Sacred and Profane, Mainly

HOW TO BEGIN? Objects of Devotion and Desire: Medieval Relic to Contemporary Art does not make it easy. I could take the high road and start this way: “Memory of the sacred lingers even among secular moderns who proclaim themselves celebrants of a totally profane world.” Or I could be up front about the unbearable shallowness of being (an academic in the arts) that skews its subject into a myopic caricature of religious culture.

The exhibition concerns itself with correspondence between certain contemporary artworks and ancient reliquaries. It is a compelling subject for the very reason that points of comparison certainly do exist. So, too, do quite significant points of departure. Semblance, partial and halting, is not equivalence. Only a curator on intellectual holiday, as Cynthia Hahn appears to be, would mistake one for the other.


Reliquary Arm, Metropolitan Museum Collection

Confusions begin with a press release asserting that the status of reliquaries as art is “compromised by their link to religious superstition.” There goes the bulk of art history: the rock paintings of Altamira, the Bamiyan Buddhas, the Khymer temples of Angkor, Egyptian tomb painting and most of the Western canon until–in historic terms–quite recently. Is Giotto’s fresco cycle in the Scroveni chapel less magnificent for its dependence on the Christian story? Are the formal properties of a 15th century French reliquary arm diminished because it served liturgical purposes? How is the aesthetic worth of a 12th century Limoges chasse altered by having housed scraps of some forgotten saint? That phrase “religious superstition” tells us more about curatorial bias than about reliquaries, in medieval Christendom or any other culture.

How does dust (as in “dust thou art”) become a valuable relic, asks our curator? She answers herself in orthodox academese: by acts of “relic-ing” and “enframement.” Or, as she puts it, “the relic does not exist without the reliquary.” In other words, sacrality resides in the setting; and the setting makes the relic. This inversion of reality—of religious consciousness—does nothing to illumine the tension between matters of faith and the interpretation of symbols that imperfectly express them. But it does provide an umbrella under which every reference to the human body or mortality can crowd in. To a desacralized imagination, any keepsake or studio-fabricated imitation of one will do as a relic so long as it is packaged properly and the lighting is good. Even taxidermy fills the bill.


Paul Thiek, "Untitled"

A single vitrine holds five splendid Byzantine and medieval relic cases, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum. The axis on which the exhibition turns, it is a benchmark for understanding the nature and function of relics. Measured against the contents of this central display, the rest of the exhibition wanders through varieties of memorabilia before collapsing into knickknacks meant to be viewed through the lens of catalog rhetoric. Ms. Hahn’s cabinet of curiosities confuses articles of religious intention with assorted collectibles and art objects devoid of transcendent dimension.

A selection of 19th century daguerreotypes has real charm to it. The Victorians, familiar with early death, embraced the new technology of picture-making as a recording angel. Plush casings were made for these carefully staged photos. Locks of hair were lovingly plaited and arranged in accompaniment to images. Tender shrinelets, these were objects of nostalgia, mementoes of familial, not religious, devotion. Pudgy little Mary Helgeson bids her girlhood goodbye with the leavings of her first adult haircut. But her shorn curls simply memorialize a rite of passage. They are not an emblem of beatitude.

Neither is Christian Boltanski’s “Monument,” a pyramidal scheme of photographs of wrapping paper interspersed with old found photos of anonymous individuals, many of them children. The photos are re-photographed and crisscrossed with electric light cords; a few bulbs tacked to the wall light the configuration. The assemblage exists “to elicit the meaning that the viewer chooses to bestow upon it.” In short, meaning is up for grabs. This hollowness at the heart contradicts the function of reliquaries. Every reliquary asserts the sanctity of the saint—real or legendary—whose life, in turn, reflects the glory of God. But emptied of sanctity, there is no reliquary. There is only old stuff.


Christian Boltanski, "Monument"


The shock of the pose is the point of Hannah Wilke’s Intra-Venus Triptych (1992-3). She sprawls across a sheet, nude but for the bandages that cover points of insertion for IV tubes.  Compare, for example, traditional images of St. Roc exhibiting his own plague sores. The wounds announce his selfless ministry to the sick and dying. Wilkes, by contrast, was a hapless victim of the lymphoma that eventually killed her. Her self-display, in triplicate, is an act of amour propre, hardly a hallmark of sainthood. Yet the catalog, in a burst of screwball belle-lettrism, describes her as an image of “spiritual elevation” and an evocation of “Venus, the Virgin Mary, the Breck girl.” (The essayist, an art history student, must mean the White Rock girl. The Breck girl was invisible below the neck.) Wilkes’ triptych is a witness to doomed materiality, an object of desire for necrophiliacs only.


Hannah Wilke, "Intra-Venus Triptych"


St. Roc


Straining for something vulgar, Noel Brennan found it in the Book of Samuel. It recounts the Battle of Ebenezer in which Philistines degraded the Ark of the Covenant into a lucky charm in battle against the Israelites. As punishment for their impiety, God afflicts the Philistines with tumors, possibly hemorrhoids. To end the plague, the Philistines made five golden casts of the growths as votive offerings. Brennan’s Five Golden Haemorrhoids gets its signals crossed. The biblical tale is a cautionary one of sacrilege, not of sanctity. Worse, Brennan’s flimsy, painted lattice dotted with fake hemorrhoids is a tacky alternative to a crafted reliquary. Acrylic gold paint is a blasphemy against gold leaf.


Noel Brennan, "Five Golden Haemorroids"


Jeffrey Mongrain’s glass vial of blood purportedly from unknown victims of the 9/11 massacre is an eery reminder of the slaughter of innocents. It is also a problematic tour de force, a send-up of the reliquary of St. Januarius, martyred under Diocletian, in the Naples Cathedral. Neopolitans have close to a franchise on bleeding relics, a fact that lends a jarring tongue-in-cheek quality to Januarius and Dr. Hirsch. Despite declarations of high seriousness, there is an element of burlesque in quoting the form of a much-contested miracle (periodic liquifaction of Januarius’ blood). And something is off-kilter, even obscene, in putting blood from an act of war in the service of “aesthetic arousal.” Besides, victims and martyrs are not the same. Volition is implicit in martyrdom; victimhood, however terrible, is accidental. If anything, the blood shed on 9/11 is a call to arms, not grace.

Joseph Beuys’ Sled is here, an icon of self-invention. What the catalog calls Beuys’ “salvational myth” is a triumph of canny theatrics. Nothing sacred about it. Bryan Zanisnik’s Preserve plays with taxidermed fauna in a Maine museum. Stuart Sherman photographs himself wearing eyeglasses with Photoshopped lenses. His work is said to stir desire for “the erotic, the transcendental, or the religious.” So which is it? Here, as throughout, text supplies the sound of sense where the substance of it is missing. Catalog commentary on the contemporary work illustrates that specialized illiteracy peculiar to academic artspeak.

What was the Met thinking when it lent treasures to this magpie collection of conceptual and aesthetic misfires? Historic reliquaries signal the divine glory toward which a particular life, now reduced to barren ash, points. They speak of the sacramentality of life. For all the folklore and magical thinking that accompany popular devotion to relics, they testify to a sense of the sacred rooted not in pious feelings of “spirituality” but in the blood and bone of the lived life. Ultimately, they witness to trust.

Despite the sterility on view, the exhibition matters in one respect: It affirms Mircea Eliade’s contention that purely rational, nonreligious man does not exist. Profane man descends from homo religiosus and he cannot erase his own history.

Objects of Devotion and Desire at The Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery, Hunter College at 68th Street and Lexington Avenue.

Note: The online catalogue, text and illustrations, is here.

This review appeared first in CityArts, February 16, 2011.

© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey


  1. Sam

    I made the mistake of reading the press release. She opened the notion of relic up so wide it could include those gnarled toothbrushes my dad won’t throw away.

  2. Peter_K

    Toothbrushes, just so! And how about all those teeth collected by the Tooth Fairy?
    Seriously, though, appreciation for relics, for the cult of the saints, requires appreciation for the holy dead. No such concept is alive anymore in the arts; and barely breathing outside the arts. It shows.

  3. Artbuff

    The catalog essays were written by, largely, art history students. There’s a difference in quality between the essays on historic reliquaries and the contemporary spin-offs. The spin-offers are mainly spinning. So the question arises: What are historians doing commenting on contemporary art? [An art historian is an historian in a particular arena, after all, not a creative writer.]

  4. Mike.W

    An historian-in-training who doesn’t know the difference between the Breck Girl and the White Rock Girl? Wow! How will he/she know the difference between roccoco and baroque?

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