Sacred Art in Profane Institutions

This weekend while reading a book about the development of the major art museums which we enjoy in America today, I was struck by something which always bothers me about the nature of the institution of the art museum itself.  Many of the objects we see on these shores were purchased by the American nouveaux-riches to give themselves some polish, so as to make up for the smell of their very new money.   They went about despoiling European churches, convents, and residences of spiritual objects to use as status symbols or expensive playthings, in a millionaires-only game where religious institutions lost out to profane ones..

For example as the Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt went about aiding the Havemeyers, a sugar baron and his society wife, over the course of several years in seeking out and purchasing a work by El Greco, there was a noticeable lack of interest both on the part of her patrons and of Cassatt herself regarding the religious aspects of the pictures under consideration.  In a letter to Mrs. Havemeyer, Cassatt describes a 13-foot-tall altarpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin by El Greco, which the Havemeyers were considering buying but which was too tall to fit inside their Fifth Avenue mansion [N.B. the piece later ended up in the Art Institute of Chicago.]  In writing about it Cassatt notes nothing about the theological truths or spiritual virtues contained in the painting, but rather concentrates on the brushwork, the lines, and gives her verdict that it would be a good buy because the image of the Blessed Mother featured “a good head.”

If that’s all there was to recommend it, wouldn’t such a painting have been better-off being left in the church for which it had been painted? The counter-argument is, of course, that many objects such as these are better-preserved and cared for in museums, than they would have been had they been left in situ; in many cases such an argument is correct.  However, I can’t help but feel that the forest is being lost for the trees, in such an argument.

A similar back-and-forth over artistic  merit (and price) went on over the purchase of two of Raphael’s celebrated devotional images of the Blessed Mother and the Christ Child, acquired by J.P. Morgan for the Morgan Library.  The issue in obtaining them was never about what such images of the Madonna and Child were supposed to teach the believer about the Incarnation.  Rather, the goal was to see how much Morgan could show off, when he would hold meetings with these private devotional paintings hanging on the wall: a more expensive versions of deer heads stuffed and mounted following a successful hunt.

Sometimes the unwillingness or inability of many of our great museums to wade into issues of Catholic theology – since the overwhelming majority of Christian sacred art in American art museums is Catholic in origin – is almost embarrassing, at times.  Placards and catalogue entries go into raptures over color choices and brushstrokes, linear perspective and chiaroscuro, and say little about the theology portrayed – often getting it wrong when they do.  Images before which generations of people brought their hopes and fears, to help them focus in their prayer life with God, are admired not for their ability to move the viewer to piety, but because of how bright the blue is, or how skillfully the tiny landscape behind the holy figures one is supposed to be concentrating on is painted.  There is a pointless superficiality and emptiness in this sort of collecting.  It is as if one was allowed to walk into the butcher’s shop and admire the marbling and the trimming of all of the fine steaks on display in the case, but one was never allowed to actually eat any of them.

This is not to say that one can never admire or appreciate an art object for its own intrinsic beauty.  However when it comes to the sacred art of the West, created by centuries and centuries of Catholics, the danger of allowing a secular museum to tell you what you ought to think about such objects lies in forgetting to question those secular shrines, and assuming their neutrality.  In realizing that profane institutions have many merits, but they are not the most trustworthy of guides, the smart museum visitor is the better-prepared visitor.  Learn what you can from these sources, but make sure you take their pronouncements about the art you see with some reservations.

"The Assumption of the Virgin" by El Greco (c. 1577-1579) The Art Institute of Chicago

“The Assumption of the Virgin” by El Greco (c. 1577-1579)
The Art Institute of Chicago

8 thoughts on “Sacred Art in Profane Institutions

  1. Great thoughts! Something I consider frequently with “concerts” of sacred music. People always laud the structure of a piece and harmonic journey with thrilling resolution, but forget to marvel at the way the composer expertly crafted the melodies and heightened the harmonic consonances and dissonances to reveal the profound and mysterious nature of the “et incarnatus….et homo factus est.”


  2. I think your assessment is a bit critical. Museums have an mission to protect and present a collection of beautiful works of art to patrons, but they also try to present a diverse collection for our education. Let’s look at this “sacred-profane” issue another way. As a Catholic and lover of art, I feel that I understand the Catholic iconographic traditions and conventions and can “interpret” works more readily than the average viewer. But I am totally out of my element with Asian art. I’m sure to a Hindu the basic museums signage stating the identity of a particular God in a painting is totally insulting because he or she knows the spiritual aspects, stories, and subtle richness of how the deity is portrayed, but I don’t. Is it profane to assume your viewer may have no knowledge whatsoever? I think not. The museum is doing the best it can with 1-2 paragraphs of signage space. The museum recognizes that the visual arts can be intrinsically beautiful even when removed from context and that visitors should be allowed to appreciate it however they can.

    Speaking of art in context, I’ve always wondered how contemporaries viewed, for example, an altarpiece and if we could ever have the same experience in front of it as they did. Can we really say that a 21st century Catholic bombarded with images, Hollywood movies and modern knowledge, could looks at an altarpiece in the same way as a 16th century Catholic? Do we have to? I think the relationship is between the viewer and artwork alone and can absolutely be different for each person. While there is something mystic about seeing art in situ, travel restrictions and preservation costs can make

    Great post and discussion point! Also, do you mind letting me know what book you were reading? I just finished a history of European pilgrimages and am looking for something to read next. 🙂 Thanks!


    • Thanks for reading. I’m certainly not suggesting museums should be torn down, but I think from an art history or art criticism point of view, it’s important to note that the people collecting these things which formed the nucleii of our major museums were not actually viewing these items as devotional, but rather as expensive playthings. The book I was reading was “Old Masters, New World” by Cynthia Saltzman. Very engaging read.


      • As a reflection on the collectors, I agree that it is quite sad. I was in Newport, RI and remember seeing that one of the Vanderbilt patriarchs collected paintings of horses because “he liked horses”. At least that’s honest 🙂 Collecting what you think you should be collecting is discouraging to see whether it happened 200yrs ago or among my friends today.

        Thanks for the book recommendation, I will look for that!


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