Bode Museum and the Museum of Amsterdam have been working with LGBTQ+ audiences and also sex-workers. Lieke Wijnia (Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht) created an exhibit on Mary Magdalene, former prostitute. Androgyny in religious art was seen as an opening rather than a problem.

Migration, identity, and imagination: this strand included a fascinating contribution from Sarah MacDougall of the Ben Uri Collection looking at the Jewish artist Alfred Wolmark and the Caribbean-born British artist Tam Joseph’s Hand Made Map of the World (2013) which playfully reorders conventional geographies, highlighting both the legacy of Colonialism and the arbitrariness of borders.

Digital: George Reynolds is Digital Media Officer, Churches Conservation Trust, which has 336 churches. He assessed the impact of going digital internationally especially during Covid. He also intriguingly cited three role models: Sister Wendy Beckett, the interpretation guru Freeman Tilden, Pope Paul VI. Ben Quash of Kings College introduced his 10-year project to create an online Visual Commentary on Scripture. https://thevcs.org/   He runs an MA in Christianity and the Arts in association with the National Gallery, London

Education: Alexis Stones (Senior Teaching Fellow, University College London Institute of Education; also NG education) asked ‘Can Teachers ‘do justice’ to Sacred Art through Mainstream Religious Education?’ She thought they could with quite a lot of help and resources. She helpfully contextualised the challenges of RE now, and described her work at the Wallace Collection in creating an online resource [available on https://www.wallacecollection.org/documents/536/Art_and_RE_Digi_Teachers_Pack_.pdf] She is speaking at the RCHG conference in June.

Devotion: Peter Doebler, Curator of Asian Art, Dayton Art Institute, USA, discussed his exhibition ‘Devoted’ including examples from Buddhist Islamic and Christian art among others with a strong emphasis on performance, embracing Murillo, Walker Evans and Japanese art. A new permanent gallery is called ‘Buddhist Art: An Enlightened Thread through Asia’. Doebler was ‘hopeful’ about impact but shared no evaluation so we don’t know. This was a problem throughout the day- many good intentions but limited evidence of impact. This is a recurring frustration with such events.

‘Moses’ by Leonard Baskin, American, around 1960 (artwork courtesy of Dayton Art Institute) in the Devoted exhibition

Interpretation:  We heard about  the new Museum of London’s multi-faith Faith Galleries ,that will open in 2026, from Thomas Ardill (Curator of Paintings, Prints and Drawings); and about the newly opened exhibition  ‘Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic’ at the British Museum from Lucy Dahlsen, the exhibition project curator. Cross- religion, cross-period, cross-continents with some very cross female deities as well as benign. The exhibition curators combine archaeological and contemporary art expertise. Visitor response is built in to the exhibition, so we may know what people thought.  Lieke Wijnia (Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht) shared the thinking behind her Mary Magdalene exhibit and the public responses.

Alfred Stevens, Marie Magdalena, c.1887, in the Maria Magdalena exhibition at the Catharijne Convent in Utrecht
Maria Magdalena exhibition at the Catharijne Convent in Utrecht showing the shrine for girls (left) and Kiki Smith ‘Mary Magdalene 1994 (right)

Empathy: Elif Gokcigdem (Founding President, ONE – Organization of Networks for Empathy) presented a video of a workshop on empathy in a religious museum- all the participants were women. We need more work on empathy with men- especially male politicians! Her work is especially relevant to the work of the RCHG. See for example:  https://elifgokcigdem.com/

Contemplation: Former director Neil MacGregor made a welcome plea for more seats so we can contemplate sacred art more slowly and calmly in museums and galleries; and for more events like this.

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