Art Be With You

There can be no question that it [religion] has lost the organic relations with culture which it possessed in the great religion-cultures of antiquity and the Middle Ages.
Christopher Dawson, Religion and Culture

Art Be With You
Slogan on website of the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo

Of all the forces that bind Western civilization, no anchorhold has been stronger than the Bible. It has been a monumental, creative driver of Western culture. Scripture provides the vaulting under literature and history; it has inspirited majestic visual art. Our own national identity is indecipherable without understanding the centrality of the Bible in the emergence of modern Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries and of the Puritanism which suckled America at birth.

Abraham Lincoln’s claim that the Bible is “the best gift God has given to man” finds little purchase in contemporary culture. Since the 1960s banned it from public school classrooms, Christians themselves—particularly the young—no longer know what it might mean to grow like a cedar in Lebanon or dance, like David, before the ark. Bereft of a common fund of metaphors and allusions, believers and unbelievers alike are displaced from the civilization that housed us.

To counter this diminuendo the American Bible Society established the Museum of Biblical Art (MoBIA) in 2005. It began bravely as a gallery within the American Bible Association headquarters, overhead of a Bible sales room. Location, off Columbus Circle and near Lincoln Center, seemed ideal. And its fifty-plus exhibitions have been small, imaginative, often splendid jewels.

Luca della Robbia, The Art of Dialectic (1437-39).
Luca della Robbia, The Art of Dialectic (1437-39).

Yet attendance lagged. Christopher Dawson’s contention that “religion is the dynamic element in culture” does not play well at the box office.   After a time, the Bible showroom was swept out of sight and MoBIA sought distinction from its parent. Still, traffic never rose to the quality of exhibition. Now, the ABA is moving to Philadelphia; the building has been sold; and MoBIA—living rent-free these ten years—is scrambling to relocate to an economical space.

To date, the museum’s crucial support has been the generosity of the ABA.  Come June, MoBIA will be dispossessed, a concept in search of affordable housing. (Why concept? Because MoBIA, like many non-profits using the word museum, has no collection, nothing to store or conserve. It exists as a Kunsthalle, a vacant hall that displays revolving installations of borrowed art works.)

MoBIA needs money. On the eve of displacement, the museum’s new director and fundraiser-in-chief Richard Townsend has responded by expanding the bureaucracy. He hired more staff, enlarged the Board of Trustees, introduced a Director of Finance and Operations, and inaugurated partnership with Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. While the Duomo’s museum is undergoing refurbishment, it has loaned MoBIA works removed from the baptistry, the bell tower and the cathedral in the course of alterations. It is hoped that the prestige of the Duomo will raise the profile of MoBIA.

Enter Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral.

Nanni di Banco, St. Luke the Evangelist (1408-13)
Nanni di Banco, St. Luke the Evangelist (1408-13)

Expensive to crate, transport, insure, and install, this showcase occasion is oddly disappointing. Its mix of grand and lesser (including badly damaged) works, together with skittishness about the religious basis for the work, has the air of a pre-auction event at an architectural warehouse.

Isolated from their liturgical setting, the art on view bespeaks a Church submissive to secular pretensions. Without intending to, the Duomo and MoBIA collaborate in late modernity’s view of Christianity as a spent tradition, one that requires injections of museum prestige. Museumization allows Christianity to linger as an historical phenomenon, no longer a creative cultural force but compliant with the conceits of a post-Christian culture.

MoBIA follows the reigning practice of translating enhancements for a sacral setting into museum stock on shelves in the cultural pantry. Struggling for mainstream recognition, the museum declares itself a neutral, demilitarized zone that has ceded claim to any investment in the religious substance of the art on display:

The Museum takes a secular perspective on the Bible’s pivotal role in art history, and looks at how this text impacts artistic practice in both familiar and surprising ways. MoBIA is inclusive and non-sectarian . . . .

A pivotal role in art history. There you have it. Not a pivotal role in civilization, but in artistic practice and its revelatory harvest of artifacts. The imperatives of art history form a magisterium tolerable for our times. Every item is presented in standard art historical terms: stylistic affinity, artistic identity, authorship, the like. What they affirm—and why Donatello’s name tops the cast list—is modernity’s conventional reverence for the cult of individual genius.

Donatello and Nanni di Barolo, known as Rosso . Sacrifice of Isaac or Abraham and Isaac (1421).
Donatello and Nanni di Barolo, known as Rosso . Sacrifice of Isaac or Abraham and Isaac (1421).

That said, there are several magnificent sculptures here. The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Donatello and Nanni di Bartolo, is chilling to look at. The biblical incident is depicted in gestures evocative of what we watch now on YouTube: the knife at the neck of kneeling innocents. The work is on show as the stunning technical achievement that it is, carved from a single block of marble. But what commands attention is the contemporaneity of the image. The full impact of Abraham’s fidelity—the ferocity of it—arises from what we bring to the sculpture from life. In Isaac, we see Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach and shrink from the sight.

I came away from the exhibit in love with Nanni di Banco. Outstripped by Donatello and Ghiberti in the art historical sweepstakes, di Banco was co-equal in introducing the expressive realism that is the hallmark of Renaissance sculpture. His monumental Luke the Evangelist, evocative of a Roman consul interrupted in his reading, transcends the era of its precedent and of its making. We know this man. We have met him at conferences, on faculties, on institutional boards. Or perhaps in tweeds in one of David Lodge’s academic romances. That face, that posture—you ache to ask him something.

di Banco and DonatelloAcross the room are two youthful, standing figures each labeled simply profetino, small prophet. One is attributed to Donatello, the other to di Banco. The Donatello is an all-purpose set piece, useful for filling architectural gaps. But the di Banco is a rhapsody of boyhood on the cusp of manhood. This round-faced boy has the power of life, of breath and movement. I welled up with an urge to bring him food—a pizza, or a home-cooked meal—and listen to him talk. (MoBIA flattens him into “a clear instance of stylistic variety” in the cathedral’s decorative program.)

By any measure, MoBIA has staged fine exhibitions over the last decade that would honor MoMA or the Metropolitan. Biblical themes are indivisible from our cultural history and need not be relegated to an independent institution. MOBIA’s very existence concedes a hidden starting point: that motifs drawn from scripture—and without irony or disdain—have become a world apart from contemporary culture.

Thus, the Duomo’s self-abnegating publicity slogan: “Art be with you.”