Why is it that when we travel abroad, we are drawn to Art Galleries and Museums?
Curated collections give us insights into different cultures as well as fresh understandings of our own. The same applies to the treasure troves within our own churches and yet they are often left “unopened”.
Last year I went to the Corsini exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery. It is a treasure trove of works by Renaissance and Baroque painters gathered over hundreds of years by the Corsini family of Florence. In significant acts of stewardship, they hid works from the Nazis during World War 11 and saved them from the great flood of Florence in 1966.
The gallery guides assumed a degree of interest and knowledge in their visitors and the spiel focused more on enrichment than a basic understanding of the mainly religious works. I felt “unlettered” about the history of this collection but felt I could interpret many of the works. It was before Carucci’s painting of Madonna and Child with John the Baptist circa1526 that I realised the challenges of explaining a sophisticated example of Christian art to a mixed group of mostly tourists, including myself. In the painting, the Christ Child, propped up by Mary, lifts his left hand in a two-fingered gesture. The gesture prompted sniggering and laughing but the guide was quick to explain the context and gesture as a spiritual one, a blessing. This explanation was interpreted as an opportunity for insight rather than as a demarcation line between “insider” knowledge and “outsider” confusion.
I came away from this rich exhibition strongly aware of how Christian liturgy, worship, ritual and symbol can be so puzzling to so many. Philosopher Alain de Botton (in Art as Therapy) reminds us that reactions to Art are more than just a matter of differing tastes. I think the same about reactions to church environments. De Botton suggests three responses when people react with puzzlement or even distaste: be open about negative views, be aware of different mindsets and look for points of connection. Some further reading has taught me more about the historical role of Art in educating the “unlettered” about religion, including the Catholic Church’s development of a “canon of sorrowful mysteries” (five episodes of the suffering of Jesus) and then commissioning artists to depict the incarnation, baptism, visitations, miracles and the resurrection.
After the recent Notre Dame fire, French President Emmanuel Macron declared “Notre Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations, the epicentre of our lives … so I solemnly say tonight: we will rebuild it together.”
The fire itself will become part of the ongoing story of Notre Dame, an interruption in the narrative but an opportunity to reflect on the treasure within.
At a local level, how can we engage, understand different mindsets and find common ground with those who are looking from the edge of our tradition or seeing it for the first time? How can we open the treasure trove of our liturgy, ritual, symbols, music and architecture to share with others?